There is probably no greater tradition in Chicago theatre than the Goodman’s annual production of A Christmas Carol, which has been produced every year since 1978 (although 2020’s pandemic production was audio-only). It not only officially ushers in the Christmas season for those fortunate Chicagoans who get to see it, but it is an annual reminder of just how amazing theatre can be. Its impressive performances and utterly spectacular production values transport a Chicago audience in 2021 back to 19th Century London…and show us that, though the specifics of time and technology may have dramatically (pardon the pun) changed, the universal themes of Dickens’ classic tale of redemption are as timeless as ever.
This first post-pandemic production of the show feels like a revelation. I’ve seen the Goodman’s production numerous times since the 80s, the latest being in 2018, and the passion and creativity that director Jessica Thebus has brought to this latest incarnation manages to seep into every scene and every character. (Even veteran Larry Yando, playing Scrooge for the 14th time, finds nuances here that I’ve never noticed before.) From the opening moments, when we see a man warming himself over a small fire before the warmth attracts another, and another, and then dozens as he begins to tell his fellow travelers the story we are seeing, this production feels more personal, more spontaneous, than even past productions have. This is true more in the transitional scenes, where Thebus has much room to play, than in the fully developed scenes that don’t change much from year to year. Even in these, though, there are moments of discovery, as during the scene between young Ebenezer and his joyful sister Fan in which we see through Yando’s subtle reactions how her loss affected Scrooge. Later on, when he stares at a larger-than-life portrait of her at his niece’s Christmas gathering, we can practically see his heart melting. The pain he exhibits reminds us that the main reason he has not attended this gathering before is the fact that he holds Frida (Fred in the original) responsible for his sister’s death in childbirth…which in turn leads to another callback as he very tentatively, almost fearfully, approaches her house in the conclusion.
As you can see in the gender-swapping of Scrooge’s niece, first done here in 2017, this show is not afraid to mess around with that kind of tradition either. The Goodman’s A Christmas Carol has long been known as a touchstone in the world of non-traditional casting, and Thebus manages to extend that legacy with, among other things, a female Fezziwig (who, in a gentle coda, is revealed to be in a lesbian relationship), as well as maintaining another recent tradition, a glorious female Ghost of Christmas Present, now played by Bethany Thomas. And don’t think that the director will fail to make use of Thomas’s powerful singing voice! In fact, there seems to be more singing here than ever, though that could just be a failure of my memory. Still, Thebus knows how much can be revealed in a snippet of song and doesn’t hold back. (And watch out, by the way, for the demon children Ignorance and Want, who crawl out from under Present’s robes in her final moments: with their herky-jerky movements and thousand-mile stares, they are the scariest versions of these characters I’ve ever seen. No wonder they unnerve Scrooge so much.)
The Ghost of Christmas Past, played here by Lucky Stiff, continues to be a kind of ethereal creature who flies over the set like Peter Pan, leading Scrooge on the beginning of his journey. Yando has such fun with this!) Stiff’s Ghost is a kind of angelic overseer (as opposed to the manic pixie played by Molly Brennan in the past), giving a kind of gentility and even gravitas to the role. (I must give a nod at this moment to Costume Designer Heidi Sue McMath, whose reconception of both Ghosts’ costumes is perfect, as is the plague mask—so appropriate now after 2020!—on the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come.)
Speaking of that final Spirit, the scene has never made it more clear that what terrifies Scrooge is not seeing his death, but knowing that he can’t change anything. When he desperately asks why the huge, silent Ghost would show him these things if he is beyond hope, there is a small moment harkening back to Kareem Bandealy’s powerful performance as the ghost of Marley when it is easy to believe that Scrooge is truly unsure of his own fate. His pure giddy joy on Christmas morning when he realizes that he can still change things will bring tears to your eyes as easily as his witnessing the vision of Tiny Tim’s death (though obviously for different reasons).
There is a reason that this story, more than any other save that of the Christ-child himself, has come to symbolize the season of Christmas, and it has nothing to do with soaring, two-story sets, gorgeous dancing, sudden scares, and wonderful lighting effects (though they are all here, to be sure, and very impressive indeed). It is that feeling of being “a child again” reflected in the newly converted Scrooge as well as all of the actual children onstage on whose faces we see the purity of what Christmas ought to be. And it is lovely that Dickens portrays this feeling not with hyperactive gift-opening but through the giving of gifts and love to one another. God bless us, every one, indeed.
A Christmas Carol is now playing at the Goodman Theatre through Dec. 31.