Photo by Liz Lauren
When you know that a production is in its 45th year and that the same actor has played the lead now for fifteen of them, you might be forgiven if you expect things to be a bit stale. In the case of the Goodman Theatre’s annual production of A Christmas Carol, though, you couldn’t possibly be more wrong. I’ve seen it about ten times over the years, and every single time it is as fresh, meaningful, and beautiful as it has always been.
That’s not to say that things don’t change. Larry Yando’s outstanding performance as Scrooge somehow manages to become more nuanced and entertaining every year. (It’s the little things, like his childlike enthusiasm as the “reformed” Scrooge, or the deep darkness he brings to the early scenes with the uglier Scrooge, or the pained look on his face as he begins to realize what he has done to his own life.) But what has really changed is what the different directors have brought to the play.
The current director, Jessica Thebus, is in her second year, and the changes she has implemented since she took over almost universally are about making Dickens’ vivid language and descriptions even more exquisite while creating a more poetic and contemplative mood overall. You know it the second the play opens, as a young girl (Rika Nishikawa) sings a Ukrainian carol from a window (in a nod to that country’s current strife). Goodman’s play has always featured a heavy dose of music, but under Thebus that music feels more powerful and pointed. After that lovely opening, our narrator (Andrew White) begins telling the story to a group of gathered children, a conceit that continues as the show goes on and is a constant reminder of the critical importance of story.
The most notable additions, though, come later, when we watch what Scrooge sees (per Dickens’ descriptions) as he travels through his life with the various ghosts. Through a fog, we see homes, boats, and other scenes as he passes them by; they appear on little carts being pulled across the stage in the darness. It’s a mystical, magical visualization of a story that already strongly features the supernatural, and it adds to the moodiness of the moment. (Another interpolation, a strange and intrusive deer whose front legs are crutch-like appendages, does not fare quite as well: it wants to be a kind of nature image, but honestly it just seems weird.)
Multicultural casting has long been part of this show (even before it became the norm for other productions here and elsewhere), and Thebus once again expands the story’s universality with a lesbian Fezziwig, a gender-crossed Fred (now Frida), and even a Black actor (Jalen Smith) playing young Scrooge. (These specific changes were present in last year’s production as well—Frida since 2017—but in our current polarized political environment I think they need to be mentioned.)
And of course the music is not limited to a single song at the beginning. A four-part band (Justin Amolsch, Delin Ruhl, Malcolm Ruhl, and Gregory Hirte) are onstage for much of the play adding to the merriment and mood and taking on the roles of random Londoners. Several other actors, including Bethany Thomas as the Ghost of Christmas Present, pause the action to present powerful holiday music, but the musical high point remains the Fezziwig Christmas party; with the band at its excited best and nearly the entire cast dancing and enjoying themselves, this is easily the play’s centerpiece. It is also the place where Yando’s Scrooge realizes how easy it would have been to live his life in a way that would have brightened others’.
One cannot sing this show’s many praises without mentioning its stunning technical side. Though for the most part Todd Rosenthal’s wonderful set hasn’t changed much, newer introductions like the carts in the fog and Thomas’s second-act opening appearance in a Scrooge bedroom absolutely covered with ivy, continue to make what has been great even more so. (Shoutout to whoever came up with the notion of having a single sprig of pine on Scrooge’s bedroom chair. Tiny things have big impacts.) And Heidi Sue McMath’s costumes are perfect as well; the Ghost of Christmas Past is simply stunning. (Speaking of this Ghost, Lucky Stiff’s serene and angelic interpretation—while hanging in the air on wires or flying—is one of the unsung delights of the whole production.) Keith Parham’s lighting and Richard Woodbury’s sound make everything brighter (or creepier, depending on the scene). That cart scene and the Ghost of Christmas Future scene are absolutely compelling, as is the Marley’s ghost scene, in which Woodbury really goes to town.
Other acting standouts include Thomas J. Cox, whose Bob Cratchit undergoes more emotional swings than even Scrooge and has to handle them more subtlely than the larger-than-life lead, Susaan Jamshidi as his attentive and loving wife, Dee Dee Batteast as the ever-smiling Frida, and Kareem Bandealy as Marley’s very demanding Ghost. But it is the entire ensemble, under Thebus’s inspired direction, who are responsible for making this show what it is: the quintessential theatrical production of A Christmas Carol and a show that will easily fill you with enough warmth to get you through Chicago’s winter.
A Christmas Carol is presented by Goodman Theatre (170 N. Dearborn, Chicago). Tickets are available from goodmantheatre.org or at 312-443-3800; the show plays through Dec 31. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.