Review: Goodman Theatre Continues a Fine Holiday Tradition with A Christmas Carol
The Goodman Theatre's 46th annual production of A Christmas Carol is the kickoff to the holiday season in Chicago. The last time I saw it was over 12 years ago and there have been some fun changes and an even more diverse cast. Director Jessica Thebus returns for a fourth year to helm this delightful play. Larry Yando returns for his 16th season as the miserable and miserly Ebenezer Scrooge.
Yando gives the role the perfect amount of gruffness and petulance, adding a comic edge to the performance. He uses facial expressions and physicality as the character evolves from embittered and brittle to a generous man enjoying Christmas with childlike joy. Speaking of joy and good cheer, Thomas J. Cox gives a star turn as Bob Cratchit. Cox gives a merry elfin vibe to Cratchit and still gives a full emotional range to the character. I wanted to cry too when he cried over Tiny Tim's death vision from the Ghost of Christmas Future. I also laughed pretty hard when he was thunderstruck by Scrooge dumping his wallet and telling him to buy lots of coal. He let out a squeal of disbelief and joy at Scrooge's newfound humor and generosity.
One of the things I most look forward to is how the ghosts will be revealed. Kareem Bandealy plays the chain-rattling Marley and it is a spooky performance. Marley's ghost is doomed to walk the earth as a rotting corpse unless Scrooge can change the future. Bandealy pops up out of the bed next to Scrooge and it was much more scary than the usual floating apparition. Lucky Stiff plays the Ghost of Christmas Past as a harlequin-like character. It is a refreshingly different take than the usual angel-haired maiden. The Ghost of Christmas Present is played by the amazing Bethany Thomas, who played Sister Rosetta Tharpe in Marie and Rosetta at Northlight. Thomas has an ethereal quality, taking Scrooge on a starlit journey through the homes of those who embody the spirit of Christmas. The Ghost of Christmas Future is played by Daniel José Molina in a beaked plague mask surrounded by crows. As in other productions, the Ghost of Christmas Future does not speak, but his minions turn a creaking wheel as he cuts a line over a flaming cauldron. In this segment, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come offers Scrooge an opportunity at redemption.
Other Chicago luminaries appear in A Christmas Carol. Tafadzwa Diener brings a gentle exhuberance to Scrooge's sister Fan, Martha Cratchit, and Catherine. She starred in MotherFreakingHood! and brings that inimitable stage presence to A Christmas Carol. Christian Lucas plays Tiny Tim with a cheerful and sweet demeanor. Lucas was in the Lyric Opera production of Factotum and has a great future in theater. Penelope Walker plays the ebullient Mrs. Fezziwig with the same exuberance that she brought to her portrayal as the Ghost of Christmas Present in the Goodman production that I saw back in 2012. Walker also performed in What to Send Up When It Goes Down with Congo Square.
The cast is diverse in many ways, but the one that stood out most for me is the use of sign language for the character of Mr. Fezziwig played by Robert Schleifer who was trained at the National Theater of the Deaf Professional. Sign language was seamlessly integrated into the party scene at Fezziwigs' with everyone joining in on "We Wish You A Merry Christmas."
A Christmas Carol is a story of illusion and magic set in Victorian England. Dickens was always critical of the rich and their excesses at the expense of the poor. It was the era of debtor prisons, orphanages, and workhouses. That was what Scrooge considered "welfare" for the underclass. That world is brought to life by an amazing creative team at Goodman. Todd Rosenthal designed the intricate sets. The Ghost of Christmas Present fills Scrooge's room with holly and ivy before leading him to a gorgeous star-filled night. Scrooge's home is outfitted with fine fabrics and several items that were forfeited when people could not pay their debts. The enormous sets have texture, detail, and a realistic Gothic vibe.
The costume design by Heidi Sue McMath is impeccable. Beautiful fabrics and intricate details are in every costume. The ghost costumes were different than any version of A Christmas Carol that I have seen. The peddlers and crowds on the street are realistic, wearing aprons and fingerless gloves. Puppet designers and creators Jillian Gryzlak and Rachel Anne Healy get a special shout-out on the crows and that Chicago-sized rat roaming the stage. Sound designers Richard Woodbury and Pornchanok Kanchanabanca recreated chains, ethereal screams, and blowing wind.
A fine live band plays on the stage leading into some scenes and during the parties. The musicians play violin, accordion, guitar, and recorder under the musical direction of Malcolm Ruhl with compositions by Andrew Hansen. Goodman Theatre's A Christmas Carol is a must-see for the holiday season. The message of giving and accepting is universal and quite relevant in current times. Go see it and take a friend or the entire family. It is Chicago theater at its best.
Goodman Theatre's A Christmas Carol runs through December 31 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn. Tickets range from $45 to $159 (subject to change). More information can be found at www.GoodmanTheatre.org/Carol.
For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.
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