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James Pickering will not play Scrooge this holiday season.
James Pickering will not play Scrooge this holiday season.

A new Scrooge

If Milwaukee has a leading man it is undoubtedly James Pickering, an actor of immense talent and experience and commitment to the Milwaukee community.

He and his wife, Rose, who died last year, were the first couple of Milwaukee theater, providing thousands of fans with memorable performances that helped to establish the Milwaukee Rep as a top flight regional theater company.

Pickering was most famous, perhaps, for his portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge in the Rep's annual production of "A Christmas Carol" that transformed The Pabst Theater into a witch's brew of holiday fear and cheer.

Thousands and thousands of fans, from young children to grandparents made going to the Pabst for the production an annual tradition. The play introduced many young children to their first experience with live theater.

And no actor was more identified with the play that Pickering.

It's against that background that I was so shocked to get a press release from the Rep announcing that a New York actor named Christopher Donahue will play the role of Scrooge in the 2012 production.

Now, I have nothing against Donahue, who has a lengthy resume of classical roles in regional theaters around the country and a few television appearances. He may well be a fine actor.

But there was no mention in the press release of why The Rep was making the change from the familiarity and love we all had for Pickering to this unknown quantity. The item from the Rep did the one thing you never want to do in a press release – it raised more questions than it answered.

I understand the marketing department and its director, Lisa Fulton, who hasn't returned my call, wanting to focus on the upcoming season. They aren't going to sell tickets for what happened last season. It is only this season that matters, according to all the proven marketing techniques.

But Pickering has been Scrooge for 450 performances. Four hundred and fifty. It's not as if he dropped in for a cameo and then left town. His Scrooge is as much a part of Milwaukee as the Allen-Bradley clock, Bradford Beach and the racing sausages.

How any organization could make an announcement like this and forget to mention, or intentionally not mention, an institution like Pickering is totally beyond me. And it leaves me with an uneasy feeling in my gut.

The very word from which the Rep derives its name. "Repertory" means a theater company with resident actors who do a series of different plays during a season. I hope that mission continues. When I think of Jonathan Gillard Daley and Laura Gordon and Lee Ernst I get a comfortable sense of well being in the Milwaukee theater community.

I wonder why the change from Pickering to somebody – anybody – else is being made. I wish their marketing director had called me back to confirm it. But I have my suspicions.

After 450 times I'd be willing to bet that Pickering's performance last Christmas season was unmatched.

Actors are always searching for emotional and intellectual "stuff" that they can use to help them define and develop a role. Pickering's wife, Rose, died during rehearsals of "A Christmas Carol" last year and I'd guess that gave him more than enough "stuff" and ended up with a performance that he felt he could never match again.

My understanding is that Pickering made his own decision to retire from the show. I respect him for taking this step and am grateful that he will continue to act in Milwaukee.

This new guy may well be a great Scrooge. But without Pickering in the role, everyone who goes to enjoy the richness of the play and the theater will find it just a bit more spare and shabby without a Scrooge we have come to know so well.

Talkbacks

armchairwarrior | July 9, 2012 at 3:32 p.m. (report)

36302 I am wonder what Mr. Begel being in a show with Mr. Pickering has to do with his opinion of the man? Why does that matter...he's not asking you to vote for Mr. Pickering. He's giving you his opinion about another actor, an actor he has in fact worked with. Making him may be a little more than qualified to have the opinion. David Begel does not control casting at the Rep so how is this a problem with journalistic integrity?

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artislove | June 30, 2012 at 9:35 p.m. (report)

If I recall correctly, although Mr. Pickering did it more often in the last few years, Lee Ernst and Jonathan Daly played Scrooge as well? It's not as if he played it for 20 years straight. Perhaps that would be a different story.

Also, there seem to be very few theaters who use the word "repertory" in their title who employ a full-time resident acting company. In fact, I can't think of one. But Milwaukee Rep's resident actors haven't gone anywhere, have they? I have seen them in almost every production over the last few years.

I understand that this is a blog, and an op-ed piece of sorts, but don't you think it would have been relevant information to your readers that you are currently acting in a show with Mr. Pickering? In the interest of full disclosure and journalistic integrity?

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