You might not get a second chance to make a first impression, but can you at least improve on it?

Scenic designer Matt Saunders hopes so. He created the set for last year's reboot of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," the Guthrie Theater holiday favorite whose in-person return added a sense of normalcy in a time of COVID-19. But because of supply-chain issues, the theater was unable to build the full set as Saunders imagined it, although theatergoers may not have noticed.

Now, for the 48th "Carol" that opens Friday, Scrooge will get to have his redemption in a playing space fully realized. The creative team, including director Joseph Haj and playwright Lavina Jadhwani, also welcome the opportunity to make "Carol" sing in its best key.

"Theater is so ephemeral and transitory, it's exciting to get a second crack at something," Saunders said. "I wanted to create a scenic environment that would allow for Scrooge's journey — a set that could move with him and facilitate his transformation."

The Guthrie started producing "Carol" in the disco era, with a script by the late playwright Barbara Field. The sets and scripts have evolved over the decades, growing the narrative, cast and setting to sometimes unwieldy proportions. At one point, the Guthrie set was like a giant snow globe.

Saunders believes that the set should be neutral.

"I think that 'Christmas Carol,' at its core, is an existential story," Saunders said. "What Joe and I were really interested in was the ability of the scenic environment to expose Scrooge — for it to be able to be stripped to an existential void, then filled again with apparitions and images from the past. It's a ghost story, so the ability for them to appear and disappear quickly was appealing to us."

Cutting away the fat

That impulse to strip away the flab and get to the meat of the story also was front of mind when Haj commissioned a new adaptation from Chicago-based Jadhwani. She relished the opportunity to get some more time with the script.

"I've had a tremendous learning curve through this Guthrie experience," said Jadhwani, who also is a director and had staged "As You Like It" at the Guthrie. "I set out to adapt a canonical text, but with the amount of music and movement in the show, it's like I'm adapting a musical."

The scenes in "Carol" may seem straightforward, but that illusion of simplicity is made possible by complex machinery. On the Wurtele Thrust Stage, the set uses two turntables — one 24 feet in diameter with a 32-foot doughnut — that are nested inside of each other. It also has automated wall panels that are 18 feet tall. All of this has a singular purpose.

"The impulse is to foreground Scrooge's moral journey and journey through time," Saunders said. "In every scene, the set is moving and turning, so you have to rehearse the set as if it were choreography, like a group of dancers."

The most noticeable new element is a huge wrought-iron staircase that is used as a perch for the Fezziwig party scene. That particular feature makes Haj smile. It will enable his directorial ideas to reach their full creative possibilities, he said — including a key triptych that's almost cinematic.

Filmic sequence

The sequence starts in the Cratchit family home as Tiny Tim, in his squeaky voice, begins to sing, "I saw three ships come sailing in, come sailing in." The song is picked up by the whole Cratchit family as the scene pulls out of the home.

As the music continues, the focus turns to a back wall bathed in projected waves. The Ghost of Christmas Present begins to take Scrooge out to sea and we see sailors on a ship. A portion of the new stairs serves as a platform for the sailors, who add to the song.

The Ghost of Christmas Present asks Scrooge, who is contemplative, "What's the matter?" Scrooge responds that he's thinking about his nephew, Fred. The Ghost waves and the turntable brings in Fred's party, where someone is sitting at a piano playing "Three Ships."

"The sweep of that triptych — from Tiny Tim's little voice to this big choral piece — is so beautiful and nods to the idea that people around the world, wherever they are, are celebrating the holiday season each in their own way," Haj said. "The scenic gesture of those stairs allows us to accomplish that much more strongly than we could last year."

Haj added that the completion of the show's artistic vision helps to make "Carol" a gift to the community.

'A Christmas Carol'
Who: Adapted by Lavina Jadhwani. Directed by Joseph Haj.
Where: Guthrie Theater, 818 2nd Av. S., Mpls.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thu.-Fri., 1 & 7:30 p.m. Sat., 1 & 7 p.m. Sun., 6:30 p.m. Tue., 7:30 p.m. next Wed. Ends Dec. 31.
Tickets: $29-$134. 612-377-2224 or