'A Christmas Carol' in a different key: First Assembly updates Dickens classic

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FARGO—First Assembly Church is producing a very familiar title for this year's holiday show, but this staging of "A Christmas Carol" is unlike anything you've ever seen.

Matthew Dunham adapted and directs this musical update of Charles Dickens' classic, taking the action from the streets of Victorian London to contemporary St. Paul, Minn.

He says he was inspired in part by First Assembly's popular production of "The Gospel According to Scrooge" about 20 years ago.

"I wanted to do the title, but I wanted to do something fresh. No one needs another Victorian musical," he says. "This is a really exciting adaption of the original. There have not been a lot of successful versions of this show. Dolly Parton did one and it was kind of an abomination. I think people will be pleasantly surprised with one, it being a musical and two, it being a modern adaptation."

In his version, Scrooge is not just a miserly businessman, but a CEO of a small, yet successful business.

It's not just a change on paper. Instead of the withered old man, David Heideman plays the character as an athletic, up-to-date, well-dressed manager. While people feared Scrooge's temper back in the day, now he's stern and direct, but human resources-savvy and would never scream at an employee.

"If today you had a CEO of a large company and you had that (Dickensian) image, image is everything today and that's what our Scrooge is trying to live up to," Dunham says.

Scrooge may seem mildly gentler, if not kinder, but he remains business-driven, which creates a wedge between himself and those who would be close to him, including his one-time girlfriend, Belle. In the original we see them at the party of his old boss, Fezziwig. In this version we meet them at a disco in the 1970s.

While greed remains a problem for the protagonist, the show also warns how spending too much time on a computer or smartphone will also lead to alienation of those around you.

"What pushes our society today is this invasive, business-focused mindset that you're always attached to the phone. It's all about work, all about business and so rarely about people at the end of the day," he says.

"I think it's kind of fascinating that they've modernized it. It's going to give people a different look at it," says Lisa Donelson, technology director at First Assembly.

While Scrooge's character can be tweaked, his name is untouchable to Dunham.

"There are some things that are iconic in this show and almost every name we kept," he explains. "There's something with the iconicness of Ebenezer Scrooge. You can still say today that people are a Scrooge."

One character did have his name shortened. Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit's sickly son, is now just Tim, though the character is bald, to imply he has cancer or some other deadly disease.

He wanted to present a version audiences could relate to and in doing so, decided to move the setting to modern day St. Paul.

"Fargo is a little too rural. St. Paul is timeless. There's a classicness of St. Paul that grounds the show as well," Dunham explains.

Streets of the capital are name-checked and one of the first numbers, "Ignorance," is about the chaos of shopping at the Mall of America on Christmas Eve.

Setting the tone are 17 contemporary tunes written for the show by Nate and Amy Jo Mattison, congregants at First Assembly.

While Dickens' "Christmas Carol" is more about the spirit of the season than the Holy Spirit, Dunham didn't want a version that was overtly Christian.

"I am contemporary in staging this in that I didn't want this to be the typical church one where five lines in you've said 'Jesus' one too many times, you say 'God' too many times. Now you would disassociate a large part of the audience and many would walk out," he says.

He says religious factors are "more subtle," such as in Scrooge's turning point, when he sings a song called "Forgive Me". A song called "Calling" at the end of the show is more biblical in message.

He thinks his tweaks and changes will be enough to attract more than just First Assembly regulars to the two-weekend run.

"I hope it's something that they can resonate with because it's not all Victorian outfits. That they can see themselves in this a little more."

If You Go

What: "A Christmas Carol"

When: 7 p.m., Dec. 8 and 15; 2 p.m., Dec. 9 and 16

Where: 3401 25th St. S., Fargo

Info: This family-friendly show is free and open to the public; learn more at firstassembly.fm.