Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A Strikingly Fresh Christmas Carol

Traditions may be so-called for a reason, but it doesn't mean they can't be freshened up a bit. 


Photo by Dan Norman

It's been a long time since I've attended a production of A Christmas Carol.

As any good Minnesotan I've seen the Guthrie's hallowed production before, of course, a few times. It's *fine* but hasn't ever been a source of much excitement for me. I love the work of Charles Dickens and love the book version, but the Guthrie's piece tended to feel like a fusty old show to me, and in a busy holiday season it hasn't often slid to the top of my list of priorities.

Photo by Dan Norman

This year I figured what the heck; it's been a while, my guy's never seen it, so what do I have to lose? May as well check it out again and see what's up.

Let me tell you friends: this was an excellent decision. Why? Let me tell you.

Photo by Dan Norman

Let's start with Director Lauren Keating. She's making her Guthrie debut on this production and it's a stunner. Smart choices, from a lush set to diverse casting to tightening transitions (the entire production clips in at two hours including intermission - be still my Scroogian heart!), abound throughout this show. I kept hearing the audience mention how different this was - no one could quite put their finger on exactly what sets this Christmas Carol apart from prior renditions, but believe me in that it's a long overdue refresh and one that I found charming. Audiences lucky enough to see Charity Jones debut the first-ever (to my knowledge) female Scrooge in one of only four elite performances she's delivering have my full jealousy; I'd adore to see a woman take on this vaunted role and imbue some fresh meaning into it. Guthrie, here's my plea: consider running the role with a female lead (*coughcough*charityjones*coughcough*) next year? And to anyone who is complaining about a woman playing the part: why can't a woman play a stinge too? We are equal opportunity offenders when it comes to selfishness. Give it a shot, you might be surprised how much you love it.

Photo by Dan Norman

In case you haven't seen one of the myriad movies, plays, or somehow also missed the book, here's the short version of A Christmas Carol: Ebeneezer Scrooge is the embodiment of miserly selfishness. From the pauper's wages he pays his employees to his utter loathing of Christmas and general happiness, Scrooge terrifies and upsets every person he encounters until one Christmas he is visited by his former business partner Jacob Marley's ghost. Marley, who exhibited the same greedy qualities of Scrooge while he was alive, has been doomed to purgatory in the afterlife. Marley warns Scrooge to change his ways before befalling a similar fate and that Scrooge will be visited by three ghosts in the middle of the night: one of Christmas Past, one of Christmas Present, and one of Christmas Future. Through his journeys with these ghosts we learn of the source of Scrooge's horrible personality, see a softer side to the man, and witness a full change of heart. He emerges from the experience a completely changed person and becomes the personification of generosity with everyone he meets.

Photo by Dan Norman

Part of this production's excellence is due to its all-star cast. Nathaniel Fuller returns to the Guthrie for his 80th role, this time as Ebeneezer Scrooge. He's an inspired if predictable choice and perfectly captures the bipolarity of Scrooge's nature. His entrance at the start of the show is downright terrifying, and witnessing the breadth of Fuller's emotional scope is a pleasure. Meghan Kreidler and Kris Nelson serve as Mrs. Cratchitt and Bob Cratchitt, respectively, and they provide a warm contrast to Scrooge's cold heart. Ryan Colbert is perfectly cast as Scrooge's nephew Fred, spreading joie de vivre and compassion throughout his role. Kendall Thompson is marvelous in her Guthrie debut as the Ghost of Christmas Past, with a fiery delivery that lights a new spark to this part. Ansa Akyea is warm as ever as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and John Catron is a terrifying, terrific Jacob Marley.

Photo by Dan Norman

The set, designed by Walt Spangler, may be the most lavish I've seen yet at the big G. No, really: this has it all, from the snow dusted trappings of a 19th centruy London street to Scrooge's dank office to his chilly, spare bedroom. The entire building of Scrooge's home does a full 360 degree rotation (very hard to explain but extremely cool in real life) and an innumerable amount of props and furniture pieces are whisked throughout the show. There are lots of special lighting effects from Christopher Akerlind that lend a ghostly air to the whole production. Mathew LeFebvre's costumes are gorgeous, perfectly suited to each role and especially imaginative in the form of the ghosts. And although he's tucked away at the back of the program, I suspect Assistant Director Tyler Michaels' fingerprints are all over the reasons why this production seems just a little bit different (and a little bit better) from years before.

Photo by Dan Norman

As I was re-watching A Christmas Carol tonight I found myself wishing the story wasn't so intrinsically tied to a single holiday. After all, there are many Ebeneezer Scrooges scattered throughout the world today; I'm willing to bet we all know at least one. It's wonderful to uplift the ideas of love, joy and charity at this time of year, but shouldn't we do that year round too? A Christmas Carol has such a wonderful message of forgiveness, second chances, giving as receiving, valuing love above material goods, and so much more that is always timely to share. I loved seeing this production get a refresh and take a step towards reflecting a diverse, inclusive society on stage. Hats off to Ms. Keating for a stellar directorial debut - please stick around and provide some more amazing work for us here in #tctheater! A Christmas Carol runs at the Guthrie through December 30; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.