If you’ve lived in the Twin Cities for a decade or more it’s likely you’ve seen one of the Guthrie Theaters annual productions of A Christmas Carol. It’s sort of a MN tradition, like Lefse at Thanksgiving. If you are new to town and haven’t gone yet, don’t worry you will, it’s as inevitable as taxes and the Vikings not going to the Super Bowl. Every production is different of course, casts change from year to year certainly, but for many years they utilize the same costume, set designs, and script. This year for the first time since 2010 they have completely reimagined the production. Using a new script by Lavina Jadhwani and Directed by Guthrie Artistic Director Joseph Haj, they have once again breathed fresh life into Dicken’s classic ghost story of Christmas. I like that The Guthrie has created this tradition. I like to think of families getting together once a year at the holidays to take in a live show every year, theatre as a tradition. I’m not implying that people should see A Christmas Carol at the Guthrie every year, but create that tradition. This show is probably too dark and scary for kids under 12, but there are plenty of other shows, Annie at the Children’s Theatre Company is perfect for them. When the kids get to the age of 12, introduce them to this MN Staple of Christmas. The next year find another show perhaps Penumbra’s Black Nativity, and then another, and then, well then probably circle back to A Christmas Carol. There is a reason it’s in it’s 47th year, people come back to it. Partly because it is one of those stories that resonates with all of us. The other reason is that every so often, this year being one of those times, they refresh the show from top to bottom. This reimaging is a welcome change and shows the story in a new way.
A Christmas Carol was first published as a Novella in 1843, in 1844 the first stage adaptations appeared. It tells the story of a miserly old business man Ebenezer Scrooge, who is visited on Christmas Eve by three ghosts sent by his old business partner Jacob Marley. The Ghosts are spirits of different times. The first is the Ghost of Christmas Past and shows him scenes from his past. Second the Ghost of Christmas Present, which gives him a look into the lives of those celebrating Christmas that year, including his nephew Fred, and the family of his clerk, Bob Cratchit. Lastly the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, wherein he sees his own future and people’s responses to it. The point of these visitations sent to Scrooge by Marley is so that he might learn the error of his ways and change while there is still time. Scrooge of course comes to realize how he changed over time and of the fruitlessness of such a selfish existence. By the end of the play he has found the spirit of Christmas and no longers thinks of it as a humbug. What this new adaptation does that is different from its predecessor is early on Scrooge’s desire to change. Not simply from be frightened by the ghosts, but we sense very quickly he has seen the errors of his ways and is trying to find the path to redemption. Rather than being frightened not to change, we see a Scrooge who is seeking change. This shift in focus is a real change from previous versions, it doesn’t alter the plot but it does make Scrooge more of an active participant in his own redemption. It is a positive message and fits well with Dickens themes and message.
Matthew Saldivar as Scrooge gives a good performance, he finds humor when appropriate but also sells the desire for redemption. His Scrooge did strike me as too young. This Scrooge struck me as decidedly late middle age, which wouldn’t seem odd, if it wasn’t such a familiar character and one that we usually associated as being a bit older. I don’t know if this was a choice to play him younger or if they missed the mark in capturing the age they were going for. The Guthrie always puts together a fine ensemble of actors. Some standouts in this production were John Catron as Bob Cratchit, whose embodiment of the glass is always half full philosophy felt like a sincere representation of a deeply good person rather than a fool who doesn’t realize how badly off he is. Also Emjoy Gavino as his wife, who is not quite as charitable as Bob, but won over as we are by his unwavering goodness. They play a very well matched couple and their banter rings true. Charity Jones as the Ghost of Jacob Marley is a performance that felt rather fresh, it wasn’t the usual slow talking moaning ghost, there was a little more there and that definitely worked well and marked this as a fresh take on the material. It was also nice to see some local favorites in the cast like Regina Marie Williams and Tyler Michaels King.
Aside from the script changes the biggest alterations are on the technical side including a new set design, lighting, and projection effects. For the most part I found all of the new elements worked really well. I like the set design, this old London cityscape that seems to tower over the characters. Shifting into different configurations so that new elements can be brought forward or rotated to reveal a new environment. While much of it as I say works there were a couple of things that didn’t. First off, the scenery has windows that can be seen through, on a couple of occasions I was distracted by seeing characters I shouldn’t moving behind the scenery. Secondly, and I suspect this was more of a technical glitch but the clock face flickered at one point during the show in a way that did not look intended. Lastly, was a short scene where Scrooge visits a ship out at sea. Firstly, it felt unnecessary, like a cool set piece with a cool projection effect included because they could create this cool effect. Secondly, in terms of the sea projection it is an effective technique but it stayed on far too long after that scene had ended. We were into the next bit, back on land, and it will still running. Another very well executed technical aspect was the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. The Costume Designer Toni-Leslie James has created a costume that frightened Scrooge onstage and I didn’t feel so brave myself. It is a marvel and though there is no dialogue for Rush Benson the actor in the costume, wearing and controlling it took talent and it is done very well.
A Christmas Carol plays through December 27th at the Guthrie Theater in Downtown Minneapolis for more information and to purchase tickets got to https://www.guthrietheater.org/