I have endeavored in this Ghostly review to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May A Christmas Carol haunt Chicago theatregoers pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.
Stave One: A Christmas Ghost Story
“Marley was dead to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.”
So begins A Christmas Carol, the classic story of goodness, redemption, and holiday cheer written by Charles Dickens over the course of six hurriedly brilliant weeks in November and early December 1843. In just two weeks, Dicken’s Christmas fever dream had been published and was selling off shelves, to be read aloud by firesides and Christmas trees to rapt families. Soon, the runaway best-seller was adapted for the stage and performed to sold-out audiences. In the course of one holiday season, Dickens had created a new tradition, cherished ever since by readers and audiences alike.
And so begins the Goodman Theatre’s triumphant 46th edition of the theatrical adaptation that has become a Chicago Christmas tradition all its own. Like any great holiday tradition, A Christmas Carol marks the time, summons memories of Christmas’s past, and brings us the familiar warmth of holiday joy and good cheer. But unlike so many dusty Christmas standards, the Goodman’s Carol–with its fine performances, lovely holiday music, and a gorgeously evocative set–feels as timely as ever and ready to welcome one and all to this perfect update on a timeless classic.
Stave Two: The Ghost of A Christmas Carol’s Past
“The happiness he gives is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”
One of the first performances of A Christmas Carol was given by the author himself. Charles Dickens loved to read his Carol on stage, summoning distinctive voices to bring his extraordinary characters to life. In the spirit of this pure celebration in the written word, Larry Yando delights in his Scrooge. Now in his 16th year as the famed miser described by Dickens as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint… secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster”, Yando never misses a moment to be all of this and more. He revels in the worst of Scrooge and rejoices in his best, all the while making clear his love for one of the greatest characters in the history of literature.
Under Jessica Thebus’s skilled direction of Tom Creamer’s faithful adaptation, A Christmas Carol surprises and soars over the foggy streets of London, brought to life by Todd Rosenthal’s astounding set design of Christmas past, present, and future. In a play steeped in tradition, Thebus, like Yando, finds moments within the narrative to bring out and heighten the best of its kindness and generosity. To begin the three visitations, like a beautiful dream, the Ghost of Christmas Past, played to perfection by Lucky Stiff, entices Scrooge from his warm bed into the night sky above London in the first of many memorable moments.
Larry Yando and Lucky Stiff photo by Liz Lauren
Yando is joined on his journey by Goodman Carol veteran Thomas J. Cox as Bob Cratchit, Kareem Bandealy as Marley, Amira Danan as Belle, and Penelope Walker as Mrs. Alice Fezziwig. Cox gives a particularly rich performance as Scrooge’s big-hearted assistant and loving family man, by turns funny and tender, emphatic and caring, and always kind. Bandealy, Danan, and Walker also give strong performances to ground the play, drive the action, and teach Scrooge a lesson or two along the way. And Robert Schleifer’s Mr. Fezziwig is charming and wonderful.
Stave Three: The Ghost of Carol’s Present
“Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam. In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see…”
In the second visitation of the evening, Scrooge is led by Bethany Thomas, the Ghost of Christmas Present, to visit those who would be his friends and family were he to give them a chance. Here, we find the beating heart of the play, with a look inside the homes, relationships, challenges, and the lives of those whom Scrooge has done his best to ignore.
Now in its 46th year, The Goodman’s Christmas Carol tells a timeless story in the style of a lavish feast for the eyes and ears as it moves through Christmas Present. As Scrooge’s niece Frida, Dee Dee Batteast shines as she works to warm her uncle’s heart. Christian Lucas, in his Goodman debut, warms everyone’s hearts as Tiny Tim, along with Susaan Jamshidi, who gives a deep, expressive performance as Mrs. Cratchit. Musicians Delin Ruhl, Malcolm Ruhl, Gregory Hirte, and Hillary Bayley play and act their way across the ghostly visitations and Dickenian dreamscapes, dazzling, enchanting, and spreading joy all the way.
Stave Four: The Last of the Spirits to Haunt the Carol
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”
Led by the Ghost of Christmas Future, played by Daniel José Molina, Scrooge descends into the terror of the tomorrow preordained by his cold heart, the future to be realized if he refuses to change his miserly ways.
Here, the gorgeous streets of London and the warmth of the Dickensian parlors of Christmas Present give way to the frightful graveyard of Christmas Future. And here, the strength of Thebus’s direction, along with the extraordinary costume design by Heidi Sue McMath, stellar and spooky lighting design by Keith Parham, and haunting sound design by Richard Woodbury and Pornchanok Kanchanabanca bring a sense of deep foreboding, as the joyful, clever story sinks into despair, delivering a new sense of depth and meaning and fulfilling the promise of a Christmas “ghost story.”
Stave Five: The End of It
“YES! and the bedpost was his own. The bed was his own, the room was his own. Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in!”
Having learned his lesson, Scrooge sets out to change his future and make up for lost time. The graveyard is gone, and the prize turkey is purchased, Bob Cratchit gets a raise, and Tiny Tim, who doesn’t die, lives to wish everyone a Merry Christmas.
In the celebration of this new beginning, we should mention the excellent performances by the children in the cast, including Amir Henderson, Leighton Tantillo, Viva Boresi, and Rika Nishikawa, who, along with Christian Lucas, lend the Christmas Carol their considerable gifts and joyful spirit.
Dicken’s A Christmas Carol is a holiday tradition in the most profound sense, and for good reason. It reminds us of everything good about the holiday season, everything good within us, and all we might do if we open our hearts to each other and set our minds to living with the Christmas spirit all year round. It’s a blessing that feeds the soul and brings us joy.
And the Goodman’s A Christmas Carol accomplishes the nearly impossible feat of taking a beloved and timeless classic and making it even better. Its beauty brings us in, and its inclusive cast and stunning production elements help us see the possibilities for joy in welcoming those we love, those we know, and those we haven’t yet met into our hearts. It’s a Chicago gift given every year for the past 46 years, and it’s as good and meaningful this year as it has ever been.
A Christmas Carol runs through Sunday, December 31, at The Goodman’s Albert Theatre, 170 N Dearborn Street, Chicago. You can get tickets here. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.