A Christmas Carol at the Guthrie Theater an Annual Tradition Still Gets Me in the Holiday Spirit

Photo by Dan Norman

Last night was the opening of the Guthrie Theater’s 48th production of A Christmas Carol. It’s a sign in the Twin cities that the holiday season has begun. 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, some cast changes occur from year to year certainly, but for many years they utilize the same costume, set designs, and script. This year is the second run of their reimagined production using a script by Lavina Jadhwani and Directed by Guthrie Artistic Director Joseph Haj. In its second year, this adaptation featuring much of the same cast, has been tweaked ever so slightly and as a result they have improved upon a good thing. Matthew Saldivar as Scrooge seems to have embraced more of the humor this year and a couple of technical aspects have been adjusted and it has made for a smoother and richer production overall. More than last year I was completely taken with this adaptation, it’s a testament to all involved that a story we know so well can be enjoyed over and over again.

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 adaptation does that is different from some others is introducing earlier in the story Scrooge’s desire to change. Not simply from being 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 afraid of the results should he not change, we see a Scrooge who is seeking change. This shift in focus 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 in his second year as Scrooge finds humor when appropriate but also sells the desire for redemption. The Guthrie always puts together a fine ensemble of actors. Some standouts in this production were John Catron back again 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 who reprises the role of Mrs. Cratchit, 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. Eric Sharp as Scrooge’s nephew Fred wonderfully captures the amiable nature of a man who simply refuses to be offended by his uncles constant rejection. It’s nice to see a cast made up principally of local actors and including area favorites like Regina Marie Williams, Tyler Michaels King, Paul de Cordova, and China Brickey.

One of the greatest successes of this production are on the technical side including set design, lighting, and projection effects. 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. There were a couple of issues I had last year that seem to have been tweaked for this years run. Last year I commented that 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. The blocking seems to have been adjusted to avoid that this year. Secondly, there was a short scene where Scrooge visits a ship out at sea. Last year as I recall there was a large set piece with characters atop it moved in to represent a ship at sea which seemed cumbersome and unnecessarily extravagant, the scene still occurs but the set piece has been removed and the characters simply come forward from an opening in the set. This is a case of less is more, we keep the scene but are not brought out of the moment by what feels like too much for too little, I think this adjustment by director Haj is well made. The scene is still combined with a sea projection which is an effective technique but, as I noted last year, it stayed on far too long after that scene had ended. We were well into the next bit, back on land, and it was 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 feels like something out of a Guillermo del Toro film. It frightened Scrooge onstage and I didn’t feel so brave myself, this is primarily the moment that informs my advice to parents that the production might be to scary for those under ten. The ghost costume must stand ten feet if not more and is a marvel to behold and is impressively worn and controlled by Andy Frye. Though there is no dialogue for the actor it’s as impressive a performance as any on the stage, movements that are otherworldly yet extremely expressive.

The Guthrie has created this tradition of the annual mounting of A Christmas Carol and I like to think of families getting together once a year at the holidays to take the joys of a outing to the theater. I’m not implying that people should see A Christmas Carol at the Guthrie every year, but create that tradition of enjoying live theatre for the holidays. This show is probably too dark and scary for kids under 10, but when the kids get to the appropriate age, introduce them to this MN Staple of ghosts and Christmas spirit. Until then there are plenty of local options like Dr Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas at Children’s Theatre Company and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer at Stages Theatre Company. Then, next year find another show perhaps Penumbra’s Black Nativity, and then another, and well, then probably circle back to A Christmas Carol. There is a reason it’s in it’s 48th year, people come back to it. Partly because it is one of those stories that resonates with all of us.

A Christmas Carol runs through December 31st for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.guthrietheater.org/shows-and-tickets/2022-2023-season/a-christmas-carol/

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