I’ve wondered on occasion why we bother to review this show. Do you not know what you are getting with the Guthrie Theater’s “A Christmas Carol”?
The Guthrie has been using Crispin Whittell’s adaptation for several years now. It is not as rich and estimable as the Barbara Fields version that first opened in 1975, but the bones of Dickens’ redemptive tale are eternal and sturdy.
Too — and I do not intend this as dismissive — the Guthrie’s “Christmas Carol” exists less as a play and more as a holiday event — much like some people treat Christmas Eve services. It is an occasion to revisit a ritual of tradition and memory, an evening each year to gather and feel the rhythms of pageantry, look at the beautiful stage pictures and feel moved.
At the center of director Joe Chvala’s production is a Scrooge that actor J.C. Cutler fills with his generous spirit. Whittell’s script requires a light, comic touch, and Cutler obliges with a wry sense of the character’s foibles. Angela Timberman, as Scrooge’s charwoman Merriweather, consumes her stage time with a natural, dry insolence. Robert O. Berdahl and Tracey Maloney ably dispatch their duties as Christmas spirits of present and past, respectively, and Jay Albright dances into the mirth of Fezziwig with his usual aplomb.
A great “Christmas Carol” should provoke a person to meditate on their capacity for empathy. If this comes across in the Guthrie show, it is in the presence of the Cratchit household — in the sweet, pleading eyes of Kris L. Nelson’s Bob Cratchit and Virginia Burke’s hardscrabble Mrs. Cratchit. That heart also expresses itself in Hugh Kennedy’s Mr. Fred, a character built of dignity and charity.
Chvala’s spectacle is gorgeous. The big dark Victorian village square, designed by Walt Spangler, gives way to Fezziwig’s bright warehouse when the time comes. Mathew J. LeFebvre has costumed the cast with color and flair, and the lighting (Christopher Akerlind) cloaks the staging with specific moods and shades.
Whittell’s script can get tiresome with its wordplay and modern sensibilities. He takes a pass on key scenes that we’ve come to love and often settles for a sitcom laugh.
He gets them, yet does “Christmas Carol” deserve to be no more than an evening’s entertainment? Children will remember the pyrotechnics of Marley’s entrance and the fearsome descent of the Spirit of the Future (which is pretty cool). I would hope they might also have been moved by the blossoming awareness of humanity that changes a bitter man.
I am not sure anything I say will alter your plans for this annual pilgrimage, and there is some comfort in knowing that tradition is stronger than one person’s opinion. Dickens created a beautiful and timeless instrument of transformation with “A Christmas Carol.” I just wish this staging felt more that way.