A CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Goodman Theatre: Classy Holiday Magic, Courtesy of Three Stars
One of the nation's most prominent of the many productions of "A Christmas Carol" that crop up like greenery this time of year is the one at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. Now in its 35th annual outing, it's a warm, thought-provoking and timeless tale of redemption and good will, humanity and universality that, surprisingly , shares with Jonathan Larson's "Rent" an immediate central theme. "No day but today" might very well be a line from Charles Dickens' short 1843 novel of the same name, as pithy and wise as the novel's, and this show's, ending line: "God bless us, everyone."
Popular as a Stage Entertainment from the very beginning, and never out of favor, spawning movies, parodies and a costume look that holiday singers are practically forced to utilize, it's a peculiarity of this title that theaters in the United States do not perform just one adaptation of the book. Many theaters have one of their own scriptwriters adapt a version to their tastes, capabilities and desires. So it went at the Goodman, when their early stagings of the story each holiday season (beginning in 1978) prompted dramaturge Tom Creamer to craft the 1989 script still in use. But, like everywhere else, the Goodman is not producing "'A Christmas Carol' by Tom Creamer, based on the novel by Charles Dickens." No, it's "Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol," adapted by Tom Creamer." Such is star author power!
But no matter. The Goodman is also in possession of formidable star actor power in the form of Larry Yando, the remarkable Chicago stage star who is turning in quite a legendary performance here as Ebenezer Scrooge. Surely an exhausting performance (does he ever leave the stage?), Yando's Scrooge is as mean and pitiful an old miser as you have ever seen, and yet hilarious as well. The gradual unthawing of his heart (not unlike a newer holiday star, the Grinch) is entirely believable here, and his regret and horror at his former self are Shakespearean, if not Greek, in their size and import. In the final scenes, he is giddy and delightful, yet still recognizable as the same man. One is led to believe that Scrooge will indeed spend the rest of his mortal days being kind, thoughtful and generous, but with just a tinge of regret that he couldn't do more, and sooner. Yando cannot be missed in this role.
Almost as impressive a star, but with far less stage time, is Penelope Walker as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Featured in almost as much Goodman advertising as Yando, it's with good reason. Walker is radiant in her red hoop skirt, delirious as she tosses glitter about like so much Halloween candy, and she speaks with tones of deep import as well as motherly welcome. Though she only appears in the first half of Act II, one wishes for more of her. Brava!
Ron Raines, as Scrooge's employee Bob Cratchit, is a noble and dear man, one who seems to be pulling himself up from blue collar roots to bean-counter respectability by sheer force of light-hearted, polite and patient will. Demetrios Troy's Fred, Scrooge's nephew and only living relative, is a handsome, strong presence, noble as well in his perseverance against impossible odds. And his realistic question on Christmas morning, "Uncle, what are you doing here?," prompted a moment of emotion I didn't see coming, as Yando brought tears to his own eyes, and to mine, with the simple stammer, "I came… I came…." I'm tearing up right now as I remember the moment.
Speaking of Christmas morning, I also enjoyed the Turkey Boy of young Oscar Vasquez, who is hilarious and possesses comic timing far beyond his years. In Act I, Elizabeth Ledo is a gamine, Peter Pan-like presence as the Ghost of Christmas Past (with an assist in flying by ZFX, Inc. and with her filtered speaking voice by Richard Woodbury's sound design). Joe Foust is a bumbly yet threatening Ghost of Jacob Marley, and Jordan Brown and Nora Fiffer make an attractive, compelling and complex couple out of Scrooge as a Young Man and his fiancée, Belle. Again, more stage time would have been wonderful, but there's a family-friendly legend to be told! I'm pretty sure the show isn't for the very young, but schoolkids that are warned to pay close attention, in the event that some ghosts show up, will have a magical theatrical time.
The many children in this production acquit themselves very well, indeed, as do the onstage musicians, enhancing the action at the Fezziwig's party and at other key moments of both action and narration (there are a handful of traditional carols, and the original music was composed by Andrew Hanson). As the littlest Cratchit, Matthew Abraham hits his big line out of the ballpark both times, and looks as beatific as one could hope. He also perfectly performs one of the other throat-catching moments in the show, when Scrooge, and the audience, first realize the impact of a crutch and a leg brace on this young boy's daily existence. Abraham slowly crosses the stage to sit in a chair, and all conversation stops, all eyes watch, and not a word needs to be said. It's the kind of moment that only live theater can provide.
Is this a great production? Well, the atmospheric and serviceable set pieces by Todd Rosenthal do seem to take a while to lumber on and off stage, and I could have used an additional backdrop or two. Robert Christen's lights are pretty wonderful, but the build-up to Marley's appearance took too long for my taste. And Heidi Sue McMath's costumes do a lot to bring us into the world of early Victorian London, work which dialect coach Christine Adair's work doesn't quite do with all the actors (there are 27 of them, playing multiple roles, singing and dancing, and bringing a multi-cultural ethos to a very Anglo-Saxon story).
And yet, director Steve Scott, choreographer Susan Hart and music director Malcolm Ruhl have once again done what they have been entrusted to do--bring to vivid theatrical life a story which, if done with integrity and imagination, never fails to engage and audience and teach them a few things, all the while reminding the collective consciousness of why this story is so pervasive in our culture. (Remember the ukulele player named Tiny Tim? Every called a penny-pincher a Scrooge? Ever worn a top hat to a Christmas party? Ever said "Bah, humbug!" to somebody who annoyed you?)
This production is stylish without being splashy, meaningful without being overbearing, and spectacular without being gaudy. It's heartwarming without being manipulative. Nobody pumps cimmamon or pine scents through the air ducts, but you kind of wish they did. Yando, Walker and Dickens triumph, unmistakeably. It's "A Christmas Carol" at the Goodman. Only a Scrooge could resist it.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL runs now through December 29, 2012 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn Street in Chicago's downtown theater district. Tickets ($25-$82) are available online at http://www.goodmantheatre.org/season/A-Christmas-Carol/, by phone at 312.443.3800 or at the box office.
Photos courtesy of the Goodman Theatre