Sunday, November 20, 2016

"A Christmas Carol" at the Guthrie Theater

A rich, greedy, selfish old man with no regard for his fellow human beings, especially those that are different from him, that are suffering, that could benefit from a little kindness. Why is it that the story of Ebeneezer Scrooge seems so familiar? It must be because this is my 11th time seeing The Guthrie Theater's gorgeous, lively, and warm-hearted production of A Christmas Carol. And I never tire of seeing it, because Charles Dickens' story of redemption, community, family, and human kindness never gets old. It's a beautiful and necessary thing to be reminded that "what brings us together is greater than what drives us apart." That it's never too late to change, to grow, to become a kinder and more generous person. In today's current environment when there's so much division among us, so much violence and ugliness, A Christmas Carol shows us how good humanity can be.

the cast of A Christmas Carol (photo by Dan Norman)
The Guthrie has been doing A Christmas Carol for over 40 years, but it's morphed over the years. This year's production is similar to recent years - the same succinct and dynamic adaptation (by Crispin Whittell), the same spectacular sets (by Walt Spangler), the same delicious Ivey-winning costumes (by Mathew J. LeFebvre), and the same energetic and fast-moving choreograpy and direction (by Joe Chvala). Much of the beloved cast returns, but with some new faces that make this cast of over 40 children and adults a decidedly more diverse cat that's more reflective of the community we live in. A change that makes this A Christmas Carol feel more modern and immediate than ever, a change that's necessary in this post-Hamilton world.

This show is really two hours of highlights; there's not a dull moment or a weak spot to be found. But here are a few of the things I love about A Christmas Carol.
  • In his sixth year playing the role, J.C. Cutler is a fantastic Scrooge. Mean and cold in the beginning, softening as he remembers the loves of his past (namely, his sister and one time fiance) and witnesses the lives of people in his present, and finally positively giddy as he realizes he gets a second chance to be a kinder person and make things right.
  • These glorious ghosts can visit me anytime! From Robert O. Berdahl's terrifyingly creepy ghost Marley (and only slightly less terrifying human Marley), to Tracey Maloney's angelic Ghost of Christmas Past, to Joel Liestman's jolly Ghost of Christmas Present. Although on second thought I would not appreciate a visit from the super scary Ghost of Christmas Future (which the playbill tells me was Eric Sharp somewhere under that tattered black hooded robe).
  • There are so many great people in this cast, including Kris L. Nelson as the frazzled clerk Cratchit; Jay Albright and Regina Marie Williams as the delightful Fezziwigs; Summer Hagen, Katie Bradley, and Meghan Kreidler (who's also wonderful as Mrs. Cratchit) as their ditsy daughters; Ryan Colbert as Scrooge's nephew Fred; Ryan Dean Maltz as young Scrooge; Tatiana Williams as his Belle (and Fred's wife); and Tyler Michaels in multiple roles. There's truly an embarrassment of riches on that stage.
  • The set is an incredible feat of technology, with set pieces and people emerging out of several trap doors or flying in from above, the massive rotating Scrooge and Marley complex, and the warm glowing shop windows hinting at what's inside.
  • What must be a hundred or two costumes are all incredibly detailed and period specific, some brightly colored and some drab, some elegant and some plain, some showy and some subtle.
  • The cast sings traditional Christmas carols in a way that's organic to the story - carolers on the streets or friends gathered around the piano at the party - and also provides a nice distraction during scene transitions. And Joe Chvala's trademark foot-stomping hand-slapping choreography is sheer delight in entertainment!
  • With over 40 people on stage, including many adorable and talented kids (Tiny Tim with his sweet little voice gets me every time!), this show is an exercise in controlled and well-choreographed chaos.  It's wonderful to see this big stage filled to the brim with action in every corner, in a way that's somehow not distracting or overwhelming, but rather a feast for the eyes, ears, and heart.
God bless us, every one!
(photo by Dan Norman)
Mostly what I love about A Christmas Carol, and why I (and many people) keep returning year after year, is the feeling of hope, joy, and faith in humanity that it gives me. And it seems the cast, crew, and creative team feel the same, which is probably why so many of them also return year after year. I'll leave you with a few quotes from the playbill, which includes several nice articles about the show and the people behind it.

Nathaniel Fuller (ensemble): "I believe that theater is about illuminating the human condition. And, to me, A Christmas Carol is about what it means to be truly alive. If you shut yourself off from being generous with other people, the way Scrooge does, you lose a huge part of what life can mean."

J.C. Cutler (Scrooge): "If I believe nothing else, I believe in the power of redemption and transformation, and Scrooge is a towering example of that... we keep returning to this story every year because it helps us regain a toehold in gratitude and humility and a connection with every member of the human race. Every one."

Joe Chvala (director/choreographer): "It's a gift to be able to look at how we got here, where we are and what we might change to create a more deliberate and positive future. There is a deep-seated yearning for patient transformation in this story of a frozen man, and then the promise of life springing back from the coldest of places, whether that's a physical landscape or the human heart."

A Christmas Carol continues through December 30.

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