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Thursday November 10, 2011

PITTSFIELD -- When the Berkshire Theatre Group opens the sixth annual local staging of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" on Dec. 17, not only will it have switched from the 120-seat Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge to the 783-seat Colonial Theatre, but it will showcase an international celebrity in his professional acting debut.

Singer-songwriter James Taylor, a Berkshires resident who has played himself on several TV series episodes in recent years, will portray Bob Cratchit, the self-effacing, warm-hearted clerk who is abused by his boss, Ebenezer Scrooge, but displays empathy for the old miser and helps inspire his redemption during nocturnal, frightening visitations by four spirits.

It will be a family affair for 11 performances over two weeks at the Colonial.

Kim Taylor, who often accompanies her husband as a backup vocalist at Tanglewood and on tour, will return for the second year as Mrs. Cratchit. Son Rufus, meanwhile, will reprise his role as Younger Scrooge, and his twin, Henry, will portray the lad who fetches a prize turkey for the Cratchit family feast on Scrooge's dime. (Henry, who played Tiny Tim in last year's production, has outgrown the part; the boys are now 10.)

Tickets will go on sale for a three-day period beginning Saturday, by phone or at the box office for Berkshire County residents. The general sale will begin Tuesday; tickets are $25 for adults and $15 for children.

Announcing the casting coup, Kate Maguire, artistic director and CEO of the Berkshire Theatre Group, said that six weeks ago, she broached to Taylor the idea of appearing "in what may be one of the greatest stories ever written about goodness and greed." He agreed to think about it, and recently the 63-year-old decided to take on the new chapter in his 42-year show business career. Taylor was busy in his recording studio and could not be reached for comment today, but Maguire recalled to The Eagle that she told Taylor how much it had meant to her seven years ago when she performed with her daughter, Isadora Wolfe, in "Peter Pan" on the Berkshire Theatre Festival's Main Stage.

"It was a wonderful family experience," Maguire said. "This will be a safe environment," she said she reassured Taylor.

Eric Hill, co-director with E. Gray Simons III of the community theater production, also stars as Scrooge in his own adaptation of Dickens' novella. Hill has portrayed various roles in staged versions since grade school, when he took the role of Young Ebenezer.

Hill and Taylor are reading through the script and discussing the historical context of the classic ghost story set in 1840s London.

"There are a lot of direct parallels between James and Bob Cratchit," Hill said. "That's why I think he's perfect for the role. Cratchit is a natural, self-effacing character, humble, very unassuming and gentle, trying to find the right path through difficult challenges. James seems to have a natural instinct for such situations."

Hill and Taylor forged a bond a year ago when the singer's family was rehearsing and appearing in "A Christmas Carol" at the BTF.

"What I like about him so much is that he has a strong sense of balance, has found a kind of peace, and is comfortable in his own skin," Hill said. "He's a family kind of guy, and so's Bob Cratchit. When they're at home, they're at ease, in their natural element with kids."

The director acknowledged that taking on the role "was a hard decision for Taylor to make. I talked to him about this play being for the community we live in; it's hard times in our country and this area now. ‘Scroogeness' is the problem and ‘Cratchitness' is the cure."

At that point, Hill recalled, "Taylor said: ‘I've got to do this for the community.' He has a sense of responsibility and wants to do something for Pittsfield."

Hill described Taylor as "a real artist [who] takes what he's doing very seriously, wants to know every detail, find out everything he can. He brings a real sense of humility and respect for the art and craft of what we do."