How do you transform Charles Dickens’s Victorian English “A Christmas Carol” into a wholly American story?
Bring in the authenticity of singer, songwriter, actress Dolly Parton and set it on her home turf, the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.
“I always felt like the Smoky Mountains would be a perfect backdrop for the ‘Christmas Carol’ story,” Parton says via email. “I felt like Scrooge would be fantastic as a mean ole boss of a coal mining company. I could just see him huffing and puffing, walking down the streets of the town I grew up in.”
Although Parton won’t appear onstage when “Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol” debuts at the Emerson Colonial Theatre Dec. 3, the musical’s book writer, David H. Bell, says her voice provides the foundation for the story.
“Dickens’s story embraces both light and dark,” Bell says. “The natural beauty and abundance of the Smoky Mountain landscape contrasts with the stark poverty and the destruction of those natural resources.”
“Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol” recasts Ebenezer Scrooge as the owner of a company town during the Depression in the 1930s. As in Dickens’s story, the miserly Scrooge is transformed by the visits of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future.
“All the traditional characters from the original reminded me of folks I grew up around, so the cast was alive and well in my head,” Parton says.
“We found new ways to arrive at those iconic moments,” Bell says. “Because Dolly had such rich details for some of those secondary characters, we can connect some of the dots in young Scrooge’s past and build empathy with complex individuals.”
Pete Colburn plays Scrooge, and although he’s directed and played either Bob Cratchit or Scrooge in nearly a dozen productions, he says Bell’s attention to some scenes in Dickens’s original novella offer more opportunities to flesh out some of Scrooge’s relationships earlier in his life.
“The transformation is still there,” he says, “but we’ve seen glimpses of his humanity all the way along.”
Although Parton has a long list of songwriting credits and awards, she says composing for the stage is completely different.
“An album is usually told from one point of view,” she says. “Putting something like this on its feet requires me to think about each character and how they interact with each other and bring the storyline to life. I get a great kick out of playing each character and pretending to be somebody else as I write the songs to move the story along.”
Parton worked closely with a creative team from Dollywood, her theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., including former director and executive producer of entertainment Paul T. Couch, director Curt Wollan, and writer Bell.
Wollan says the Dollywood shows are often scripted, with Parton supplying the music. This project developed over the past three years, with staged readings at Northwestern University, where Bell leads the musical theater department, and last year at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts in Minneapolis. Parton says the show has evolved during the process.
“One of the beauties of staging a reading is that you get to see the show up on its feet and get a real feeling of how it plays out,” she says. “We added songs and changed some out. We mixed up dialogue and got rid of parts that didn’t flow the way they did on paper. It’s a fantastic way to test the waters before you actually commit to crossing the lake. And now that we have costumes and sets it brings the whole thing to life.”
The action is all set in the company store, with the actors playing multiple roles.
“Every year we come together to tell this story of redemption and grace. It’s part of our mythology and our cultural history,” says Wollan, the director. “It’s full of hope and reminds us that if you change your ways, you can find forgiveness. Setting it in the Smoky Mountains, and in a general store, just brings it closer to us.”
Although Parton’s been busy hosting the Country Music Awards and recording with the Swedish electronic dance duo Galantis, she says she’s looking forward to seeing the show at the Colonial.
“Shoot, you couldn’t keep me away from it,” Parton says. “I am so excited to see this in front of a live audience. I hope you all love it as much as I do.”
DOLLY PARTON’S SMOKY MOUNTAIN CHRISTMAS CAROL
Presented by Red Tail Entertainment and Paul T. Crouch. At the Emerson Colonial Theatre, Dec. 3-29. Tickets start at $39.50, 888-616-0272, www.emersoncolonialtheatre.com