“God bless us, every one” may be Tiny Tim’s best-known quip from Charles Dickens’ classic holiday tale, but a 16th century Yuletide hymn provides the refrain that should thaw even a Scroogish heart not quite ready for the holiday season.
Christmas carols are the guiding stars of the Guthrie Theater’s ever-popular “A Christmas Carol,” which opened Friday for a 42nd anniversary run that extends nearly from Veterans Day to New Year’s. This is the seventh year for this particular adaptation, which opens with Tiny Tim (7-year-old Sander Huynh-Weiss) in a spotlight on the darkened stage, softly crooning “Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child. Bye bye, lully, lullay.”
It’s a fitting start for a “Carol” that, in its finest moments, seeks to be subtly simple and advance the story through music and movement. British playwright Crispin Whittell wrote the script, directed as always by Joe Chvala, leader of the local percussive dance troupe Flying Foot Forum. Although not billed as a musical, Morris dancing and English country revelry liven up the party scenes, and less-familiar contemplative carols — songs like “Gabriel’s Message” and “Holly and the Ivy” — are beautifully sung by the cast.
It’s when the Wurtele Thrust stage’s sound system is used for Keith Thomas’ prerecorded symphonic music that audience members have minor cause to say humbug. There’s nothing like a canned crescendo and a blast of fake fog to remind you that this “Christmas Carol” is aimed at folks who also love seeing “Polar Express” at the Imax. The contrast between these dueling aesthetics — one full of populist bells and whistles and one harboring more intimate pleasures — is as obvious as Scrooge’s overnight transformation.
High/low dramatic tensions are inherent around the holidays, as large nonprofit theaters like the Guthrie aim to bring in audiences who might otherwise opt for the multiplexes. Performances from the 40-member cast are mostly strong, but a few feel like overdone caricatures of the Scrooges, ghosts and Cratchits of “Christmas Carols” past. The Ghost of Christmas Past herself (Tracey Maloney) is a bit too frosty and wooden, like the glowing branches extending from her crown. She could be more graceful and therefore more ethereal, particularly given the deft movement exhibited throughout the show. The Ghost of Christmas Present (Joel Liestman), conversely, is an unsurprising Bacchus.
But the cast of characters those two ghosts escort Scrooge (J.C. Cutler, a bit perfunctory) to visit are richly varied, especially at the party thrown by Old Fezziwig, boss to young Ebenezer and his pal Dick Wilkins (Tyler Michaels). Jay Albright plays Fezziwig as a jolly, dancing cherub; Regina Marie Williams is his mistletoe-crazed wife. Their robust depictions are on point with Dickens’ own descriptions. “She was worthy to be his partner in every sense of the term. If that’s not high praise, tell me higher, and I’ll use it. A positive light appeared to issue from Fezziwig’s calves. They shone in every part of the dance like moons.” And indeed, Albright is impressively nimble while leading a quadrille.
Dickens wrote that the third ghost, that of Christmas Yet to Come, is “a phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground.” In the Guthrie’s production, it actually descends from the rafters in noisy clouds of fog, overly long arms extended like vulture wings. “Release the Kraken!” would be the appropriate meme.
If the scene seems too over-the-top for grown-ups, glance around the theater for a wide-eyed child who may be seeing live theater for the first time. On opening night, two such girls clutched each other as the phantom made his descent. Perhaps adults who spend as much time in theaters as Scrooge spends in his counting house need a suspend-reality check.
Thankfully, once that J.K. Rowling-worthy phantom returns from whence he came, the Guthrie’s “Carol” ends with another round of carols and country dance. That angelic, singing Tiny Tim has another moment in the spotlight. Scrooge has been redeemed, and so has the play’s moments of cinematic silliness.