Few stories connect us to the past the way “A Christmas Carol” does. For more than 175 years, people have enjoyed watching one of the most miserable characters in the history of literature (Ebenezer Scrooge) go through a complete transformation, thanks to the miracle of Christmas. For two weekends in December, Algonquin Arts in Manasquan presents a special one-man version of the classic tale - exactly the way Charles Dickens himself performed it for years.
“A Christmas Carol” was first published in 1843. The classic story follows Scrooge as an old man being visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley (his former business partner) followed by the three spirits Jacob warned him would come: the spirit of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. The spirits remind him of the person he once was, the ruthless person he had become, and what his future would be if he did not change his ways.
By the 1850s, Dickens was reading from the text in front of thousands across the United Kingdom, even crossing the pond for a tour of America in 1867. Using only a copy of the book as a prop, the acclaimed novelist brought the book to life with different voices and expressions for each character.
Inspired by pandemic restrictions, Algonquin Arts will make a return to those days.
The venue regularly presents large-scale musicals for the holidays, but decided to present a more intimate show to provide a better match for the maximum capacity of 125 per performance that they are limited to because of COVID-19. Instead of being part of a large cast, Jan Topoleski will bring the characters of “A Christmas Carol” to life all on his own, just as Charles Dickens did for decades.
“It’s going to be a fun and interesting show,” said Jan Topoleski. “It’s scaled down – it’s not a big massive musical like we’re used to doing here – but it’s going to be very intimate, very animated and ultimately, I hope very entertaining.”
Topoleski is the full-time technical director at Algonquin and a familiar sight on their stage. He played Ebenezer Scrooge in Algonquin's 2018 production of “A Christmas Carol: The Musical” and has also been seen there as King Arthur in “Camelot,” The Old Man in “A Christmas Story The Musical,” Juan Peron in “Evita,” Lord Farquaad in “Shrek: The Musical,” Lancelot in “SPAMALOT” and Don Quixote in “Man of La Mancha.” He has also directed numerous productions at the theatre.
The original idea for the streamed-down production came from Pamela Ward, Executive Director at Algonquin. Topoleski, who has never performed a one-man show before, was excited at the opportunity.
“This piece offers a unique challenge, in that I am representing so many characters, as compared to a one person show where you portray only one character, or yourself. Being alone on stage means, if you make a mistake, it’s likely nobody knows it but you. On the flip side, if you make a mistake on stage, there’s no one there to help get you out of a jam,” he explained.
Virtually all of the material is taken straight out of the original text, but it’s been edited down to create a two-hour performance. The show will come off as a hybrid between a reading and a performance piece - exactly how Dickens himself performed it.
Topoleski joined the staff of the Algonquin in 2013 after his theatre company, Shore Rep, had partnered with the venue for several seasons. He has been involved in every aspect of their productions from producing, directing, acting, and creating sound and scenic design. On a personal level, he says he loves the story of “A Christmas Carol.”
“I grew up with it, watching it on TV as a child, and eventually, producing a musical stage version of it every Christmas for 10 years with my old theatre company,” explained Topoleski. “So, it has played a big role in my life personally. Universally, I think it’s just a great story. It’s got great characters, comedy, thrills, and a happy ending! We actors love to play villains and Scrooge is the ultimate villain - with a bonus - he is redeemed at the ending and becomes a hero.”
Topoleski hopes that the lack of big sets, costume, and musical numbers will let the audience focus more on the story and the characters themselves, and to allow them to better appreciate the beautifully descriptive prose of Dickens. But, most of all, he hopes it reminds people that the Algonquin is still working at presenting shows.
“We want people to know ‘We are still here’ and excited to get back to producing and presenting the high-quality entertainment they are used to.” said Topoleski. “I think many people do want to get out, even if it is on a limited basis for now. We held an outdoor concert series this summer, and we heard positive things from many of our constituents and a strong desire by folks to get back to live performances.”
“We’re extremely fortunate to be in a position to present live events for the holidays and show that we can continue to safely share live performances with our audience,” said David Applegate, Algonquin Arts Theatre’s Director of Marketing & Public Relations. “We’ve been able to sustain through nine difficult months in part thanks to the sponsors and individual donors that have supported us, and we want to provide a return on the investment they are making not just in the future, but also right now as we close out a difficult year.”
Topoleski originally went to Boston University’s School of Fine Arts to study acting, but wound up as a professional musician and recording engineer instead. He said he became disillusioned with theatre and decided to come home to start a band. One thing led to another, and he found himself working at Shore Fire Studios, which was owned at the time by Tom Elliot and Garry Tallent of the E Street Band. He did work for Arista and Geffen record labels and with artists such as Frankie Valli, Southside Johnny, Clarence Clemons, and Steve Forbert.
“There were too many great recording sessions to single out, but one fond memory I have is of eating pepperoncini (pickled hot Italian peppers) with Jon Bon Jovi in his basement, while helping out with a demo recording,” recalled Topoleski. “When Garry Tallent made the move to Nashville, I was at a crossroads in my life and, through serious ‘nudging’ from my lifelong friend Gary Shaffer (director, actor, producer), I got back onstage and never looked back again.”
After 17 years away from the stage, he made a seamless return to the theatre and has acted, directed, and produced shows across the state. Before arriving at Algonquin Arts, he served as president of Strand Theater Company and Artistic Director at the Strand Theater.
Topoleski currently resides in Brick and enjoys playing in the Jersey Shore band The Snakes.
“A Christmas Carol” runs December 11-13 and December 19-20 at Algonquin Arts Theatre, 60 Abe Voorhees Drive in Manasquan, NJ. Tickets are available online at algonquinarts.org or by phone at 732-528-9211. The theatre’s box office is closed to walk-in customers for the time being.
Algonquin will also hold a live indoor concert, Chris Pinnella: Christmas in Manasquan, on December 23. Full of holiday hits and Christmas classics, Pinnella and his band will capture the spirit of the season on the Eve of Christmas Eve.
The Algonquin has put a number of pandemic-related policies in place, a full list of which are available on each event listing at algonquinarts.org. The short version is that all patrons and staff will be required to wear masks at all times in the theatre. A maximum of 125 tickets can be sold for each performance and seating will be spread across the theatre’s more than 500 seats. No front row center seats will be sold.
The theatre has also revised policies to allow patrons who must quarantine or who are not feeling well to stay home and request a refund.
Photos of "A Christmas Carol" by Michael Franken Photography