Christmas Carol goes uptown in They Sing Christmas Up in Harlem

Photo provided by Maddgsme EntertainmentLeroy London as Ebenezer 'Scratch' Scrooge, kneeling, and Byron Wade as Marley, work through a scene in UpStage Theatre Company's They Sing Christmas Up in Harlem.
Photo provided by Maddgsme EntertainmentLeroy London as Ebenezer 'Scratch' Scrooge, kneeling, and Byron Wade as Marley, work through a scene in UpStage Theatre Company's They Sing Christmas Up in Harlem.

What if Ebenezer Scrooge were a numbers runner during the Harlem Renaissance? First of all, he probably wouldn’t go by Ebenezer. He’d have a nickname like “Scratch” instead. He’d probably wear flashy suits rather than basic black.

This is the idea behind Eric Leroy Wilson’s interpretation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. They Sing Christmas Up in Harlem takes the classic story and jazzes it up a bit. Literally.

“It has poetry, dance, music. The audience will be singing along,” director Ava Brewster-Turner said.

Hits from Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald help set the scene in the late 1920s. “Most of it takes place on 135th and Lennox (streets in New York) because that’s where Scratch hangs out,” Brewster-Turner said.

“People from New York will recognize this place as the birth of the Harlem Renaissance. Still today, there’s always singing, dancing and music,” said actor Leroy London.

London plays Scratch, the street hustler version of Scrooge. “Scrooge is a hardball. Anybody is subject to the Scrooge,” he said.

As in the Dickens story, the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future help Scrooge see how his actions affect others and ultimately lead to his dramatic turnaround.

“(By the end of the play) he’s smiling and donating money to the Red Cross rather than taking money out of the basket,” Brewster-Turner said.

Actor Byron Wade makes his own transformation during the show, playing both Scrooge’s deceased accountant Marley and street hustler Scooter Jenkins. “It takes some range as an actor. You want the audience to be able to distinguish between the characters so you don’t want to use the same vocal inflections and so on for both,” Wade said.

In this version of the story, the ghost Marley accuses Scrooge of “putting a hit out” on him, not just working him to death. “The fear in the community is that he’s a gangster. You don’t want to owe him money because you could get your legs broken or your car taken away. He strikes terror in people,” Brewster-Turner said.

They Sing Christmas Up In Harlem highlights Scrooge’s role, not just as a “bah humbug” grumpy man, but a real threat to the community. By reforming him, the ghosts provide a tangible service, not just to Scrooge himself, but to the neighborhood, which has been taken over by Scratch and his gangsters.

If all this makes the show sound grim, it isn’t.

“Since 2010, the first time we put this on, we’ve added more dance, music, made it a bigger show,” Brewster-Turner said.

“With the addition of the music and choreography, this is more than just a play,” Wade said.