Philip Pleasants: A Scrooge for the ages, one last time

A look at Philip Pleasants’ run as Scrooge from 2005-14 for the DCPA Theatre Company. (There was no staging of ‘A Christmas Carol’ in 2007 or 2012). Photos by Terry Shapiro and Jennifer M. Koskinen.

CNN may have James Earl Jones, but since 2005, Philip Pleasants has been “the voice” of the DCPA Theatre Company. And anyone who has heard Pleasants revel in the skinflint Scrooge’s dripping, delicious humbuggery knows just what we mean by “the voice” – it’s that deep, distinctive Southern baritone that makes you feel as if you’re in the presence of an American Gielgud.

“If they would rather die, they had better do it…and decrease the surplus population!”

Philip Pleasants and Charlie Korman. Photo by Terry Shapiro. You can hear it just by reading it.

Of course, just a short time later, the same Pleasants is onstage kicking up his heels in the utter joy of the miser’s seasonal redemption:

“Spirit, I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year!”

It is Pleasants’ unique ability to pull off both extremes of Scrooge – the grinch and the unleashed inner child – that has made the actor himself an indelible part of the Denver holiday season over the past decade. By the time the Theatre Company’s 23rd staging of A Christmas Carol passes this season, more than 235,000 will have seen Pleasants playing his signature role in Denver alone.

“I have worked with many Scrooges over the years,” said actor Leslie O’Carroll, who plays the festive Mrs. Fezziwig, “and Phil is the only one who can play both sides with equal aplomb.”

But just as all seasons must change, Pleasants is now a spry 78, and he has decided this will be his last run as Scrooge, a role he has played all over the country for four decades.

“I want to go back home and just enjoy my life,” he said of his quiet getaway in Alabama.

But this is far from the solstice of Pleasants’ acting career. To the contrary, Pleasants is enjoying a prolific run actors half his age would envy. He just played three distinct and delicious roles in As You Like It – which included being suspended from a flying chair 22 feet above the stage – and he will follow A Christmas Carol by playing Sen. Richard Russell and Rep. Emanuel Celler in Robert Schenkkan’s LBJ drama, All the Way.

Philip PLeasants quote

Pleasants arrived in Denver in 2005 after having worked with Producing Artistic Director Kent Thompson at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. He was already at an age when many of his contemporaries might typically retire. But for Pleasants, Denver was the start of a fertile new professional chapter. He has produced a steady string of remarkable performances, notably his two “roles of a lifetime” – as one of the crusty old Colorado ranchers in the 2008 world premiere of Eventide, and raging against the madness of King Lear.

“Coming to Denver has been a godsend. I won’t be shy about saying it,” Pleasants said. “Kent has been wonderful to me.”

And Pleasants has been wonderful for the Denver Center, its audiences, and his fellow cast and crew. A Christmas Carol Director Bruce K. Sevy called working with Pleasants over the past decade a remarkable partnership and learning experience.

“This is one of the rare experiences you get in the theatre that makes you think your whole career was worth it,” Sevy said.

Added Michael Bouchard, who performed in A Christmas Carol with Pleasants last year and stars this December in the far more subversive The SantaLand Diaries: “He might be the greatest Scrooge I have ever heard of, much less seen.” 

Since Pleasants was a boy growing up in Virginia, Shakespeare has been the ongoing joy of his life. “I had the good fortune of having a mother who happened to love Shakespeare,” he said. “When I was very small, she used to read scenes to me. She would explain them in a way that would make sense to an idiot child like me. She helped me to understand these Elizabethan turns of phrases that are hideously difficult for a modern audience to understand.”

Pleasants recently spotted a bumper sticker he adored. It was an engraving of Shakespeare with the note: “Providing employment for over 400 years.”

Sam Gregory Philip Pleasants quoteHe’s been providing Pleasants employment for more than 60. One of his favorites was playing an obviously pregnant female witch in a 1997 staging of Macbeth. “Her doom was she could never give birth,” he said.

Pleasants’ other constant companion has been Scrooge, a role he first played in 1978 in the wilds of Alaska. He was not yet 40 — far too young for the role back then. But, he says with a wry grin: “Not with this character face. It’s a real antique!”

Pleasants played Scrooge in dozens of productions since, and each year he finds the story’s meaning to be poignantly colored by the news of the day. His second time as Scrooge coincided with the mass murder-suicides of 900 under the spell of cult leader Jim Jones in Jonestown, Guyana. “I will never forget that because I was so horrified,” he said. “All those people taking poison and dropping dead.”

That horrible incident solidified Pleasants’ great and ongoing belief that the true meaning of A Christmas Carol lies less in any specific religious doctrine but rather in a universal belief in the power of renewal. “You find new truths every time you do it,” Pleasants said. “But there’s always that core reality and prudent beauty of the great Dickens fable.”

If Pleasants has been a successful and believable Scrooge, he says it’s because he so strongly believes the words that are coming out of the character’s mouth.

“I do believe in the redemption of people,” he said. “And I believe that old curmudgeons can be restored to some degree of civility.”

Fellow actor Sam Gregory, who has more than 40 Theatre Company credits to his name — including playing Bob Cratchit and six other A Christmas Carol roles — says Pleasants is the quintessential Scrooge in part because he approaches Dickens the same way he approaches Shakespeare.

“Phil has this ability to replicate elements of a 19th-century acting style, which is a little bit florid and a bit little (ornate),” he said. “And it works so well because when Phil adopts a non-naturalistic style, it has great, natural heart behind it. Nothing he does looks fake. Only Phil can do that successfully because Phil is not replicable.”

And yet, it is Gregory who will attempt to replicate Pleasants as his understudy in 2015, before trying to make the role his own in 2016 and moving forward.

“Oh, who am I kidding?” Gregory said. “Phil Pleasants is the Peyton Manning of Scrooges. How does anyone follow him?”

A Christmas Carol: Ticket information

  • Nov. 27-Dec. 27 (Opens Dec. 4) at the Stage Theatre
  • Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
  • Accessibility performance: 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 19
  • Philip PleasantsA toast to Philip Pleasants. Photo by Jennifer M. Koskinen. Other photos: Top, with Charlie Korman, who played Tiny Tim in 2010 and now plays Young Scrooge. Photo by Terry Shapiro. Photo with Sam Gregory by John Moore.

    Selected previous NewsCenter coverage of A Christmas Carol:
    First rehearsal: Scrooge, in typical fashion: Let’s get to work!
    From Denver Center’s Tiny Tim to TV’s Fuller House
    Beginnings and endings for stars of A Christmas Carol, The SantaLand Diaries
    Video: Leslie O’Carroll performs A Christmas O’Carroll … in 5 minutes
    Actor Scott McLean is now also a published children’s author
    Video: The Christmas Carol Coast to Coast Challenge. No. 1: Denver
    By the numbers: A Christmas Carol over 22 years at the DCPA
    First day of 2014 rehearsal: Interviews, cast list and photos

    2015 ‘Meet the Cast’ profiles:
    Meet Courtney Capek (Belle)
    Meet Shannan Steele (Fred’s wife)

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