Holiday theater has a tradition of particular themes played out through beloved stories and characters. The popularity of these productions is a blessing and a curse for theater companies.
The bountiful promise of flush holiday audiences keeps the plays in regular rotation, but making the productions fresh each year provides its own challenges.
For actors playing well-known characters in favorite holiday shows, there are more specific demands testing them. Jonathan Williams, who has the lead in Capital Stage's upcoming production of "It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play," must deal with a giant celluloid vision and the thoroughly identifiable voice of Jimmy Stewart.
It was Williams' Stewart impression, which he did for fun, that inspired the production. Though he's ostensibly George Bailey as played by Jake Lawrence, the actor in the radio play, Williams is really doing a take on Stewart, re-creating the famous tone and timbre.
"I've been doing a Jimmy Stewart voice around the kitchen dinner table since I was 10," Williams said. "I've been honing it and playing with it for years. When we first thought of the idea of doing this show, it was kind of assumed from the beginning we'd do it this way."
This will be Capital Stage's fourth year producing the show, which transposes Frank Capra's film to a radio show being performed live in an old New York broadcasting studio.
"I think it works on a more personal level when it's actually happening right there in front of you," Williams said.
Williams and Capital Stage embrace the Stewart relationship with the character, because there's really no other way to go.
"It's unlike Shakespeare in that there's no other context you can bring to it," Williams said. "You can't say 'Oh well, there was that really great Ian McKellen performance of George Bailey.' There is no other performance of George Bailey there is only Jimmy Stewart's."
Williams knows Stewart was famous not for being completely different every time out, but for bringing a singular quality to each role.
"It's an acknowledgment of a great American icon of an actor," Williams said. "We wouldn't be trying to portray him if he hadn't done it really, really well to start out with."
Matt K. Miller is in his fifth year playing Ebenezer Scrooge in Sacramento Theatre Company's "A Christmas Carol." The play, adapted and written by Richard Hellesen, has dark edges that make its Scrooge more imposing than in many productions. Miller has a classical theater background, and he thinks the character takes a Shakespearean journey.
"We have this epic experience with Scrooge which runs through practically his whole lifetime," Miller said.
Despite his familiarity with the role, Miller said it continues to fascinate him.
"For me, playing Scrooge is about discovery," Miller said. "What more can I discover in the character? In the scene? I never get tired of it, and I really look forward to every show even when I'm doing two a day."
Miller's half-decade as Scrooge pales in comparison with Rodger Hoopman's 33 years doing his own musical adaptation (with Rob Knable) of the story, titled "Scrooge."
Over the years, Hoopman has performed it at the Sacramento Theatre Company, Sacramento City College, American River College, the Varsity Theatre in Davis and the Roseville Theatre. It's now the holiday show at his home theater, the Chautauqua Playhouse.
The veteran performer puts basic elements of his craft to use in each performance.
"As most actors will attest, one of the most important elements of acting is listening," Hoopman said. "My goal for every performance is to listen and put myself in the moment so action and reaction flow instinctively.
"As the years pass, and I have 'aged' into the role, I've found that I can relate to the character in new ways, physically and emotionally."
After all this time, why does Hoopman still do it?
"At this point in time I'm doing it for the same reason most actors act," Hoopman said. "The audience is the fuel that keeps me sharing the life of the character and telling Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol' in an original and audience-friendly way."
"A CHRISTMAS CAROL"
Sacramento Theatre Company presents its 25th anniversary production of the Charles Dickens story, adapted by Richard Hellesen with music by David de Berry. Performances 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays and Dec. 23, matinees 12:30 p.m. Thursdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Dec. 23. $37 general, $32 seniors, $17 students. 1419 H St., Sacramento. (916) 443-6722, www.sactheatre.org
"IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A LIVE RADIO PLAY"
Inspired by the classic American film of the same title. Five actors perform the 50 different characters in the radio play as well as produce the sound effects. $18-$32; Tuesday through Dec. 24. 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. Dec. 21 and 22, 6 p.m. Dec. 23 and 24, 2 p.m. Dec. 22-24. Capital Stage, 2215 J St., Sacramento. (916) 995-5464, www.capstage.org
"SCROOGE (THE MUSICAL)"
Adapted from Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." By Rodger Hoopman, with music by Rob Knable; through Dec. 23; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays and 8 p.m. Thursday. Tickets $10-$17. Chatauqua Playhouse, 5325 Engle Road, in the La Sierra Community Center, Carmichael. (916) 489-7529, www.cplayhouse.org