CLO’s Bob Cratchit is one for the books

Jerreme Rodriguez takes over the role played for 25 years by Jeff Howell

By Sharon Eberson

If you have attended Pittsburgh CLO’s annual A Musical Christmas Carol in the past 25 years or so, as so many of us have, you likely observed Jeff Howell‘s Bob Cratchit bent over a ledger while under the scrutiny of his insufferable boss, Ebenezer Scrooge.

During all of those years, Howell was writing – for real. It was mostly messages to himself, but one, in particular, addressed his successor, even before he knew who it would be.

The new keeper of the ledger is Jerreme Rodriguez, who intends to add his mark when he puts pen to the ledger for the 30th annual Christmas Carol, opening Friday.

“During the show, Jeff would write notes to himself, about how the Steelers were playing, about coming to the end of the run, things like that,” CLO’s newest Bob Cratchit was saying by phone on a rehearsal day last week.

“He also wrote something like, ‘To the next Bob Cratchit: Tag, you’re it. It’s been a swell role.’ “

Howell said goodbye to playing Tiny Tim’s kindly, beleaguered father in 2019, deciding after 25 years, he would spend the holidays with his own family.

That was the Before Times. Howell also was seen as Cratchit for one more year, along with returning Scrooge, Richard Thomas, when a video of the 2019 show aired on WQED during the pandemic. It wasn’t the same as being at the Byham Theater, but it was one local holiday tradition we were able to observe, even while staying home.

Richard Thomas as Scrooge in the 2019 company of Pittsburgh CLO’s A Musical Christmas Carol. Photo credit: Matt Polk

Now it’s Rodriguez’s turn to welcome audiences back to the Byham for six shows, Dec. 17-23.

It’s hard to believe that Rodriguez, a triple-threat staple of the Pittsburgh musical theater scene, is in this production for the first time.

Five years ago, Rodriguez auditioned for the role of Young Ebenezer (Ben Cherington in this year’s production) but didn’t make the cut. He could be seen instead in several CLO Cabaret shows, including the world premiere of The Double-Threat Trio.

Jerreme Rodriguez, center, with J. Alex Noble and Drew Leigh Williams in the Pittsburgh CLO premiere musical Double-Threat Trio. Photo: Archie Carpenter

Rodriguez went on to be one of the artists who helped welcome back live theater in 2021, first in Quantum Theatre’s The Current War, a new musical by Fox Chapel native Michael Mitnick and then as part of Pittsburgh CLO’s summer shows at Heinz Field.

Jerreme Rodriguez, left, with Quinn Patrick Shannon and Drew Leigh Williams in Quantum Theatre’s The Current War. Photo: Quantum Theatre

Last month, he was in PICT Classic Theatre’s large-cast As You Like It before getting into the 2021 “Carol-ing” spirit.

Last year, during the pandemic, Rodriguez was in another traditional Christmas show, but in a decidedly nontraditional way.

A regular performer at the Austin Playhouse in Texas, he could be seen during the pandemic in an Austin production of what was called Drive-In Nutcracker, the version set to Duke Ellington’s jazzy rendition of the original Tchaikovsky music and playing atop a parking garage.

Rodriguez learned how to transmit sound through a car radio channel, which is what City Theatre did for the Drive-In Arts Festival in summer 2020.

Rodriguez was in Texas during the Snowmageddon that wiped out most of the state’s power grid, and it is there that most of his winter gear remains.

“Who would have thought, in Texas? I haven’t been able to get back there and get all my heavy clothes,” he said. “Until then, I’m doing a lot of layering.”

He’s also playing a father onstage for the first time, although as an educator, he is used to imparting wisdom to his young charges.

Speaking after a day of blocking the musical for the stage, he said, “I’m teaching stage movement at Pittsburgh Musical Theater, and I always tell the kids that that will inform everything else,” he said.

Many of those kids remind him of young Jerreme, watching A Christmas Carol at the Children’s Theater of Madison, Wisconsin.

“The guy who played Bob Cratchit, he was like a staple player of local theater, and seeing him work and waltz around the stage, I’ve never forgotten it. That’s where it all began for me.”

One person who didn’t see the show was his mother. He would go with a friend whose mother did behind-the-scenes work, but his mother only attends theater, to this day, when he is in the show.

And she is laser-focused on her son.

Rodriguez’s mom will be coming to Pittsburgh and not only see her son’s first time in A Musical Christmas Carol, but it will be her first experience of the Charles Dickens classic.

“She’ll tell her friends that I am playing Ebenezer Cratchit,” he said with a laugh. “When she comes to my shows, she only watches me. She’ll say she saw me do some little thing, and it was a split second when I was a background player.

“When she was here for The Current War, he continued, “I was having to film call-backs for The Wizard of Oz. I was walking around saying lines as if I was talking to myself. She was like, ‘Oh my God, you are so funny.’ She had never seen me rehearse before.”

And now Rodriguez will be playing one of the most famous doting parents in literary history, and for that, he’s glad to have the help of Mrs. Cratchit, Lisa Ann Goldsmith. She is one of the many long-timers in the CLO show, like those delightful Fezziwigs, Tim Hartman and Terry Wickline, and Daniel Krell as Jacob Marley.

This is the second time as Scrooge for stage and screen actor Richard Thomas (The Waltons, The Americans), who told Rodriguez he still can’t believe how quickly CLO can rehearse a show and get it ready for opening.

It is Scrooge who is most often seen carrying the youngest Cratchit, Tiny Tim (Emmett Kent), on his shoulders, but Bob gives his son a lift here and there, too – “The easiest lift I will ever have to make,” said Rodriguez, who has lifted many a dancing partner in his career.

And as Bob Cratchit, he also will be putting pen to ledger on Friday. “I’m not sure what I will write,” Rodriguez said, “but you can be sure I will continue that tradition.”

PMT’s A Lyrical Christmas Carol

Pittsburgh’s other long-running musical version of Dickens’ tale of redemption has a new look, a new home and a legacy in the director’s chair.

It is the 30th anniversary of both Pittsburgh Musical Theater and its A Lyrical Christmas Carol, created by company founder Ken Gargaro and seen over the years in Oakland at the Stephen Foster Memorial Theater and the New Hazlett Theater on the North Side.

The show this year opens Thursday and runs Dec. 16-19 at the Gargaro Theater in PMT’s West End home at 327 S. Main St.

Frequent CLO and PMT performer Quinn Patrick Shannon, who, like Rodriguez was a member of The Current War cast, played Tiny Tim when it was A Christmas Carol in 1991. And now he is directing the show, a Young Artist Production featuring PMT Conservatory students alongside guest artists.

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