By Sharon Eberson
It was touch and go for a while, Michael Cerveris coming home for the holidays. But filming on HBO’s The Gilded Age came to an end in the nick of time, and Pittsburgh CLO could finally announce that the two-time Tony Award-winner would be their Ebenezer Scrooge for 2022.
Cerveris follows in the footsteps of headliners such as Tom Atkins, Patrick Page and Richard Thomas in CLO’s A Musical Christmas Carol, a holiday tradition now in its 31st year.
Cerveris was on the phone the day after the announcement, getting ready to head to New Orleans – he calls both New York and the Big Easy home – to begin recording a new album with the Americana/roots music group Loose Cattle. The band that includes co-lead singers Cerveris and Kimberly Kaye will set sail on a star-studded New York-to-Bermuda Broadway Cruise in March of next year.
In between those dates on his busy schedule, from December 9 through 23, Cerveris will be on the Downtown bank of the Allegheny River, declaring “Bah! Humbug!” at the Byham Theater.
This isn’t the first time CLO executive producer Mark Fleischer tried to get Cerveris in a Pittsburgh production.
“Mark has called me periodically to see if I was available in the summers for various different productions, and it’s almost worked out a couple of times, and then a job will suddenly come up,” Cerveris said. “Even with this, we were crossing our fingers down to the wire that my schedule would work and I could do it, which is really great. It couldn’t come at a better time.”
The actor-singer who grew up in West Virginia will spend Christmas with his father, a native Pittsburgher, pianist and educator who lives in Franklin Park.
The elder Michael Cerveris is planning a move to be nearer family members, and “this might be his last Christmas in this house, so it will be great to be there with him,” Cerveris said.
From Gilded Age to Dickens’ Carol
Among his many small-screen roles, Cerveris portrays the mysterious Watson on the glitzy Gilded Age series that is packed with Broadway stars.
Peter Marks of the Washington Post did the accounting: The cast includes 56 Tony nominees (Cerveris has six) and 22 wins.
On Oct. 21, Cerveris posted a farewell to filming the second season on Facebook, writing, “I’ve cherished this time like few things I’ve done.”
It also opened the door to A Musical Christmas Carol.
The man who has played the notorious John Wilkes Booth (Assassins), a demon barber (Sweeney Todd) and a tormented pinball wizard (The Who’s Tommy) now takes on the literary world’s best known miser. Dr. Seuss’s Grinch and Wall Street shark Gordon Gekko are mere descendants of the man who said “Humbug!” to Christmas.
From the pages of Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella to its many stage and screen adaptations, A Christmas Carol also is a story of redemption. No matter the version, we witness the melting of Scrooge’s cold, cold heart
It’s an ever-after that is rare among Cerveris’ roles.
“It is nice to have such a clear arc,” the actor said. “It ends in such a nice happy place. So many of the characters I play have tremendous arcs but it doesn’t end well for anybody,” he added with a chuckle. “At least this time I get to end it as a good guy.”
Pittsburgh then and now
Cerveris spent holidays in Pittsburgh as a child, but rarely did he venture Downtown to experience the holiday sights and sounds of the Golden Triangle.
Visits were “so focused on family, and there were so many in my Italian family that most of the holiday was just spent at my grandparents house and catching up with cousins,” he recalled.
However, he was aware of CLO’s holiday tradition, and in recent years, filming the Netflix series Mindhunter and the movie Basic Psych have given him time to get acquainted with Pittsburgh and CLO’s holiday show at Christmastime.
“I don’t recall seeing productions onstage but I launch the Alistair SIm version every holiday,” he said of the annual TV viewing of A Christmas Carol, circa 1951. “It’s an important part of our family and my own personal holiday tradition. I really have enjoyed all different kinds of adaptations over the years. It’s one of my favorite stories.”
He’s aware, too, that he is stepping into a production in which some of the actors have been in roles for decades. The long-running Bob Cratchit, Jeffrey Howell, recently retired from that role, but actors such as Tim Hartman and Terry Wickline return as the merry Fezziwigs and other characters.
Cerveris also will be on stage with Daniel Krell, CLO’s long-time Jacob Marley). Krell starred as Bruce Bechdel in Front Porch Theatricals’ “Fun Home” – one of the roles that was a Tony winner for Cerveris.
Although he’s never seen the show, “I have certainly been aware of it and how beloved it is for years,” Cerveris said. “And I also understood that a lot of people have been doing it for years, which is great, but also a little daunting, because I’m the new guy stepping into this thing that everyone knows so well.”
During the run of the show, Cerveris will be housed Downtown, the better to avoid any bad weather issues, among other benefits.
“It really has been more of an adult when I was in town doing Mindhunter and Basic Psych that I’ve gotten to learn and explore a lot of the city on my own, and that’s been a wonderful thing,” he said. “And of course, Pittsburgh is a much different city than when I was a little kid. I remember the steel mills all lit up as we were driving in at night. So that’s been one of the great joys of the past few years, getting to know the city in its present form, as an adult, and to engage with so many aspects that I didn’t have as a child.”
Conversing about the construction happening seemingly everywhere around town sparked a memory from Christmas past and present-day laughter.
“We used to drive around, and there was all this construction, and my small town in West Virginia, there wasn’t that much to build,” he said. “I remember asking my mom one time, ‘When are they going to finish Pittsburgh?’ And now I understand, that’s never going to happen.”
Cerveris is hoping to catch up with relatively new Pittsburgh friends such as barebones productions’ Patrick Jordan. The actors met on the set of Mindhunter, and Cerveris performed a benefit concert for Jordan’s Braddock theater.
He also was in Braddock to film the movie Basic Psych, written by Pittsburgher James Tucker, directed by Melissa Martin and with co-stars including David Conrad.
“I think David Conrad is going to be back in town from London – I saw him and Juliet [Rylance, Conrad’s girlfriend] while he was in London recently and told them I was doing this, and they were like, ‘I can’t wait,’ so hopefully I’ll see them.”
When he is here during baseball season, Cerveris will usually take in a Pirates game. It was agreed that even though the Steelers will be in town, this might be a tough time to be watching the Pittsburgh team “or my beloved Saints,” he admitted. “You’ve just got to accept that.”
It was his very un-Scrooge-like way of saying it’s not looking like this is either team’s year.
On the other hand, 2022 is the year that Michael Cerveris will be in Pittsburgh, to become part of a holiday tradition, in a role he has long wanted to play.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing what this ride is like to take,” the actor said. “It is daunting because it comes with so many people’s attachments to their favorite Scrooges that they’ve seen, whether it’s Alistair Sim, or Michael Caine with the Muppets. … So the challenge is, it’s like taking on Hamlet or something that there are a lot of favorite versions of it. So you have to go back to the source, go back to Dickens and really find your own way into it.”
He added, “I’m not looking to reinvent the wheel. I’m just hoping to color in the spaces between the lines – I’m as curious as anyone else to see what my version of Scrooge is going to be.”
A Musical Christmas Carol is at the Byham Theater December 9-23, 2022. Tickets: https://www.pittsburghclo.org/shows/a-musical-christmas-carol. There will be a sensory-friendly performance at 10 a.m. Saturday, December 17. ASL Interpreters are available for all performances upon request.