Riverfront Playhouse’s ‘Christmas Carol’ opens for 26th year

Chicago Tribune 2 days ago

The late Jack Schultz adapted Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” for The Riverfront Playhouse in Aurora more than 25 years ago. Schultz died in September 2012, but that did not stop his widow, Sherry Winchester Schultz, their two children, Jackson and Heidi, and The Riverfront Playhouse family, from continuing to present his work, which is now in its 26th year.

“When Jack passed away, the Riverfront board members briefly discussed not doing the show out of deference to Jackson, Heidi and I, since we were all in the show,” said Sherry Winchester Schultz, who directs the show and appears as Mrs. Cratchit. “The concern being that it would be too difficult with the grief so fresh and tender for us, his immediate family, as well as our theater family. The kids and I really wanted the show to go on as a way to continue keeping Jack’s spirit alive through his work and fortunately, the rest of our theater family felt the exact same way.”

“A Christmas Carol” will be presented at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and at 3 p.m. Sundays, Dec. 13-22, at The Riverfront Playhouse in Aurora.

Jack Schultz’s version of Charles Dickens’ classic has a traveling band of gypsy actors arriving in town on a circus wagon to tell the story. The twist provides a framework for Ebenezer Scrooge to get ghostly visits from his deceased partner, Jacob Marley, and the three spirits of Christmas: past, present and future. Schultz wrote nine songs for the show.

But presenting the show after Jack Schultz’s death was an emotional challenge.

“The first couple of years after Jack passed were especially touching to have Jackson playing his father’s role as the master of ceremonies,” Winchester Schultz said. “We’ve all gotten accustomed to it now, but it moves me to see how many mannerisms Jackson inherited from his dad. It was moving to see Heidi take over master of ceremonies for a performance that Jackson couldn’t make a few years back. She also has many of Jack’s mannerisms, yet brought different nuances to the role.”

Only Technical Director Gene Scheffler, Musical Director Kathleen Dooley and Sherry Winchester Schultz have been involved in the production in all 26 years of the show.

“I realized that I am the only person who has been in every single performance,” Winchester Schultz said. “That’s either ridiculous or amazing, I’m not sure which.”

Scheffler is only one show away from Winchester Schultz in appearances.

“I missed a performance about 14 years ago,” Scheffler said, “so I lost my perfect attendance pin. I think we have some patrons that have made it to the show every year. That’s much more impressive to me. We have to be there to perform. They choose to keep coming back. I guess we are doing it right.”

After 26 years of technical directing the show, Scheffler has some fond memories.

“There are one or two parts during the show that still get to me emotionally year after year,” he said. “Also, it’s seeing friends and loved ones that come to visit. Somebody you haven’t seen in a while comes to the show and visits before, during, or after the performance.”

Scheffler also remembers some humorous moments.

“Back in the 1990s, a little girl in the cast had eaten way too many cookies and during the curtain call she needed to toss them out,” he said. “As I recall, she missed the audience, and most of the ‘goodies’ ended up on her and backstage. She was extremely embarrassed. We actually had that on videotape. I have always wanted to set that to music. It was unfortunate and amazing.”

Winchester Schultz said the show continues to draw people because it is fun and tender.

“The audience comes back every year because they see the pure joy; the fun that we all still have in performing this work,” she said. “Jack wrote a poignant, funny, clever show that allows its performers a chance to play with the audience and have fun with each other on stage. The show is serious and touching, balanced with sly wit and good humor. Whether the audience member is young or young at heart, they are awed and moved by the message and the delivery.”

For Scheffler, success takes many forms.

“I think the show is a success when I get all my cues right, the audience is into the show, the cast has fun, and we have a whole new set of memories to add to the bunch of memories we already have,” he said.

‘A Christmas Carol’

When: Dec. 13-22

Where: The Riverfront Playhouse, 11-13 South Water Street Mall, Aurora

Tickets: $15-$17

Information: 630-897-9496; www.riverfrontplayhouse.com

Randall G. Mielke is a freelance reporter for The Aurora Beacon News


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