A Christmas Carol
At the Goodman Albert Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago—The Goodman Theatre is celebrating its 40th anniversary of presenting Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” during the holiday season. That means spectators who saw the show as children are now taking their children.
So why has the Goodman production been so successful? The Chicagoland area does not lack for other revivals of the work and there are certainly an abundance of competing Christmas and holiday shows to fit sensibilities from the most traditional to the most cynical. Yet Goodman has withstood the vagaries of fashion to establish its “Christmas Carol” as the preeminent local play of the last two months of each year.
The fine 2018 production is a template for what has sustained “A Christmas Carol” for four decades. First, the Dickens work has been adapted by Tom Creamer into a stage piece that will engage both youngsters and adults. This isn’t a kids vehicle with adults attending as chaperones. Indeed, I saw a recent weeknight performance attended by many more adults than children. Credit Dickens for writing about things that matter, like greed and cruelty toward the less fortunate. The story moralizes, but it moralizes about topics that deserve moralizing.
There are weighty themes in “A Christmas Carol” but they are wrapped in a story that will hold the attention of any audience, young or old. For one thing, it’s one of the great ghost stories in world literature, and the sudden and spooky appearance of the ghost of Jacob Marley in an early scene still delivers a theatrical jolt.
The story also features one of the great characters in literature, the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, a vile old man at the beginning and a warm-hearted and generous patriarch by the final blackout. Who can resist watching an incorrigible character evolve before the audience’s eyes into a new and better person?
More specific to Goodman, the theater has almost stood for the highest production values. The sets may change from time to time but the color and pageantry are a constant, placing us in the colorful Dickens world of the mid 19th century. The play has music from four strolling musicians led by the venerable Malcolm Ruhl, period dancing, much humor, and an agreeable dash of suspense. It’s just a fun show to watch, good enough for people to come back over and over, even though they know the story and much of the dialogue by heart, topped by Tiny Tim’s famous “God bless us, every one.”
Goodman has always paid great attention to casting the Scrooge role and once cast the actor seems to return year after year before handing the baton to a worthy successor. The current Scrooge is Larry Yando, now making his 11th appearance as Ebenezer the Mean. Yando’s interpretation has deepened if my memory serves. His early scenes reveal a man consumed with anger and bitterness. He isn’t just a curmudgeon. Something has been eating at him for years. As the story unfolds, we see how the young Scrooge, bruised by poverty, devotes himself to making money, a hunger that takes over his existence.
That consuming passion to accumulating wealth was boiling for a release and may account for Scrooge’s comparatively sudden conversion to a compassionate senior citizen once he sees the error of his ways. Ebenezer subconsciously wants to be good but it takes a supernatural dream sequence to release him to remake himself into the man he privately always wanted to be.
Most viewers won’t bother themselves trying to psychoanalyze the mean Scrooge. The Goodman staging is satisfying enough with Todd Rosenthal’s sets that wonderful evoke the physical world of early Victorian England. There are more than 20 actors in the show, playing more than 50 parts. Each actor is evocatively outfitted by costume designer Heidi Sue McMath to place us in the world only Dickens could create. Keith Parham’s lighting and Richard Woodbury’s sound design further embellish the marvelous sense of historical place that has always been a glory of the Goodman productions.
Henry Wishcamper returns to direct his sixth Goodman “Christmas Carol.” Wishcamper has cast with a shrewd eye. Diversity is firmly and legitimately established with African American, Hispanic, and Asian performers in key roles, not in a gesture of tokenism but because they are right for their characters.
There are a few familiar names in he ensemble, like Yando and Thomas Cox (as Bob Cratchit, and Kareen Bandealy in multiple roles. But there are numerous quality performances by actors that normally don’t appear on a stage as large as the Goodman. As the young Ebenezer Scrooge, Christopher Sheard sensitively and persuasively shows us the young man who would give birth to the unhappy old miser. As Scrooge’s gentle and beautiful niece, Ali Burch expanded what is normally a cameo role into a person of so much warmth and intelligence she captured my attention whenever she was on stage. Burch’s obvious talent and stage presence suggests there needs to be larger roles in her future, hopefully in Chicagoland theater.
The Goodman “Christmas Carol” has become an important part of the area’s entertainment patrimony. Quality control has never been an issue with any production I’ve attended at Goodman and I’ have seen dozens. This theater clearly takes its responsibilities seriously with presentations that always look and sound fresh. As a result, we are blessed with “A Christmas Carol” that never grows tired or obsolete.
The show gets a rating of
“A Christmas Carol” runs through December 30 at the Goodman Albert Theatre, 170 North Dearborn Street. Most performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 to $119. For information, visit www.goodmantheatre.org or call 312 443 3800.