"A CHRISTMAS CAROL"
After 43 years, the Dickens classic still garners standing ovations at the Guthrie
All photos by Dan Norman, courtesy of Guthrie Theater
By Tammy Galvin
I've lived in Minnesota for more decades than I care to admit, and there has been one item on my holiday season bucket list that for some reason or another, I’ve never been able to cross off—seeing “A Christmas Carol” at the Guthrie Theater. This year, in the Guthrie's 43rd production of the show, I finally made it. And let me tell you: There's a reason it's a holiday tradition for the Twin Cities.
Shortly after my family and I took our seats surrounding the impeccably designed Wurtele Thrust Stage, I overheard the patron next to me say to his companion, “We will probably be able to see up her dress from these seats.” Our eyes caught just as he completed this rather odd sentence, and he must have read my confused—and somewhat aghast—expression because his next words of explanation fell out of his mouth at a rather rapid pace. Through his clear embarrassment I gleaned that one of the ghosts of Christmas past, present or future would make its debut from the catwalks directly above our seats.
Turns out this couple had seen many of the previous productions of “A Christmas Carol,” and this rather amusing stranger filled me in on his favorites. It was a most pleasant way to wait for the dimming of lights.
Now I have to be honest. I love Scrooge. I loved him as Bill Murray, as Mr. Magoo, McDuck, Michael Caine (think: Muppets) and even “Ebony” (Vanessa Williams) Scrooge, so one might accuse me of being slightly biased as I write this review. But after a decades-long build-up of anticipation, I would argue that my expectations were exponentially high, if not too high.
Director Laura Keating’s interpretation of the Dickens' classic bounded over those expectations with ease. I’ve never encountered such an expertly performed, delicate balance between levity and sorrow, hope and despair. In the event there is a reader or two who is unfamiliar with the story let me briefly explain.
Ebenezer Scrooge (Nathaniel Fuller), is the central character, a miserly man who despises Christmas. His favorite phrase, “Bah humbug,” spews forth from his decrepit lips anytime he is even remotely in the vicinity of joy. On Christmas Eve, he is visited by four ghosts. Jacob Marley (John Catron), his deceased business partner, appears in shackles to warn Scrooge of the three ghosts that will each come when the clock strikes one. Scrooge relives his past with the Ghost of Christmas Past (Kendall Anne Thompson, who did indeed descend from directly above us), witnesses his present with a look at how his “friends” and one family member celebrate Christmas day with the Ghost of Christmas Present (Ansa Akyea), and visits his bleak future with the Ghost of Christmas Future (Eric Sharp). Spoiler alert: He awakens on Christmas morn a changed man and sets about righting all of his wrongs.
Throughout the performance, it struck me how Keating’s choices combined with spot-on deliveries from the cast turned what can traditionally be a rather sorrowful production into one full of hope, of possibility, of transformation. For example, when Scrooge watches the Christmas of Bob Cratchit, Scrooge's poor employee, Keating shows a tight-knit, joyous family full of love for one another, not the traditional somber, our-tiniest-son-is-about-to-die rendition. Admittedly, it took me a few moments in to realize what was happening: The lightheartedness was overshadowing the sorrow, but it was not completely masking it. It was merely putting it in its proper place.
Other surprises were as clever as they were comical. Take Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig (Jay Albright and Aimee Bryant). They were a brilliant cross between the outlandish Thenardiers from Les Misérables and the sweet, albeit naïve Whoville adults from Dr. Seuss fame.
All of the amazing acting aside, the set design by Walt Spangler was a site to behold. Stunningly authentic cobble-stoned London streets had an almost warm glow from the fake aura emanating from the street lamps, while Scrooge’s house gave off a bone-deep chill.
The best advice I can give after finally seeing “A Christmas Carol” is don’t wait as long as I did. Get the tickets and go this year. Start a new tradition that you can spend the next several decades enjoying with your family. There’s simply no better way to jump start the holiday season.
As for the man sitting next to me, I couldn’t help but ask his opinion as we exited. His reply? “The best one yet.”
For more holiday theater shows, check out our regional theater roundup and our roundup focused exclusively on the Twin Cities' largest stages.