Catey Sullivan has been writing about Chicago theater for more than 25 years. She is a contributing writer at Crain's Chicago, Chicago Magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times. She's been published in Playbill, Pioneer Press, the Chicago Tribune and numerous other outlets. She has an MFA from the University of Illinois.
Pictured: Larry Yando. Photo by Liz Lauren.
By Catey Sullivan
Familiarity, so the ancient adage would have us believe, breeds contempt. To which I’d add: Boredom, staleness, and cliches as cheesy as a Very Special Holiday Event on the Hallmark channel. All of which makes the 40th anniversary production of the Goodman Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol” a potentially problematic endeavor.
Arguably the most famous ghost story since the dawn of the printing press, the otherworldly adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge are so well-known, spoilers aren’t even really possible. Fear not the advent of the familiar. Directed by Henry Wishcamper, the Goodman’s staging of “A Christmas Carol” is a joyous, lavishly entertaining celebration of the holiday spirit.
And while it’s decidedly Christmas-centric, this “Christmas Carol” transcends religions. Charles Dickens’ story of redemption is enthralling whether you come to it Christian, Pagan, Atheist or Illuminati. As the quartet of ghostly visitors admonish Scrooge, the business of mankind is kindness. By the time they’ve finished with him, you’ll be inclined to go forth in that spirit.
Wishcamper has directed “Christmas Carol” at least half a dozen times over the past decade, and Larry Yando has played Scrooge at least as often. Somehow, they manage to create it anew. There’s freshness and innovation onstage, as well as a heart as big as the massive vault of stars that encompass Scrooge in one simple yet visually stunning scene.
Part of the show’s overall impact is due to Tom Creamer’s adaptation, which is equally effective whether you’re watching it as a five-year-old or a 105-year-old. It’s true to the spirit and the letter of the original, fully retaining Dickens’ intelligence, humor and richly felt compassion.
Crucially, Creamer doesn’t shy away from the story’s brutal elements. Dickens had much to say about the inhumanity of prisons and workhouses, as well as the brutal struggles endured by the poor. The London of “A Christmas Carol” isn’t a series of Currier and Ives prints – it’s a place where poor children toil under nightmarish conditions in boot-blacking factories or milliner’s shops, and where want and ignorance haunt the very streets.
Scrooge’s cruelty at the top of the show is shocking, vicious and disturbing. The brutality of the world he fosters requires a wake-up call that doesn’t mince words or make nice. When Scrooge’s arrives in the form of Jacob Marley (Joe Foust), the seven-years-dead phantasm is fittingly terrifying. Ditto the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (embodied to towering effect by Breon Arzell).
As character transformations go, Scrooge’s is one of the most complete reversals in literature. Yando makes the evolution both believable and thrilling, a metamorphosis that is intensely detailed physically and vocally. At the start, Scrooge’s very movements are penurious. He scuttles like a crab, squinting through eyes as dead and hard as lumps of coal. Post-ghosts, his entire being becomes generous, radiating warmth and cavorting with the abandon of a joyful child. It’s an exhausting, exhaustive evolution and Yando is all-in.
As for those iconic ghosts, they’re a remarkably distinctive group. Foust’s Marley is the embodiment of the monster that lurks in the closet, a fury of screams and clanking shackles. Molly Brennan makes the Ghost of Christmas Past an acrobatic manic pixie dream girl who would be as at home twinkling on the playa at Burning Man and she is twirling through Dickens’ starry firmament. As the Ghost of Christmas Present, Lisa Gaye Dixon earned a chorus of robust finger snaps for here ferocious condemnation of hypocrisy cloaked in a veil of supposed morality.
Throughout, the design team of “A Christmas Carol” makes the story pop visually and sonically. Set designer Todd Rosenthal’s massive depiction of Scrooge’s home is a tilted masterpiece. The angles in the hulking mansion are off, an effect that gives the entire place a sinister, off-kilter feel. Right down to the foundation, something is deeply wrong here. Fezziwig’s counting house — the business where Scrooge first apprentices and later takes over — is beautifully detailed. Run by Scrooge, it’s a place of desolation and chilblains. Run by Mr. Fezziwig, it’s a place of revelry and raucous joy.
Throughout, composer Andrew Hansen and music director Malcolm Ruhl infuse “A Christmas Carol” with ambiance-intensifying vocals and instrumentals. Watch (or rather, listen) for the Christmas party scene when Cameron Goode and Ariana Burks break into a duet. It’s achingly beautiful, and showcases Richard Woodbury’s effective sound design.
Ruhl’s mini-orchestra (Andrew Coil, Justin Amolsch and Greg Hirte) brings fiddle, brass and percussion to the stage, creating moods that color the atmosphere as sure as Keith Parham’s evocative lighting design (based on the original lighting design of Robert Christen.) Heidi Sue McMath’s Victorian-era costumes are sumptuously detailed, from the sullen, dun-colored shift of the charwoman (Meighan Gerachis) to the cherry-red warmth of Christmas Day party dress donned by Scrooge’s niece Frida (Ali Burch).
“A Christmas Carol” glimmers throughout, sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively and in all, with enough wattage to help power you through the onset of Seasonal Affective Disorder. If you’re not in a holiday frame of mind, “A Christmas Carol” can help. Make merry and indulge.
“A Christmas Carol” runs through December 31st. For more information visit goodmantheatre.org.