Think you’ve seen enough productions of “A Christmas Carol” to last a lifetime? Don’t be so sure.
The Goodman Theatre in Chicago, which has presented Charles Dickens’s perennial salute to Christmas annually for more than three decades, has a surprise for you.
Adapter Tom Creamer and director William Brown have given us a fresh retelling of the tale with passion, humor and vividly fleshed out characters. Rest assured that the story is true to the author’s 1843 novella, but it is infused with such humanity that its universal message of compassion and generosity shines through like the multiplicity of stars in the Goodman’s magical midnight blue sky.
The first to applaud in this merry and moving production is Larry Yando, now in his third year as Goodman’s Ebenezer Scrooge. He’s not shy about going for a quick laugh, and he uses his mobile face as if it were putty. He resembled nothing so much as a giant Peter Pan, as he relished his ride through the sky with the Ghost of Christmas Past, Alex Weisman, a right jolly young elf if there ever was one.
But the vitality of the program included broader portrayals by other characters as well. Matt Schwader plays Scrooge’s nephew Fred, who is most productions never looses his cool when visiting his uncle’s office. But this year his frustration boils over and he shouts at the nasty old miser. And, like most human beings, he requires a moment to regain his composure.
Most unusual was Jessie Mueller’s interpretation of Belle, Scrooge’s first and only love. In so many productions the young woman is simply sweet and meek. In this, however, she is high spirited. Initially she is one of the most energetic dancers at Mr, Fezziwig’s Christmas Ball. And in the scene several Christmases later when she returns Scrooge’s engagement ring, she speaks to him sternly, her voice edged with more anger and disappointment than the customary sorrow.
And behold — this year’s Tiny Tim, third grader John Francis Babbo, really is a very diminutive lad, who fits easily on the shoulders of his father Bob Cratchit, played with charm and pathos by Ron Rains.
Even the ghosts had some interesting modifications. Christmas Past was played by the aforementioned Weisman, instead of by an older person, and Christmas Present was taken by a gleeful, graceful Penny Walker, instead of by a barrel-chested man. Andy Truschinski was the Ghost of Christmas Future, though you couldn’t see him, as the character was at last four times as tall as the lanky Yando.
Like most of the cast members, however, Truschinski was double cast, so we had a chance to see him as Young Scrooge, the serious and diligent apprentice at Mr. Fezziwig’s.
The show was infused with music, played on stage by Justin Amolsch on French horn, Greg Hirte, on violin and fiddle, Bethany Jorgensen on violin and Malcolm Ruhl on accordion and guitar. There were multiple scenes with carolers, all of whom could carry a tune.
And this year, as we watch the oft-told tale, there is no way to ignore its disturbing relevancy.. Scrooge was a money lender and debtors came to him begging for more time to repay their loans. Dickens wrote this story in 1843, but it sounds a lot like the winter of 2009 to me.