'Carol' is a pithy holiday tradition finely remade

  • Article by: ROHAN PRESTON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 28, 2010 - 5:00 PM

The new "Christmas Carol" is darker, funnier and more contemporary than other versions you may have seen.

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Scrooge speaks to Bob Cratchit and his family.

Photo: Michal Daniel, Photo By Michal Daniel

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Since Joe Dowling secured his legacy in mortar and steel four years ago with the opening of the new Guthrie Theater -- a three-stage testament to his vision and drive -- he has taken on unusual challenges.

The theatrical major mounted the stage a year ago to act, and admirably so, as the title character in Brian Friel's "Faith Healer."

Now Dowling has taken on one of the Twin Cities' gilded holiday traditions: "A Christmas Carol." After 35 years of Barbara Field's adaptation of the Dickens novella, Dowling commissioned playwright Crispin Whittell for an updated "Carol" that he himself has directed.

That new production, which opened Friday in Minneapolis, is darker, funnier and more contemporary than its predecessor. Though it is still set in 1843 London, Dowling's robust, still-gelling production speaks clearly to 21st-century audiences.

"Carol" plays out on Walt Spangler's capacious set with frosted windows and snowy overhangs. It opens with Tiny Tim caught in a winter storm, singing, solo at first, the 16th-century "Coventry Carol." The song is about the biblical story of King Herod ordering the killing of all infant boys in Jerusalem: "Lullay, thou little tiny child."

Pretty soon, the stage swarms with the hurly-burly of 19th-century London (Mathew LeFebvre did the period costumes). They join Tiny Tim in a scene that suggests "Les Misérables."

"Carol," which mixes theatrical styles, is infused with music but is not a musical (not yet, anyway). And, by the end of the evening, Dowling and his team pull off a difficult balancing act by transmitting the essence of the holiday story about Scrooge's conversion from myopic misanthrope to giddy humanitarian while also illuminating its refreshed humor and heart.

In Whittell's adaptation, Scrooge (the outstanding Daniel Gerroll) is still a bucket of bile. He would rather snarl at his employee, Bob Cratchit (Kris Nelson), and nephew, Fred (Noah Putterman), than smile. But unlike past incarnations where he was portrayed as a cartoon relative of, say, the Grinch, this Scrooge is harder to dismiss. In fact, the übermiser often sounds like an acerbic politician running for office (and probably self-financed).

A parade of ghosts help Scrooge see the light: Marley (Lee Mark Nelson), Christmas Past (Kate Eifrig), Christmas Present (Nic Few) and Future.

The production has some awesome flying entrances and many gorgeous moments.

Still, Scrooge's attic bedroom is a bit too remote. And the party scenes, which dragged on in the past, do so again.

Dowling's excellent cast is led by Gerroll, who nimbly inhabits Scrooge's transformation. By his energy alone, he telescopes his characters discovery of a meaningful life.

Other players deliver in smaller roles: Kris Nelson as a shivering Cratchit, cold to the point of dancing; charismatic Few as the Ghost of Christmas Present, a ghost with carbonated presence; porcelain Ghost of Christmas Past Kate Eifrig; Christine Weber as heartbroken, mournful Belle; and Sam Bardwell as silly Topper.

Merriweather, Scrooge's sardonic, tipsy help, gets a delightfully droll embodiment by Angela Timberman.

This character was less prominent in Field's last "Carol," a production that I loved. But I welcome the new energy and sharpness that Dowling, Whittell and the fine cast have brought to this "Carol." They have vividly remade a classic.

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  • A CHRISTMAS CAROL

    What: Adapted from Charles Dickens' novella by Crispin Whittell. Directed by Joe Dowling.

    When: 10:30 a.m. Tue., 10:30 a.m. & 7:30 p.m. Wed., 7:30 p.m. Thu.-Fri., 1 & 7:30 p.m. Sat., 1 & 7 p.m. Sun. Ends Dec. 30.

    Where: Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St. Mpls.

    Tickets: $29-$69. 612-377-2224 or www.guthrietheater.org.

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