One sure sign of the approaching holidays is the return of the iconic play A Christmas Carol to Theatre Three in Port Jefferson, with artistic director Jeffrey Sanzel once again transformed into the miserly curmudgeon Ebenezer Scrooge.
In this ever-changing world, there’s something comforting about visiting this historic playhouse year after year with its twinkling lights, garlands and a welcoming Christmas tree holding court in the theater’s lobby.
Before the play even begins, the cast gathers in that lobby dressed in their Victorian attire and joins in a chorus of Christmas songs, immersing the audience in the spirit of the holiday season. Soon the cast files out, cueing the audience to take their seats in anticipation of Charles Dickens’ enchanting, familiar tale.
This marks the 36th year that Theatre Three has bestowed the gift of A Christmas Carol to its longstanding audiences—some of them started attending with their tiny children, who are now grown but still entranced by Ebenezer Scrooge and his host of mystical spirits.
But what is it like to be the actor who has relived Scrooge’s journey toward self-awareness for decades now? Sanzel recently shared some of his personal thoughts on the character who has become second nature to him.
How many years have you been playing Scrooge at Theatre Three?
I first played Scrooge in 1988 in Westchester. I directed the Theatre Three production in 1989. I started playing Scrooge here in 1990 and played it every year since, except in 2002, when I was gone from the theater. I played it for Interboro Repertory Theatre, in New York, then I’ve played it here every year since, starting in 2003. Our public opening on Saturday night will mark my 1,390th performance of Scrooge.
When did you first feel a special affinity toward playing this character?
The first production I ever did was a student-faculty production when I was teaching. I couldn’t get any of the faculty members to play Scrooge, so my assistant director suggested I do it. I had been aware of the character from movies and television, and knew that it was a wonderful role—I have always had an affinity for villains—but I had no idea the depth, range and challenge of it. I think that’s what keeps me coming back: There is always something new to find in him and in his story.
Was there a moment when you had a revelation that this Scrooge character was going to be ever present in your life?
I’m sure there was, but I can’t remember. I’ve been doing Scrooge over half of my life (and then some) and almost my entire adult life. I can’t remember a time when Scrooge wasn’t present.
How has the Scrooge character evolved for you over the years?
Understanding. As I said, I started at 22. What did I know then? Very little. In the past three decades, I’ve experienced a great deal, especially loss. That changes who we are and certainly informs what I bring to the character. I hope it’s a richer performance in my fifties than it was in my twenties. I know that I “do” a lot less and listen a lot more. I try to experience as much as I can each day with it. As Scrooge, I remain a work-in-progress.
Do you think the end is in sight for you to move out of this role at Theatre Three, or are you still as enthusiastic as you were the first year?
No. I haven’t considered the end. Still as enthusiastic? Probably not in the same way. I was a very different person at 22 than I am at 53, which is a good thing for me and for everyone else!
What motivates you to return to this character each year?
I’m still learning what makes the character tick. I find new pieces every year. I have surrounded myself with extraordinary designers and actors, and staff who have supported the exploration, so it is a joy to approach the show each season.
With another year of A Christmas Carol, Sanzel once again surrounds himself with a magnificent cast, the best in musical direction (Brad Frey), set (Randall Parsons) and lighting design (Robert W. Henderson, Jr.)—all joined together as a finely tuned ensemble to produce a show that resonates with the season of joy.
Port Jefferson during the holidays is a character in itself and not to be missed, especially with wreaths decorating streetlights, storefronts glittering with sparkly lights and a host of restaurants to please every palate.
Treat yourself and your family to a trip back to Dicken’s A Christmas Carol as a memorable holiday gift in a perfectly merry setting. You may decide to make it a new holiday tradition. Hopefully Sanzel will continue to delight audiences for at least another 1,390 performances.
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol runs through December 28 at Theatre Three (412 Main Street) in Port Jefferson. Call 631-928-9100 or visit theatrethree.com.