“A Berks County Christmas Carol,” the charming original musical playing at Reading’s Genesius Theatre, is the “Ready Player One” of community theater productions.
Much like how that movie contained hundreds of nostalgic nerd culture references for eagle-eyed viewers, “Christmas Carol” requires the audience to not only pay attention to the well-trodden story of Ebenezer Scrooge (Michael O’Flaherty, who also wrote the music and lyrics) but to also make a game of spotting every local inside joke.
The show, directed and co-written by Genesius Artistic Director L.J. Fecho, name drops everything from the Shuman Development Group to Jimmie Kramer’s Peanut Bar to former mayor Wally Scott.
The jokes about 2014’s “Charlie Brown tree” fiasco and the Governor Mifflin Mustangs knock ‘em dead at Genesius, but would be met with confusion if this show played anywhere else in the country. That is what makes it so special – it is something celebrating this place we call home, that we can enjoy together. It’s our own secret, delicious holiday recipe. Victorian London becomes present-day Reading (“Dickens must be rolling over in his grave, Scrooge remarks), but Ebenezer is still the same old miser and Bob Cratchit (played with cartoony elasticity by Daniel Graf) still suffers.
Much of the charm of “A Berks County Christmas Carol” comes from how the recognizable local setting changes the way the story is told. Here, Scrooge’s business partner is not Jacob Marley but infamous Reading racketeer Abe Minker (Daniel Graf, whose dialogue is peppered with Yiddish).
The ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future (all played by Christopher Sperat) are also figured from Berks history, but I won’t spoil who they are. Like unwrapping presents on Christmas morning, the surprise is what makes it so much fun. There’s also the incredibly impressive feat of writing an original musical with music and lyrics, and O’Flaherty seems to have the Midas touch for catchy melodies and holiday imagery.
Fecho’s direction can illuminate the contrast between the wealth of Scrooge’s nephew’s home in Wyomissing Hills and the humility of the Cratchit’s home on North 11th Street, solely with decorations on a fireplace.
The idea of “A Berks County Christmas Carol” comes from “A Connecticut Christmas Carol,” Fecho and O’Flaherty co-wrote a few years ago. Sometimes, it shows.
“Connecticut”’s ghosts included P.T. Barnum and Mark Twain. Although the Ghost of Christmas Present is no longer Barnum (he is a showman, but with ties to Berks) he still sings about “the greatest show on Earth.” The Ghost of Christmas Future is no longer Twain, but he still speaks in Twain quotes.
“A Berks County Christmas Carol” wouldn’t be nearly as successful if it didn’t have O’Flaherty’s unique, almost likable take on Scrooge. His own personality and motivations are made clear, not only through sharp dialogue but with O’Flaherty’s performance. Scrooge is not a one-dimensional bad guy but an individual who is, as strange as it may sound, well-intentioned. In the Sondheimesque number “It Nearly Worked,” Scrooge boasts that the ghosts have changed nothing, and that come Christmas morning, he is doing things the same way he always has. It’s a great number, but we all know how the story must end.
Scrooge’s “nothing personal, just business” attitude has brought him success, but it has alienated the people around him. He promotes self-reliance without realizing that there are so many people he could be sharing joy with. It takes the spirits to teach him these lessons.
As the three ghosts, Sperat is a tour de force. In his hands, they are variations on a theme, three sides of the same personality. We all have introspective moments reflecting on our past, jovial enjoyment of the present, and dread contemplating an uncertain future.
The Ghost of Christmas Present always “lives in the moment” because his choices will decide what the future brings. It is a thought-provoking exploration of how the semi-mythic characters of our county’s history represent aspects of ourselves. We see us in them, and in the ways they made a difference for us.