Good ol’ Ebenezer Scrooge is still crotchety and given to the kind of monosyllabic bleating that makes him sound like a gored ungulate. When his employees and would-be friends greet him with bubbly Christmas cheer, all he can muster is a low-register “baa.” He’s too miserly to add the “humbug.”
But in ways large and small, Scrooge’s story has been thoroughly refreshed in director Lauren Keating’s gorgeous new production of “A Christmas Carol.”
The holiday classic, which opened over the weekend at the Guthrie Theater, is brisk, evocative and totally captivating. From Nathaniel Fuller, masterful in the lead role as Scrooge goes from shriveled-up reserve to expansive delight, to John Catron, whose Jacob Marley is more personable and less stentorian than in the past, this cast goes from strength to strength.
The roster of excellence includes Ryan Colbert’s elegant and good-hearted Fred, Emily Gunyou Halaas’ witty and wry Mrs. Dilber, Kris Nelson’s endlessly grateful Bob Cratchit, Ansa Akyea’s magnanimous Ghost of Christmas Present, Meghan Kreidler’s strong Mrs. Cratchit and Eric Sharp’s humorous Mr. Wimple.
Every year, there’s a buzz around Tiny Tim, the pint-size hobbler whose potential fate brings on the play’s pathos. This year the role is played by heart-stealer Sophie Jones, who moves gingerly on crutches in Walt Spangler’s Victorian snow-globe set before being hoisted aloft in deserving triumph.
Those who are fond of Charles Dickens’ cautionary tale will be comforted by this production. The sturdy essence of the story remains intact, and offers an urgent message in an era of ever more disturbing news.
Those who thrill to the new will also be pleased. Director Keating’s top-to-bottom refresher is cleaner and leaner than in years past while not holding back on epic moments. Some smaller elements have been pared, like Scrooge’s childhood wonder about Ali Baba and Robinson Crusoe, and the story around jolly Mr. Fezziwig (Jay Albright). There’s also a little less wassailing.
Instead, we get a distilled narrative with a laser focus on the redemption of one cold skinflint who, with the aid of some revelatory ghosts, gets converted into a warm, playful humanitarian.
It’s counterintuitive to say while there’s less stuff, we also have more. This “Carol,” employing the same script that Crispin Whittell adapted in 2010, seems grander, in part because of the big crescendos arranged by music director Raymond Berg. And the show’s many arresting elements include a brief moment of immersion as well as some grand entrances. The Ghost of Christmas Past (Kendall A. Thompson) arrives like some secret twin of Glinda’s from “Wicked,” gilded and beneficent.
The one thing this “Carol” has too much of is a quartet of puppet poltergeists that are whisked around by black-clad performers. These ninja ghosts are good, but used to too often.
The truth of the matter is, the Guthrie could coast by doing little tweaks of “Christmas Carol” each year. The show, now in its 43rd year, is a beloved, venerated holiday tradition. Multigenerational families flock to it to get a dramatic reminder of the true meaning of the season.
But under the reinvigorating leadership of artistic director Joseph Haj, the Guthrie has brought new eyes and new energy to hoary things, a freshness and fullness epitomized by Keating’s captivating production.
Scrooge shares a few things with that other holiday hater who’s shunning the Whos in Whoville over at the Children’s Theatre. Like the Grinch, his heart is several sizes too small. He answers requests for help for the less fortunate with questions of his own. Are there no jails and workhouses?
Such coldheartedness is not something that we can look on as part of history.
“You don’t have to follow the news closely to know that this is a story that we need now,” said director Keating. “It’s about healing, redemption and transformation for someone who’s cold and unfeeling. And it’s an opportunity to bring families together.”
Amen to that.