When it comes to “A Christmas Carol,” Bradley Whitford just wasn’t interested in seeing it.
Not the movie adaptations, not regional theater productions. None of it. And it had been that way since his childhood in Madison, Wisconsin.
Whitford, whose career includes his Emmy-winning turn as Josh Lyman on “The West Wing” and the evil Dean Armitage in “Get Out,” with dozens of film, TV and stage roles in between, said his Quaker family eschewed the commercialization of Christmas.
Still, he was no stranger to Charles Dickens’ classic tale thanks to a record player and the iconic voice of actor George C. Scott. It was a ritual his family never missed.
“From the time I was 7 years old all the way through high school, which is kind of shocking to me, because I know how cynical teenagers can get, I would go under the piano, we’d turn out the lights, we’d light some candles, and we would listen to this story. … I have these vivid memories of listening to George C. Scott, who my mother was in love with. And I never wanted to see it. It was the protected thing to me,” Whitford said Monday during a break from rehearsals in Spokane.
He was invited to see the show in 2019 at the Old Vic in London by its director, Matthew Warchus. Whitford and Warchus first worked together for the 2008 Broadway revival of “Boeing Boeing,” which Warchus directed and Whitford called one of the most fun experiences he’d ever had on the stage.
“This thing starts at the Old Vic, and I was on the floor,” he said. “It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.”
When presented with the opportunity to take Warchus’ production on the road in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, Whitford surprised his agents.
“They said, ‘Well, we’re sure this is going to be a pass, but they want you to play Scrooge in the Old Vic production and tour it, and I was like, ‘There is nothing that I have ever wanted to do more than this,’ ” Whitford said. “It has been a joy, joy, joy. You want to do this thing justice. It is a phenomenal part.”
Whitford is among a high-powered cast launching this production of “A Christmas Carol” for its first U.S. tour. The Ghost of Christmas Past is played by Kate Burton, whose extensive acting credits include the stage (she is a two-time Tony nominee for her work in “Hedda Gabler” and “The Elephant Man”), television (she has a recurring role as Dr. Ellis Gray, Meredith’s mother, on “Grey’s Anatomy”) and film (“Big Trouble in Little China,” “The Ice Storm” and “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” among them).
The Ghost of Christmas Present is Alex Newell, who gained fame as Unique Adams on “Glee” and most recently was seen as Mo on “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.” Broadway actor Dashiell Eaves, who originated the role of Bob Cratchit in the the 2019 Broadway production, returns to the role for this tour. (He also was in the cast of Martin McDonagh’s ‘A Behanding in Spokane’ in 2010.)
Mrs. Cratchit is played by film, TV and stage actress Chante Carmel, whose stage credits include “Motown the Musical,” “The Lion King” and “Waitress.” Other members of the original Broadway cast making a return journey to “A Christmas Carol” include Brandon Gill as Fred, Evan Harrington as Fezziwig, Chris Hoch as Father and Marley, Sarah Hunt as Belle and Alex Nee as Ferdy.
Whitford for years assumed stage productions of “A Christmas Carol” would be tired. Instead, he sees Warchus’ take on this 178-year-old story, adapted by Jack Thorne, as something fresh and vital.
“You realize why this story is so durable and even more relevant today than it was two years ago,” Whitford said. “It’s about being together. It’s about not getting used to a world where some people have too much while others people don’t have enough. It feels like an especially urgent story to tell right now. And it works on so many levels. It’s this joyous family celebration, and from the Scrooge point-of-view, it’s a late-middle-age identity crisis. It feels like emotional CrossFit out there.
“Matthew’s take on this is this is not some doddering old man looking for a deathbed conversion to the virtuous. This is a stubborn, epiphany-adverse oyster, as he is described. One of the things Matthew talks about is it’s like a prize fight with these ghosts.”
Warchus’ production debuted at the Old Vic with Rhys Ifans as Scrooge. It was revived for the holiday season in 2018 and 2019, the same year it opened on Broadway with Campbell Scott – son of George C. – in the lead. The Broadway show won five Tony Awards for the 2019 season: best scenic design, costume design, lighting design, sound design and score. It has music and movement but is not a musical.
“The music in it is absolutely gorgeous,” Whitford said. “One of the most difficult things about playing this part is there’s a part where I am out cold on the floor, and some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard starts to play, and it’s all I can do to cry facing upstage trying to hide my belly heaving.”
It takes just a few minutes on the phone with Whitford to realize that all the fast talking he did as Josh on “The West Wing” can only be partly attributed to Aaron Sorkin. Or maybe it’s that he’s just really, really happy to be doing this show. He doesn’t want anyone to think he’s being disingenuous with his effusive enthusiasm.
“I stand behind none of my work,” he said with a laugh. “It’s just easier that way. It’s just easier if I’m like, ‘I don’t know!’ But more than anything I’ve ever done, I want people to see this.”
What makes this production different, even elevated, from others is multifold. It’s certainly not old, white and English. There are women, people of color and nonbinary performers in prominent roles. “The production is as radically inclusive as God’s creation,” Whitford said. It’s also impatient in how it entertains audiences.
“I’ve been very lucky to be able to work with some great creative minds, and they’re radically different, Aaron Sorkin, Jordan Peele, Steven Spielberg, Matthew Warchus. These people are impatient entertainers. They want to give you a ride. They don’t want to serve you vegetables. They want to give you a ride. And it’s a great combination on this.”
He added, “I feel like an idiot talking about this because I just love this production so much. My wife keeps telling me, ‘I’ve never seen you happier.’ Which is great, but you would like to think there were a couple of other moments where she’d seen me happy.”
Whitford and the rest of the cast have been in Spokane for a week and a half doing tech rehearsals for this new tour. All are vaccinated and test for COVID-19 multiple times a week. He admits his life has been rather “monkish” – he’s spent most of his non-rehearsal time at his hotel. But what he’s seen of town reminds him of Madison.
“It’s a college town with water,” he said. “There’s something that feels very kind of familiar to me about this. … I took a long, beautiful walk along the water and walked over to Gonzaga. People have been incredibly nice. Someone was honking, and I thought they were mad at me, but I guess they recognized me, and they yelled, ‘We’re just glad you’re here!’ ”
He also admits that, yes, while he is an actor doing press in support of his latest project, he wants Spokane to know they have an opportunity to see something special this weekend.
“I’m just saying I flew to London to see this,” he said. “It’s right here. Come see it. … It’s a gorgeous experience.”