By Quinn Rigg
The light of the holiday season is readily dimmed by the dire circumstances we live in—monoliths of commerce loom over the heads of hungry consumers, and chasms of depravity gape in the health of the globe’s social and environmental health.
Times seem more divisive now than ever before; and yet, complications of rapid industrial progress wreaked similar havoc on the social consciousness of the 19th century. Charles Dickens remains pertinent and timeless today by virtue of his admonishments of poverty and inequality in his society. In looking back on these lessons, the Goodman Theatre finds an emotional remedy for the world’s darkness with their production of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Adapted for the stage by Tom Creamer, this production employs heart-rending music (gracefully composed by Andrew Hansen), jaw-dropping production value and emotional candor in order to champion the necessity of kindness in a world made cruel by the bleak machinations of its society. This adaptation is largely faithful to the original Dickens novella, save for the thoughtful gender-bending of Scrooge’s nephew Fred—now niece, Frida, and her husband Abraham. A synopsis of the plot may be found here for those unfamiliar with the classic holiday tale.
Despite this being the 12th iteration of the Goodman’s holiday tradition, the play teems with spontaneity and life. Henry Wishcamper helms this annual holiday spectacle as director—his eye is sharp and his intuition is attuned to the innate humanity of the play. While flying ghosts and twisted mansions and other sparkling spectacles embellish the world of Dickens’ London, it is the pure tender simplicity within Wishcamper’s direction that enamors the heart with this timeless story: the tender dance of a couple’s first meeting, the awkward fumblings of a man alone in his room, the unknowable strength of a family sharing what little they have at a dinner table…
Simplicity and spectacle, silence and symphony—these directorial tools are deftly wielded in Wishcamper’s capable authority. The juxtaposition of these elements create alluring dynamics to the pacing of the play’s action. Wishcamper harnesses curiosity as a means of coercing audiences to surprise. Small, domestic, private gestures build over a period of intentional silence, leading to dramatic discoveries. Underneath the many fantastical elements that captivate awe-stricken gazes lies this production’s unwavering dedication to human relationships.
Scenic design by Todd Rosenthal astonishes with careful detail and spellbinding perspective. Full-scale houses roll on and off stage, shimmering stars illuminate dark curtains and the house of Scrooge himself is twisted and warped with a stunning artistry. Multi-tiered sets are rife with personal flair and decoration, and the spaces provide clever opportunities for surprise spectral entrances.
Rosenthal’s brilliant scenic design is made all the more rich by engrossing sound design by Richard Woodbury and alluring lighting design by Keith Parham. Woodbury places shockingly immersive ambiance into the initially-bleak world of Dickensian London — the magic of the world is made believable by its convincing interaction with the sonic landscape of the space. Parham’s lights are a visual delight, enticing the eyes to gape at the magic of the holidays. Parham and Woodbury together make A Christmas Carol otherworldly in its sensory splendor.
Music direction from Malcolm Ruhl completes the feast of the senses. The tight-knit players symphonically drive the play with harmonious grace and tact. Ruhl leads with his accordion and guitar, joined by the musical talents of horn player Justin Amolsch, violinist Alison Tatum, woodwind player Maddi Ruhl—they are a fierce band of players that become an essential aspect of this production’s storytelling.
A Christmas Carol is made most essential by the humanity of its characters, which is masterfully enriched by a peerless cast of storytelling masters. Larry Yando crafts a refined masterpiece with his portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge. From endearingly awkward fumblings to tragically stubborn tantrums, Yando is wholly and utterly invested in present, spontaneous discovery. Yando passionately brings the miser to life with unmatched artistry.
Alongside Yando’s stunning performance, the ensemble of A Christmas Carol astounds with unparalleled energy. Thomas J. Cox tenderly realizes the role of Bob Cratchit, bringing whole-hearted availability to the lovable impoverished family man. Kareem Bandealy delights as the Narrator and hauntingly chills as Jacob Marley, and his spectral wonder is well matched by the sprightly Molly Brennan, the unforgettable Jasmine Bracey and the multi-talented Breon Arzell as the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, respectively. The entirety of the diverse and invested ensemble—from the smallest child to the most seasoned veterans of the stage—is simple perfection in their thoughtful telling of this story.
In light of distressing news and large shifts in the culture of our society, Dickens’ work is now more essential than ever. Kindness is invaluable, and this production overflows with warmth and tenderness. The innate power of the human spirit burns bright in the midst of towering feats of stagecraft—the senses are dazzled and the heart is melted by rich theatrical design. The Goodman has created a transcendent theatrical experience yet again this holiday season; this production of A Christmas Carol is as vital as it is heartwarming. There is no greater gift to give this holiday than hope.
Goodman Theatre presents “A Christmas Carol” through December 29 at 170 N Dearborn Street, Chicago. More information and tickets may be found here.