It all started one night a year ago, when Robyn Bell was idly flipping through the channels.
"The first thing that caught my eye was that there was a woman conductor," Bell said. "That's something you don't see on TV too often."
But then Bell, conductor of the Pops Orchestra of Bradenton and Sarasota, started to listen to the music and the words.
"I couldn't turn it off," she said. "I watched it to the end. I watched the credits. It came back on again a couple of hours later and I watched from the beginning and I recorded it. Then I started trying to find the composer."
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What she was watching: "A Christmas Carol -- The Concert." The PBS broadcast was nominated for an Emmy Award for Best Music and Lyrics but did not win.
Now, after a year of working, Bell and her orchestra are performing those words and music. "A Christmas Carol - The Concert" is scheduled for two performances, Dec. 12 and 13 at the Neel Performing Arts Center at State College of Florida in Bradenton.
"It's unlike anything I've ever seen before," Bell said. "I don't even know what category to put it in. It's not a musical, but it's a musical."
The adaptation of the Dickens classic, perhaps the most widely beloved piece of Christmas fiction ever written, involves costumed actor-singers who perform with their scores in front of them. There's some acting involved, and spoken words as well as songs. There are props but no sets, and the 60-piece Pops Orchestra is on stage with the vocalists.
That's the way it was conceived by composer Bob Christianson and book writer/lyricist Alisa Hauser. They have remained faithful to the story -- most of the words come straight from Dickens' novella -- but they've taken some liberties.
"It starts with Scrooge's 'Bah, humbug,' moment," said Sarasota-based opera singer Randolph Locke, who plays Ebenezer Scrooge in this production. "So it starts when he's at his darkest hour, and then the music gets brighter and more carefree as the piece progresses."
For Locke, who has performed on opera stages all over the world, that was an adjustment. Villains in opera generally start off happy, then descend into tragedy as the opera goes on.
Both Locke and Bell rave about Christianson's music for "A Christmas Carol." It encompasses classical music, jazz, gospel and Broadway-style tunes, and orchestrations with demanding and complex arrangements.
"The orchestration in this piece, in my opinion, is gorgeous," Locke said. The musicians "have to have chops, and this orchestra has the chops."
One remarkable aspect of the music, Bell said, is that Christianson provides recurring themes based not just on each character, but on each character's mood.
"It's not like Darth Vader, where there's a Darth Vader theme that plays every time he appears," she said. "The feelings have musical themes. It takes this idea of themes and takes it to a whole other level."
Locke stepped into the role at the last minute. Just before rehearsals were supposed to start, the performer who had accepted the role of Scrooge called and reneged. Bell called Locke -- they both teach at SCF -- and asked if he might be interested.
"They gave me the score and a DVD," he said. "I watched the DVD and I loved it."
Because the singers in this show perform with scores in front of them, he was able to learn the role quickly.
The Pops production isn't quite the same as the one people watched last year on PBS.
"It was written for four performers," she said. "One performer plays Scrooge the whole time, and one is the narrator the whole time. And two people play all the other roles."
For this production, Bell had access to a chorus full of students from SCF. So she and stage director Melodie Dickerson, who's the SCF choir director, were able to cast one performer for each role. They're all from Dickerson's theater ensemble class. They performed earlier this year in SCF's production of Frank Wildhorn's "The Civil War."
As much as Bell loved "A Christmas Carol -- The Concert" when she first watched it on TV last year, working on this production has enhanced her respect for the work.
"It's probably one of the most exciting projects I've ever worked on," she said. "Certainly it's the most exciting thing I've worked on with the Pops. It's very challenging and so well-written. It's a masterpiece. It has certainly changed me as a musician."
Details: Dec. 12-13, Neel Performing Arts Center at State College of Florida, 5840 26th St. W., Bradenton. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $30. Information: 941-926-7677 or thepopsorchestra.org for Saturday; 941-752-5252, scf.edu for Sunday.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.