Review: As Chicago’s Holiday Traditions Go, A Christmas Carol is Among the Best

Chicago loves its holiday traditions. From classics like the windows and the Walnut Room all dressed up at Field’s/Macy’s to more contemporary additions like Christkindlmarket in Daley Plaza and ice skating in front of The Bean, there are a million ways to be festive in the Windy City.

A Christmas Carol
Image courtesy of Goodman Theatre

For 41 years, the Goodman Theatre (just a block away from Christkindlmarket) has held court with one of the most enjoyable holiday traditions of them all: their annual production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Now through Sunday, December 30, the classic story of Ebenezer Scrooge and the ghosts who visit him one fateful Christmas Eve is as fresh and fun as it surely was 40-odd years ago, let alone in Dickens’ day. Larry Yando makes his 11th appearance as Scrooge in a show adapted by Tom Creamer and directed by Henry Wishcamper (for the sixth year), and it’s easy to see why cast, crew and audiences alike keep coming back.

The Goodman’s production is as traditional as it gets, and that’s not a bad thing. There are plenty of interpretations of A Christmas Carol, but Wishcamper and crew know to stick to what works, transporting us to 1850s London as soon as the curtain rises. A handful of impeccable set pieces (with just the right hint of whimsy) that fly in (or up or down) from the wings usher the story through Scrooge’s office, his gothic-revival bedroom, the Cratchit home and elsewhere, as the original grumpy old man learns his lessons and wakes up on Christmas morning a changed man. In between, the production hits all the right notes—cheerful, heartfelt, thoughtful, nostalgic—as Scrooge goes on his journey.

Though perfectly appropriate for audiences of all ages (assuming the youngest ones can comport themselves fittingly for the show’s two-hour run time), the production doesn’t scrimp on a few of the story’s darker moments. Marley’s (Kareem Bandealy) ghostly visit to let Scrooge know he’ll be visited by the spirits of Christmas, for example, cuts to the quick with a few visual tricks that make the whole thing a spooky treat. A fun bit with harnesses has the ghost of Christmas Past (the charming Molly Brennan) swooping in and out of the scene to show Scrooge holidays gone by that he’d just as soon forget, and Christmas Present (Jasmine Bracey) is an absolute gift, with an energy that sparkles as much as the glitter she tosses about the stage. The doom and gloom returns in full force for Christmas Future (Breon Arzell), an ominous, stilted giant who, without speaking a word, ensures Scrooge understands the full weight of what’s to come if he doesn’t shape up.

Of course, the heart of the show is in the humble Bob Cratchit (Thomas J. Cox), who fumbles and stumbles around an intimidating Ebenezer, doing his best to stay out of trouble and keep a roof above his brood’s head. Try not to be moved by the scenes at their house, from the sparse holiday meal enjoyed with pure gratitude to the wrenching could-be future that foretells a loss of the dear Tiny Tim (Paris Strickland). And Scrooge’s niece Frida (Ali Burch) is a shining example of self-agency, as she doesn’t for a moment let his bah-humbugs dampen her own Christmas spirit.

By the time he wakes up from his nocturnal adventure, and even though we know exactly how this particular story ends, there’s simply no way not to get swept away in the triumphant nature of it all. There’s dancing and music, laughter and generosity, and one stirring chorus of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” that’ll have you hugging the ones you’re with and spreading Christmas cheer in every direction as you leave the theater with a smile. As holiday traditions in Chicago go, put this one at the top of your list.

A Christmas Carol runs through Sunday, December 30; tickets range from $25 to $119. A full performance schedule and tickets are available online here. Of note, the Goodman will present a sensory-friendly matinee (lower volume, muted effects) on December 29, perfect for little ones who would do well with a more relaxed performance.

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Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone