Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
I imagine most of you reading this are familiar with the tale set in Victorian-era London. Ebenezer Scrooge is a miscreant man of business who lives only to rake in and count his ever-increasing profits, never using any of it to enrich his own life, let alone to help those in need, including his hardworking clerk, Bob Cratchit. On Christmas Eve, Scrooge spurns an invitation to dine with his nephew Fred, his only living relative, and he rudely casts out solicitors for a community fund to help the needy. Only with an expression of deep resentment does he even grant Cratchit the next day off.
That night, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his late partner, Jacob Marley, with a dire warning for Scrooge to change his miserly ways. Three more spirits call on Scrooge–the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future–giving him the opportunity to revisit his own life and all that the choices he made had cost him, to observe the present in a broader context and to see the future that awaits him if he fails to change.
The current adaptation of the Charles Dickens novella by Lavina Jadhwani is a relatively new take on the classic story. It was the first wholly new production mounted by the Guthrie when the theater reopened in fall 2021 following the pandemic shutdown. This year marks the third season Jadhwani's version takes the stage. The tradition of A Christmas Carol at the Guthrie began in 1975 with Barbara Field's adaptation, which returned annually until 2010, when a new adaptation by Crispin Whittell took its place, returning every season through 2019.
While each adaptation has been winning in its own way, Jadhwani's feels the cleanest, in that it is dedicated to telling the story, and nothing more. Everything essential to the Dickens original is up on stage, and everything up on stage is essential to the delivery of the story and its message. The entire show runs only two hours, including an intermission. This does not mean it is spare or lacks details, for both in the script and in Addie Gorlin-Han's direction (Gorlin-Han rising up to the post after assistant-directing to Joseph Haj for the past two seasons), an abundance of details add insight into characters, and both humor and poignancy abound. For example, the manner in which Scrooge, upon first appearing, moves through a narrow lane between two rows formed by the full cast, cannily depicts the narrow vision by which the man lives. Music is also an important element of A Christmas Carol, with song–and dance, to Regina's Peluso's festive choreography–occurring naturally at two holiday party scenes, and additional choral singing bridging transitions, so that there is never a moment that fails to fully engage the audience.
The cast includes many veterans of past Christmas Carols at the Guthrie, including New York actor Matthew Saldivar making his third appearance as Ebenezer Scrooge. Saldivar makes Scrooge believable as a man who is quite miserable living with his money in a vault but will have it no other way. He does not make a caricature of Scrooge, so that we can accept him as a real, though deeply flawed, human being. We see a growing awareness of where he has gone wrong and what he has missed dawn upon him, step by step, so that when he declares himself a changed man, that too feels believable. His jubilant exhibition of joy when discovering it is not to late to celebrate Christmas, and declaring himself newborn, like a baby, radiates joy from the stage throughout the theater.
The large cast includes some of the Twin Cities' leading theatre talents, and every one hits the mark. Charity Jones (herself a former Scrooge on the same stage) is excellent as Marley's ghost, delivering a message in a manner no one could ignore. Kurt Kwan as the Ghost of Christmas Past, Greta Oglesby as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and Andy Frye as the Ghost of Christmas Future each give distinctive performances. Kwan treads gently with Scrooge's painful memories, Oglesby impatiently tears through Christmas present, and Frye manages to have an indelible presence without saying a word.
John Catron is stirring as gentle and warm-hearted Bob Cratchit, with Emjoy Gavino well matched as Mrs. Cratchit who, unlike her more charitable husband, isn't above raking Scrooge's name over the coals. Eric Sharp brings a reserve of compassion and good will to bear as Fred. Stephanie Anne Bertumen is compelling as Belle, the girl young Scrooge let slip away, while Emily Gunyou Halaas and Summer Hagan sparkle in brief turns as a laundress and charwoman happy to cash in when Scrooge suffers misfortune.
Toni-Leslie James' sumptuous costumes recreated by Emily Tappan, Matt Saunders' inventively realized scenic and projection designs, Yi Zhao's lighting design, and Mikaal Sulaiman's sound design add immeasurably to the richness of this production. The costumes worn by all four of the ghosts are remarkable creations in themselves, while the appearance of a miniature town, the place where Scrooge grew up, as he and the Ghost stand above like time travelers in flight descending upon the past, is truly inspired.
A Christmas Carol is a story of redemption that never grows old. Each year seems to have produced, for this reviewer, knots of unhappiness with the way the world has turned and regrets about my own shortcomings in efforts to counter those woes. Scrooge's journey and his remarkable change of heart offer a glimpse of hope that what Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature" can surface, and that collectively we can move the world toward kindness, stewardship and peace. It is a fiction, to be sure, but the fiction fosters a vision of a possible reality that enables me to ring in the new year with hope anew.
The story is a classic, the acting superb, the creative work sublime, and the spirit that animates the entire enterprise is mightily uplifting. I do enjoy a full range of holiday shows, from solemn to snarky, such as those mentioned at the top of this review and I encourage you to attend them as well. But nothing gets to the essence of Christmas in a more inclusive, open-hearted way than the Guthrie's annual gift of A Christmas Carol.
A Christmas Carol runs through December 30, 2023, at at the Guthrie Theater, Wurtele Thrust Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. For tickets and information, please call 612-377-2224 or visit GuthrieTheater.org.
Playwright: Lavina Jadhwani, adapted from the novella by Charles Dickens; Director: Addie Gorlin-Han, based on the original direction by Joseph Haj; Choreography: Regina Peluso; Composer: Jane Shaw; Music Director: Mark Hartman; Scenic and Projection Design: Matt Saunders; Costume Design: Toni-Leslie James; Costume designs recreated by: Emily Tappan; Lighting Design: Yi Zhao; Sound Design: Mikaal Sulaiman; Dramaturg: Cody Kour; Vocal Coach: Keely Wolter; Intimacy: Doug Scholz-Carlson; Resident Casting: Jennifer Liestman; NYC Casting Consultant: McCorkle Casting, Ltd.; Assistant Director: Emma Y. Lai; Stage Manager: Jason Klusman; Assistant Stage Managers: Rachael Rhodes, Laura Topham.
Cast: Stephanie Anne Bertumen (Belle), China Brickey (third Fezziwig daughter/Fred's wife), John Catron (Bob Cratchit), Isa Condo-Olvera(Fan), Paul de Cordova (Mr. Fezziwig/townsperson), Andy Frye (Belle's husband/Ghost of Christmas Future), Nathaniel Fuller (Old Joe), Emjoy Gavino (Mrs. Cratchit), Sebastian Grimm (Young Scrooge), Emily Gunyou Halaas (second Fezziwig daughter/charwoman), Summer Hagen (first Fezziwig daughter/laundress/poultress), Charity Jones (Marley/townsperson), Kurt Kwan (Ghost of Christmas Past/father), Tyler Michales King (collector/Dick Wilkens), Greta Oglesby (Mrs. Fezziwig/Ghost of Christmas Present), Matthew Saldivar (Ebenezer Scrooge), Eric Sharp (Fred), Olivia Wilusz (collector/mother).