I must be careful not to repeat myself. This is the Guthrie’s 40th production of “A Christmas Carol,” and even though we sit in a different building from the one in which this classic was born, we would hope the spirit of the occasion has remained unbroken.
I have come to regard “A Christmas Carol” as an incantation of the season — a repetition of ritual whose aim is to sustain and revive our humanity after exhausting labors. This is a place to share the warmth of others and celebrate the passage of another year. We refresh ourselves through watching the story of a man whose warped life is shattered so that he can become a new and generous host.
The Guthrie, since 2010, has used an adaptation by playwright Crispin Whittell. Joe Chvala returns this year to pump the script full of animated movement and pageantry. Chvala’s roots in dance and his eye for stage imagery create elegance and grace. There certainly are quibbles along the way, but Chvala commands the scope and aroma of this large staging on Walt Spangler’s dark and imposing London set. Mathew J. LeFebvre’s costumes cut the gloom with brilliant color and Victorian fashions.
Whittell and Chvala shift the focus ever-so-slightly, away from a singular vision of Ebenezer Scrooge — the tightfisted miser who terrorizes the less fortunate. Scrooge in this production finds his redemption more clearly in his love for Tiny Tim, the little Cratchit boy with the bum leg. The old man’s leathery and cold heart is pierced by Tim’s plight and in the play’s most-meaningful moment, we see Scrooge kneel before a small child and pledge his righteousness as a protector of the poor. I think there is indeed something about Christmas in all that.
Whittell’s script otherwise relates the story with some twitchy comedy and modern dashes that are dispensable. The eternal beauty of Dickens’ story, though, endures. J.C. Cutler is a small, feisty rooster of a Scrooge. He’s allowed to mug too much, but this is the mood the Guthrie encourages. Nonetheless, Cutler is an actor who can so keenly find an emotional moment. The instant in which we see Scrooge’s transformation is sublime.
Most of the rest of Chvala’s cast has returned from last year. Kris L. Nelson’s Bob Cratchit shows the sturdy persistence, pain and family joy of the underclass. Virginia Burke is the perfect prickly counterpart as his wife, the person who sustains the modest household. Angela Timberman, as always a droll comic presence, is the strung-out dishrag of Merriweather, Scrooge’s charwoman.
New this year are Joel Liestman as the garrulous Ghost of Christmas Present and Bear Brummel as the magnanimous Mr. Fred, Scrooge’s nephew. Robert O. Berdahl, last year’s Christmas Present stays in the spirit world as Jacob Marley — festooned to look much like Christopher Lloyd in “Back to the Future.” Christopher Akerlind’s lighting (and pyrotechnics) ensure that Marley maintains an ominous tone.
The Guthrie’s “A Christmas Carol” is not my favorite holiday theatrical experience (even though it is the greatest spectacle). Yet, any honest patron must recognize the role this event has played in shaping the cultural and artistic life of the Twin Cities. My tastes or your tastes notwithstanding, the Guthrie’s “Christmas Carol” has endured for 40 years (and any proper valedictory must mention Barbara Fields’ adaptation, which started the whole enterprise). It has become the community’s signature artistic holiday event, and that counts for something. It reminds us of this season of transition and reflection, of the dramatic transformation that is possible in every life.