The Goodman Theatre has presented “A Christmas Carol” every year since I was learning long division in parochial school, but I had never seen it. I’m not sure why. I love Charles Dickens in general and “A Christmas Carol” in particular—I’ve seen dozens of screen versions and even played the charwoman in a community theater show.
I figured the Goodman’s holiday cash cow didn’t need me—it already had crowds coming in from all over the city and the suburbs, dressed in red and green and posing for pictures in front of the lobby Christmas tree. I also felt, Scrooge-like, that I didn’t need this common fare—I was busy going to SERIOUS theater, seeing Shakespeare and opera and friends-of-friends’ experimental plays in underheated storefronts. “A Christmas Carol” is for tourists and their grandkids, not me. Humbug.
You can guess what happens here—of course the Goodman’s “Christmas Carol,” directed by Jessica Thebus, won me over completely, and now I’m going to wear one of those buttons showing the number of times I’ve seen it. So what if it’s a cash cow? Chicago theater needs cash cows right now, and this is a marvelous one, filled with wonderful acting and music, sensational sets and stagecraft, and the joy of storytelling.
One of the best parts of the Goodman’s version is the narrator, played by Andrew White. By having a stand-in for the author, we get some of the best lines from the book (“I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade,” etcetera)—without having to put them weirdly into the mouths of characters. White and a troupe of musicians—Hillary Bayley, Delin Ruhl, Malcolm Ruhl and Gregory Hirte—establish that this is a story, created in front of us. White throws a handful of snow, and suddenly snow falls all over the stage. And White makes his lines so fresh, it’s as though he is improvising them on the spot.
Another great strength is Larry Yando as Scrooge. In his sixteenth year in this role, Yando doesn’t make the mistake that some Scrooges make of being converted to niceness too soon—softening with the appearance of the first ghost. Yando’s Scrooge enjoys being Scrooge. He has fun torturing poor Bob Cratchit (a winsome, jittery Thomas J. Cox) and telling his niece Frida (a female version of Fred, gracefully played by Dee Dee Batteast) that every idiot going about with a Merry Christmas on his lips should be “boiled with his own pudding.” Yando’s Scrooge likes being the smartest guy in the room, not being fooled by seasonal pieties. This is also true of Daniel José Molina as the young Scrooge—newly enamored of gold. Scrooge is a tough nut to crack—even after his conversion, it still takes Yando a few painful seconds to agree to tip the “turkey child” (Amir Henderson) a half crown.
So the ghosts have a lot of work to do. Fortunately, these are some of the ablest ghosts you’ll see in “A Christmas Carol.” They’re modeled after elements of the natural world—Lucky Stiff plays an ethereal, flying Ghost of Christmas Past, sparkling with starlight, wearing a glowing moon on their head. Bethany Thomas as the Ghost of Christmas Present (also the charwoman) is literally covered with holly and ivy, while Molina as Christmas Future is a terrifying crow, snipping the strings of mortal lives and casting them into the fire. The ghosts lack the sentimentality of some Christmas Carol ghosts—they’re muscular angels, ready to battle for Scrooge’s soul.
Other standouts in this production are Susaan Jamshidi as a no-nonsense Mrs. Cratchit, all the Cratchit children (including a charming Christian Lucas as Tiny Tim), and Robert Schleifer as Mr. Fezziwig, who performs his role in sign language, while Mark Bedard speaks his lines. This adds to the expansiveness of Fezziwig—a man so full of goodwill he needs two languages to convey it.
So, you theater sophisticates, don’t be afraid of “A Christmas Carol.” This story has remained popular for 180 years because Scrooge is all of us, hurt by the world, trying hard to be tougher than we really are. Sometimes, we need to lower our defenses and remember the happier side of being human. This play will help.
“A Christmas Carol” is at Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, through December 31. Tickets available at goodmantheatre.org.