Young actors dressed in 19th-century garb marched to the stage, singing traditional carols. Beggars and bankers, peasants and nobles all mixed in a crowd.
Several of the characters were familiar, present in multiple incarnations: Tiny Tim Cratchet as the child with a crutch, and as a mischievous young man; Ebenezer Scrooge as a youth and as an elderly man.
It's the opening scene of Remembering Uncle Scrooge, a two-act musical that debuts this week in downtown Bel Air. The actors, in character and costume, hope to mingle with the audience at the dinner theater, the first event in the refurbished Lt. Gen. Milton A. Reckord Armory on North Main Street.
"We can interact, and then Scrooge won't seem so distant," said Ryan Richardson, 15, who plays the lead in a black top hat, formal coat and wire-rimmed glasses.
He played the same character last year in the traditional production of A Christmas Carol and likes this new side to Scrooge, he said.
"Scrooge is a fun character with different sides," he said. "He gives you the opportunity to be mean and stingy, and to go through a big transformation."
The show starts at the armory on North Main Street on Thursday and continues for three more performances through Sunday. The production will transform the armory into a dinner theater, decked out in ribbons, poinsettias and greenery, and filled with the voices of young singers.
"The acoustics are a lot better," said Marge Phillips, a North Harford Middle School teacher, who wrote the play and directs it. "The dressing rooms are great, and we have so much space here."
At rehearsals last week, the cast practiced undistracted with the accompanist while volunteers painted the backdrops, adjusted props and finished costumes. The $220,000 renovation included the installation of acoustical panels to eliminate the "sound bounce" that made it nearly impossible to hear anything, let alone the sounds of stage productions, in the gym.
The gym will become an elegant dining room for about 300 guests. Members of the cast, who range in age from 9 to 18, will sing with the audience and perform a modernized musical version of the famous Dickens tale on a restored stage.
"We will be carol-singing amid the audience at intermission, helping them to sing along," said Bevin Hensley, 15. "There's also the chance for the audience to nibble while they watch."
In this story line, Ebenezer Scrooge has mellowed into the sweet elderly man who figures fondly in the memories of an adult Tiny Tim.
"It's a different twist on A Christmas Carol, with Tiny Tim remembering stories Scrooge told him," Phillips said. "It takes us all back that way."
The story flashes back to Scrooge's childhood and travels forward to when the curmudgeon was redeemed by the three ghosts of Christmas.
"I wanted the story to show how Scrooge got to be stingy and what changed him, from Tim's view," said Phillips. "A lot of where the story comes from relates to today."
Phillips incorporated traditional elements into her story and added a few twists of her own.
"Tiny Tim sings about miracles a la Elvis," she said.
She invented a few parts, such as the child who picks pockets and donates the loot to charity, to give young singers a chance to shine. Several in the cast of 34 have solos and play multiple parts.
Open Door Cafe in Bel Air is catering the dinner theater, serving traditional Christmas fare, including baked ham, yams and mashed potatoes and a pineapple casserole, said Deb Ciresi, caterer.
"There will be a lot of children, and a normal, homey dinner seemed perfect," she said.
Carter Schwartz, 15, plays the adult Tim with a tinge of humor. He also acts as the show's narrator, a job that gives him latitude, he said.
"This is a great way to tell a story," Carter said. "And this is a great story that people never get tired of."
Bevin had never read Dickens' tale, but when she was cast in the play, she checked it out of the school library and found it to be "a really cool book," she said.
Phillips asked Bevin, who plays the Ghost of Christmas Past, to think "saucy Mae West" in her garb and portrayal.
"Hold onto me, kiddo," Bevin, dressed in a full-length silver gown, says to Scrooge. "It's gonna be a bumpy ride."
Tickets are available for the 3 p.m. Saturday matinee. The cost, which includes dinner, is $25 for adults and $18 for students, children and seniors. Information: 410-734-4320.