Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of The Empathy Project
At least all is right for the duration of time spent in the company of Ebenezer Scrooge, his relations and associates (past, present, and yet to come), and the three ghosts who bring about an astonishing transformation in this man in the course of The Guthrie Theater's newest rendition of the Charles Dickens holiday classic, A Christmas Carol.
All is right because, after twenty long COVID-swept months, the Guthrie is back with a brand new productionthe recent run of What the Constitution Means to Me was most welcome, but a national tour, not mounted by the Guthrie. When our lives were completely shuttered mid-March 2020, we knew that live theaterwith audiences seated in close quarters and performers working unmaskedwould be among the last things to return. Having a full-bore show up at the Guthrie, which may be seen as the epicenter of the Twin Cities' vibrant theater scene, is cause for celebration! Yes, all is right.
But, let's get to the heart of it. This new production of A Christmas Carol is a rapturously beautiful, heartfelt, totally successful piece of theater that would be heartily applauded in any season. The text by Lavina Jadhwani is a new adaptation of Dickens' much adapted work, that maintains all the bones of this cautionary tale. Here is the dire warning from Scrooge's deceased partner Jacob Marley, followed by three ghosts who spirit Scrooge away on a journey to turning points in his past life, to observe how the kindhearted people he presently disdains think of him, and how things turn out for them and for Scrooge himself in the future.
The plot is unchanged in this retelling of the story. Everything essential is included, and nothing included is less than essential. Jadhwani's sharply focused work draws us in, keeping us on the edge of our seats so as not to miss a single line, a movement, a winkknowing that everything upon the stage is crucial to Scrooge's metamorphosis from misanthrope to altruist. Having different characters speak as narrators at different intervals moves the story forward, but we witness everything required for us to understandand, even more important, believeScrooge's transformation.
Joseph Haj directs the play as a work of continuous, uninterrupted storytelling, scenes melding from one to the next without ever letting go of our rapt attention. The focus is always back to Scrooge, the single-minded purpose of the entire enterprise, to demonstrate the possibility of the heart being reborn. Attention is paid to every detail, little things, sometimes light comic touches, that bring authenticity to the proceedings without calling attention to themselves and away from the story's core.
Full disclosure, I am a sucker for A Christmas Carol. As many times as I have seen it (I have given up counting), it moves me every time. Yet, I feel that this production strikes the chord more deeply, in part due to its sharply drawn focus, and in part due to Matthew Saldivar's formidable performance as Scrooge. Saldivar returns to the Guthrie, where he has appeared in The Royal Family and The Canterbury Tales, after acquiring a raft of credits in New York both on and Off-Broadway. He makes Scrooge's transformation visible in his stance and on his face, especially in the depth of his eyes. We know he is a changed man even before he tells the ghosts that he is.
Saldivar is surrounded by a cast that boasts some of the greatest talents working our stages. I was especially taken by John Catron's turn as Bob Cratchit, tenderhearted but showing that his good heart is the source of his strength and his survival; by Regina Marie Williams as the Ghost of Christmas Present, turning Scrooge's own words back at him like a seasoned prosecutor; Charity Jones, who as acted as Scrooge in the past, now playing Jacob Marley as a fearsome ghost, yet revealing compassion for his former partner, whom he hopes to free of his own wretched fate; and Eric Sharp as Scrooge's nephew Fred, making a rational case for his good cheer while withstanding his uncle's abuse.
Also deserving of mention is Nathaniel Fuller, a 31-year veteran of the Guthrie's A Christmas Carol, including several turns as Scrooge. This time out, Fuller sends a chill as Old Joe, the fence who purchases stolen goods from a pair of amoral charwomen. When acting as a narrator, Fuller emits warmth and reassurance that we will make it through Scrooge's stormy night. Rush Benson does not speak as the Ghost of Christmas Future, but his physical presence is chilling. With a cast that also includes actors of the caliber of Tyler Michaels King, Cat Brindisi, Paul de Cordova, China Brickey, Kurt Kwan, Rajané Katurah, Emjoy Gavino and Eric Sharp, the show holds an embarrassment of riches.
Added to that treasure trove is a stunning set designed by Matt Saunders. A hulking background invokes the staunch townhomes and shops of Victorian London bearing down upon the story. Through the windows in buildings at the rear of the stage we see glimpses of things about to happen up front, a clever merging of text, direction and design. One scene ingeniously creates the sense of Scrooge and a ghost flying above the city, even as neither actor's feet leave the ground.
Toni-Leslie James took time away from her many assignments on Broadway to design glorious costumes, especially giving each of the three ghosts an eye-popping look befitting their nature. Yi Zhao's lighting design establishes night and day, along with tones of fear, regret, nostalgia and joy. Thanks to the sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman, the production sounds as good as it looks.
Jane Shaw's compositions add music that discretely underscores or bridges scenes, while traditional Christmas carols and hymns punctuate garnish the occasion with added holiday spirit. Dance scenes choreographed by Regina Peluso are robust and engaging, particularly at the Fezziwig party, establishing the joy that was once part of Scrooge's life without feeling like a "time out" from the narrative.
Yes, all is right, with the Guthrie lit up again and to deliver this new production of a timeless story. A Christmas Carol offers a message that the world sorely needs right now, and does so quite beautifully, tapping into our desire for a kinder, more generous, more tolerant world. It is a testament to the power of theater to entertain while touching our inner being. It is exactly what we have missed these many months.
A Christmas Carol runs through December 27, 2021, at the Guthrie Theater's Wurtele Thrust Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $15.00 to $134.00, seniors (65+), college students (with ID) - $3.00 - $6.00 off per ticket. Public rush line for unsold seats 15-30 minutes before performance, up to four tickets, $20.00 - $25,00, cash or check only. For tickets and information, call 612-377-2224 or visit GuthrieTheater.org.
Playwright: Lavina Jadhwani, adapted from the novel by Charles Dickens; Director: Joseph Haj; Choreographer: Regina Peluso; Composer: Jane Shaw; Music Director: Mark Hartman; Set Design: Matt Saunders; Costume Design: Toni-Leslie James; Lighting Design: Yi Zhao; Associate Costume Designer: Emily Tappan; Sound Design: Mikaal Sulaiman; Dramaturg: Carla Steen; Voice and Dialect Coach: Jill Walmsley Zager; Intimacy Coach: Doug Scholz-Carlson; Stage Manager: Megan Winters; Assistant Stage Managers: Lyndsey R,. Harter and Nate Stranger; Resident Casting: Jennifer Liestman; NYC Casting Consultant: McCorkle Casting, Ltd.
Cast: Idman Adam (ensemble), Rush Benson (Belle's husband, Ghost of Christmas Future), China Brickey (Fezziwig daughter, Fred's wife), Cat Brindisi (Fezziwig daughter, charwoman), Jon Catron (Bob Cratchit), Paul de Cordova (Mr. Fezziwig, townsperson), Nathaniel Fuller (Old Joe), Emjoy Gavino (Mrs. Cratchit), Isa Guitian (Belle), Summer Hagen (Fezziwig daughter, laundress), Garrett Hildebrandt (ensemble), Charity Jones (townsperson), Rajané Katurah (Fan), Kendall Kent (ensemble), Kurt Kwan (Ghost of Christmas Past, father), Sisloob Lo (ensemble), Clay Man Soo (Young Scrooge), Tyler Michaels King (collector, Dick Wilkins), Xan Mattek (ensemble), Dayna "Dane" Neidich (ensemble), Matthew Saldivar (Ebenezer Scrooge), Eric Sharp (Fred), Regina Marie Williams (Mrs. Fezziwig, Ghost of Christmas Present), Olivia Wilusz (collector, mother).
Young Actors: Two casts of young ensemble members alternate in performances.