One of the English-speaking world's most beloved Christmas holiday traditions, A Christmas Carol has enjoyed countless adaptations and iterations. In Chicago, the Goodman Theatre offers their own contribution, a winning adaptation by Tom Creamer, now celebrating its 40th year.
It's a story many know by heart: Ebenezer Scrooge (Larry Yando) is a misanthropic miser, visiting scorn on anybody who finds joy in the world — especially on Christmas. He mistreats his clerk, Bob Cratchit (Ron E. Rains), disdains his niece Frida (Ali Burch, a change from Dickens's traditional nephew Fred), and has no love to spare for any strangers who cross his path.
One fateful Christmas Eve, Scrooge is visited by four spirits. First, the chain-bound ghost of Scrooge's former partner, Jacob Marley (Joe Foust), arrives to give a dire warning. Next, the Ghost of Christmas Past (the lilting Molly Brennan) escorts Ebenezer through the pivotal Christmases of his memories, including his apprenticeship with the jocular Fezziwig (Jonah D. Winston) and a broken-off engagement to the winsome Belle (Sadieh Rifai). The jolly Ghost of Christmas Present (Lisa Gaye Dixon) comes next, revealing the pleasant familial companionship that Scrooge is missing out on, namely his niece Frida, and Cratchit, whose family radiates gratitude and love despite their hardscrabble lives.
By the time the Ghost of Christmas Future (Breon Arzell, looming and enigmatic) arrives to unveil the time yet to come, the holiday has worked its magic, and Scrooge is a changed man. Yando, now in his 10th year in the role, seems to have such fun in the play's final scenes that it's difficult to keep from grinning. On opening night, when Scrooge shouts happy greetings to the streets of London, one child in the audience hollered back a "Merry Christmas!" of his own.
The large supporting cast, dressed abundantly by Heidi Sue McMath, brings high spirits and merriment to the proceedings. As Cratchit, Rains is a fine foil for Yando's Scrooge, and the scenes with his family tug at the heartstrings. As the youngest Cratchit, the infirm Tiny Tim, Paris Strickland gives a sweetly delicate performance.
Even in its earliest moments the Goodman's production is a sweet confection. Scrooge's snorts and "bah humbugs" are, to many a theatergoer, as ubiquitous as any Christmas song. As such, there aren't many surprises in this production — though the Goodman has added some new digital projections by Keith Parham, which are more distracting than the otherworldliness they're meant to convey. While Foust's Jacob Marley is appropriately frightening for youngsters (with an assist from Richard Woodbury's chilling sound design and great scenic tricks from Todd Rosenthal), the rest of Scrooge's journey seems separated from its roots as a ghost story. Scrooge's transition from loathsome to lovable comes not from fear but excitement, a newfound desire to enjoy every comfort he's missed.
It's said that A Christmas Carol is often a child's first live play, in Chicago and elsewhere. With its dazzling sets, lively music, and highly capable cast, it's hard to think of a more welcoming introduction to the world of theater.
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