Review: “A Christmas Carol”

Kareem Bandealy (L) as Jacob Marley’s ghost warns Larry Yando as Ebenezer Scrooge in the classic, “A Christmas Carol,” currently at the Goodman Theater. (Photo by Liz Lauren)

RECOMMENDED

Where: Goodman Theatre
Albert Theatre,
170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through Dec. 30
Tickets: $25-$119
Phone: 312-443-3800

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

I  haven’t seen Goodman Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol” since 2012, but am pleased to report that it remains a welcome holiday entertainment that has even improved with some of the changes.

Henry Wishcamper took over as director of Tom Creamer’s adaptation in 2013, and the most heralded switch for the 40th anniversary last season was the casting of a girl as Tiny Tim for the first time ever. Paris Strickland is back doing a bang-up job this 41st year, with her own story of battling stage three neuroblastoma as an infant adding to her accomplishment.

One of Wishcamper’s most inspired gender innovations a few years ago was transforming Scrooge’s nephew Fred into his niece Frida. As a woman, she’s able to confront and argue with her curmudgeonly uncle more directly and forcefully than a man would be, and Ali Burch takes full advantage of that while still maintaining her gentle good humor. Her presence also subtly reinforces the impact of one of the greatest losses in Scrooge’s life, that of his sister and her mother, Fan (Ariana Burks), who is otherwise dealt with very briefly.

Molly Brennan also is back as the Ghost of Christmas Past and besides admirably acrobatic flying skills, she brings a punk-rock edge to the proceedings, especially in the pink tutu and mismatched everything else by costume designer Heidi Sue McMath. Brennan doubles as the Undertaker who gets beaten by Old Joe (Barbara Robertson) for suggesting she wasn’t paid enough for some of dead Scrooge’s  belongings, while newcomer Jasmine Bracey does double duty as his Charwoman and the Ghost of Christmas Present, and Breon Arzell is both Dick Wilkins and the Ghost of Christmas Future (on daunting stilts).

The Crachit family gets a new head in Thomas J. Cox, who manages to bring real emotional depth to the role of Bob Crachit, the mistreated but loyal clerk and devoted father. Indeed, the entire cast gives its all, starting of course with Larry Yando. Now in his 11th year as Ebenezer Scrooge, he seems to be having the best time ever tweaking the old humbug’s miserly nastiness before his conversion and vanity even after. How much a man as mean and selfish as Scrooge should be a source of humor is open to debate, but there’s no question that Yando’s over-the-top performance delights the audience.

One thing that strikes me is the extent to which “A Christmas Carol” really is a ghost story. The Narrator, Kareem Bandealy, sets it up in the opening stressing repeatedly that Jacob Marley really was dead. Then he’s cannily cast both as Marley’s Ghost and the younger man the young Scrooge (Christopher Sheard) meets at Fezziwig’s.

The special effects, often accompanied by lots of stage fog, are appropriately scary, starting with the lion door knocker morphing into a skull and Marley’s ghost appearing virtually in two places at once. The starry blackness that marks the end of the Ghost of Christmas Present’s reign is breath-taking, though the way Want and Ignorance appear could be handled better. The hooded Ghost of Christmas Future is commanding, even if I miss the appearance of Scrooge’s name on the tombstone.

Much credit for these effects and the staging goes to set designer Todd Rosenthal, whose roll-on rendition of Scrooge’s abode is especially spooky, as well as to lighting designer Keith Parham, sound designer Richard Woodbury, and costume designer McMath. Andrew Hansen composed the music, which tends to be dark and foreboding except at the end, and it is ably performed on stage by Justin Amolsch (French horn), Andrew Coil (guitar, violin), Maddi Ruhl (flute, recorder, piccolo), and Malcolm Ruhl (concertina, accordion, guitar), who also is the musical director. Tommy Rapley choreographed the dances, but the ensemble doesn’t seem to have quite enough room on stage to do them justice.

If, like me, you haven’t seen “A Christmas Carol” in some years, try to make this the year you do. The story actually is pretty dark—including the unfortunately timely socio-political commentary—but the ending is uplifting. And we could all use some of that nowadays.