It’s clear this Scrooge is in a much better frame of mind than the greedy malcontent at the center of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
“Things are going swimmingly,” says an amiable Marc Willis of portraying the hard-hearted miser in the holiday classic at the Palace Theatre in downtown Manchester through Dec. 23.
Willis, who lives in Concord, is one of two actors cast as Scrooge in the professional production, a longtime Queen City tradition.
“We have a total of 33 performances in 24 days, which is crazy,” Willis says with a laugh. “The way we’ve divided up the Scrooges is that I get to perform for all the morning school performances, of which there are 10 or 11. We bus kids in from all over the state — elementary, middle school, high school — and pack the theater.”
Mark Woodward, who recently played King Arthur in “Monty Python’s Spamalot” at the Palace will handle Scrooge duties for the public performances.
The real joy for Willis, who also took over the reins as company manager at the Palace this season, is sharing the message that everyone can have a Scrooge of a moment and come away the better for it.
“It’s interesting ... that this story has been around for so long,” he says. “It’s timeless in that I think everybody can find something of themselves in the character of Scrooge. People might say, “Oh, I’m certainly not a scrooge type of person. I love the holidays.’ Well, yes, but ...
“What I think is that Scrooge just got so caught up in his own stuff and got stuck, as so often is the case in real life. I think we can so easily get stuck and just be to blind to see what we’re doing to those closest to us. His realization of that is something that I think everyone can attest to,” Willis says. “The joy is finding that opportunity to make it accessible for the audience to see, ‘Oh, yeah, I can be more joyous.’ This is an opportunity to come together to love more, to be kind, to be generous, all those things. That’s where I find the joy of doing this role.”
Still, it isn’t easy to go from reviled to redeemed in such a small amount of time. “A Christmas Carol” is a whirlwind of a journey for a greedy London investment banker who hates as much as he is hated. His awakening comes after the spirit of his old partner, Jacob Marley, visits him, foretelling three ghostly visits to help Scrooge take stock of his life and disagreeable, uncharitable attitude.
“You have to ... take this character from a really hateful, awful person that you can’t imagine ever having any soft feelings for and in less than two hours make the audience really love you,” Willis says of the character Dickens first conjured in the mid-1800s.
The school shows and public performances at the Palace feature the same dialogue, story line and production numbers. The only difference is a shortened intermission for the students, since they’re on a specific timetable to get back to class.
“It is exactly the same performance. We’ve managed to make this show really compact; the first act is 55 minutes and the second is 50 minutes. We end the show at noon on the button,” Willis says.
That very precise time table can be tricky since cast and crew are always conscious of the clock and having to move things along. Willis jokes that he recently got a chance to see a video of his performance as Scrooge last year and realized he was a little hurried. In the back of his mind, he had been thinking “Gotta go, gotta go” in order to get the kids to the bus outside the theater at the appointed time.
“I wish someone could have told me to slow down,” Willis says with a chuckle. “That’s my goal this year, just to take a little more time, breathe in between the long rants that (Scrooge) has. Yeah, allow it a little more time to breathe and for it to land, and I think it will be great.”
In his career, Willis has played a handful of male characters from “A Christmas Carol” in productions including a national tour of the tale and a musical version of the story. He’s played almost all the male roles from Scrooge to Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s overworked and underpaid clerk with a critically ill son, and Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s deceased boss, to Old Joe, who fences stolen goods.
There are two particular concepts in “A Christmas Carol” that stand out to Willis.
“The Ghost of Christmas Past, although she is very (much) like a sprite — she’s very light and joyous and she’s glowing and has all these beautiful characteristics — she is showing you some not-so-beautiful things about your past. And I think that’s an interesting dichotomy,” he said.
The Ghost of Christmas Future, a towering skeletal-looking specter who doesn’t need to speak to make his meaning clear, is another sobering presence.
“He’s showing Scrooge what the future looks like if you don’t change your ways, and I think that’s frightening — to face one’s own humanity in the face of all that,” Willis says of moments of reckoning, such as the moment “where it’s revealed to (Scrooge) that the name on the tomb is his and if he doesn’t clean up his act this is what it’s going to be like.”
“It’s about being given a second chance, an opportunity to make things right,” Willis says. “It’s interesting to play from the perspective I have another chance, and it’s what you do with that second chance that really matters.”
Willis also is taking on the real-life role of company manager at the Palace Theatre. His first show in that capacity was “Beauty and the Beast” earlier this year.
“My predecessor, Megan Quinn, was in this role for a number of years at the Palace Theatre, and at the start of this season was moved over to director of our youth program. I have been performing at the Palace Theatre for five or six years ... about two or three shows a season over that time. I really got a chance to see up close and personal the way the team works together, the way the process goes .. and just felt that I might be a good fit, and it worked out,” he says.
Quinn, too, wears several hats at the Palace. She returns for an 11th year in her delightful takes on Mrs. Fezziwig, Solicitor No. 2 and Laundress.
Willis previously appeared in Palace productions of “Beauty and the Beast,” “Anything Goes,” “Hairspray,” “A Christmas Carol,” “Buddy,” “The Producers,” “All Shook Up,” “Les Miserables,” “Midlife: The Crisis Musical” and “Legally Blonde.”
For the 2018-2019 season, Willis’ job means knowing not only his lines but addressing the needs of everyone involved in professional productions at the historic Hanover Street theater.
“And that changes for each one. So my job entails not only reaching out and hiring the actors and musicians but taking care of their contacts and payrolls, plus we have a cast house for those people traveling from other parts of the country to come here,” he says. “(It’s) pretty much whatever their needs are away from home.”
Auditions for “A Christmas Carol” took place both in the Queen City and in New York City.
It’s a careful balancing act to keep the production, a two-decade tradition at the Palace Theatre, fresh without changing too much.
Willis jokes that audience members return year after year, “to the point that if something is different in the show than last year, we get emails about it: ‘Old Joe didn’t do his kick on his exit.’ Audiences are loyal!”