Saturday, November 18, 2023

"A Christmas Carol" at the Guthrie Theater

Despite the freakishly warm late fall weather we're having in mid-November, the #TCTheater holiday* season is in full swing! The Twin Cities Theater Bloggers recently previewed all of the shows in our podcast Twin Cities Theater Chat, in which I said that for me, it just isn't Christmas without the Guthrie's A Christmas Carol. This is my 20th season as a Guthrie season subscriber and my 17th time seeing A Christmas Carol (it's not part of the subscription, so I skipped a few years, but not many). For me, it's as warm, comforting, and familiar as your favorite holiday food that you only have once a year, that immediately puts you in that mood of community, festivity, and fellowship. In their 49th annual production, the Guthrie is using the adaptation by Lavina Jadhwani and new design that debuted in 2021, with a few slight tweaks. Compared to previous adaptations they've used, it's more streamlined, hitting all of the highlights as it moves briskly through this familiar story in under two hours (including intermission). Every element of design and production is stunning and efficient in telling the story, for a gorgeous spectacle that's also brimming with heart and good humor. As I've written about A Christmas Carol in the past, "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." Continue the tradition, or start a new one, at Guthrie Theater now through December 30.

the ghost of Marley (Charity Jones) appears to Scrooge
(Matthew Saldivar, photo by Dan Norman)
You all know the story of A Christmas Carol, it's been adapted umpteen times and ways. So let's get right into what makes this one special. I have to start with this cast, that is chock full of familiar and beloved faces. Sixteen of the 18 cast members are returning from last year, and many of them have been doing this show for decades (I'm looking at you Nat Fuller, and your 34 seasons, including several as Scrooge himself). But the ensemble is even larger than that, with eight adult and six child actors playing multiple unnamed roles and completing the world of the story. Under director Addie Gorlin-Han, who assistant directed with Joseph Haj the last two years (and BTW gave birth a week ago - kudos to the Guthrie for employing women in all phases of motherhood), every actor from the smallest to the largest brings specificity and personality to their roles, filling every moment, even scene transitions, with interesting things to watch. The story flows with momentum, from past to present to future to joyful conclusion, moments of levity balancing out the darkness of the story.

 Scrooge (Matthew Saldivar) with the Ghost of Christmas Present
(Greta Oglesby, photo by Dan Norman)
In 2021 the Guthrie tapped Broadway actor Matthew Saldivar to play Scrooge, and he returns for the third year. His is a younger and more physical Scrooge than we normally see, transforming from downright scary in his curmudgeonliness to literally skipping around the stage with joy at his newfound love of life. He really is a delight to watch as Scrooge watches his life unfold in front of him, and all of the emotion that goes along with it. Most of the rest of the cast are locals and play not only a featured role (or two) but also other townspeople, and share in the narration of the story, seamlessly passing it back and forth like a baton. They include Kurt Kwan descending from the ceiling as the wise Ghost of Christmas past; Greta Oglesby (in her A Christmas Carol debut) as the jolly Ghost of Christmas Present; Andy Frye embodying the scariest Ghost of Christmas Future I've seen, with movement that's somehow graceful and awkward, fast and slow; John Catron as the good clerk Cratchit; Emjoy Gavino as his good wife; Charity Jones (who has previously played Scrooge) in another pants role as the ghost of Marley; Eric Sharp as Scrooge's charming nephew; Paul de Cordova as good old Fezziwig; Summer Hagen, Emily Gunyou Halaas, and China Brickey as the Fezziwig daughters; U of M/Guthrie BFA grad Sebastian Grim as young Scrooge; Stephanie Anne Bertumen as Belle, the one that got away; Olivia Wilusz and Tyler Michaels King as the caroling charity collectors; and the other new-to-the-show actor Isa Condo-Olvera as Scrooge's beloved sister.

Christmas Present (Greta Oglesby) and Scrooge (Matthew Saldivar)
observe the Cratchit family (photo by Dan Norman)
Matt Saunders' set design is stunning, effective, and haunting, and features many moving parts and pieces that separate and combine to create the different locations of the story. Rotating concentric circles bring set pieces on and off (tiny houses, gravestones, streetlamps, and more), and create interest in movement of the actors. A sliding backdrop of London buildings moves to reveal a massive two-story rotating piece that is Scrooge's abode. A huge metal staircase piece is utilized in several different ways including as the deck of a ship, and as always the trap brings up the Cratchit home and other set pieces. Combined with the lighting (designed by Yi Zhao), the effect is a dark Victorian cityscape that is also filled with magic and wonder.

a dancing scene (photo by Dan Norman)
The gorgeous and lush Victorian costumes (designed by Toni-Leslie James) range from rich and deeply colored gowns (with gigantic skirts) and suits with every imaginable detail (top hats!), to the modest garb of the lower classes, to the colorful and fantastical costumes of the ghosts. And while this isn't a musical, there are many moments of music, both as interstitials and of course the Fezziwig party scene. The cast sings beautiful and festive Victorian Christmas carols, either a capella or to a recorded track (with music direction by Mark Hartman). The lovely dancing and movement (including a cool clock formation) leaves you wanting more (choreography by Regina Peluso). In fact this is a rare show that felt too short, I wasn't ready for it to end; it does not overstay its welcome, leaving you satiated but not overstuffed.

I say this every year, but every year it feels like we've never needed this show more. Dickens' message of kindness, generosity, and shared humanity never gets old, and never doesn't need to be heard. God (or the Universe or Nature or whatever you believe in) bless us every one, indeed.

*Read about all of the holiday shows I've seen this year here, and listen to the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers holiday preview episode of our podcast Twin Cities Theater Chat here