Longtime followers of the Guthrie Theater’s Christmas Carol think of the succession of actors playing Ebenezer Scrooge as eras — the way Bond fans think about 007s and the way football fans think about coaches. On the basis of the evidence onstage for opening night, we’re now at the peak of the Cutler Era.
In the Guthrie’s sixth year using its (relatively) new script by Chrispin Whittell, and Cutler’s fifth as Scrooge, the company have this material on lockdown; the cast, many of whom have as many notches as Cutler on their Dickens belts, don’t miss a single opportunity for a laugh and/or a tear. Gratifyingly (and in sharp contrast to this script’s first outing), those are now warm laughs: under the direction of Joe Chvala, this is a show that has truly found its heart.
That’s in large part thanks to Cutler, a spry and impish Scrooge who storms amusingly through the opening scenes with just enough of a twinkle in his eye that his later change of heart feels plausible. There’s still some schtick I could do without — the business about Fezziwig’s amorous daughters, for example, and the unnecessarily expanded character of Merriweather — but that material is handled more smoothly and effectively every year.
Honors for best prancing must go to the invaluable Jay Albright, who plays Fezziwig and a priest; and Tyler Michaels, who actually makes the minor character of Topper — the skeeze who goes around groping everyone at Fred’s party, remember? — a little bit lovable. Tracey Maloney and Joel Liestman are sturdy and charming as the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, respectively (and David Levitz’s half-human, half prop Ghost of Christmas Future remains supremely scary); but Robert O. Berdahl’s histrionic Marley failed to make me forget Steven Epp’s chilling turn in 2009. (Like I said, we Christmas Carol fans have long memories.)
When a Christmas Carol works as well as this, it invites you to marvel at just how durable Charles Dickens’s 1843 novella has proven to be. It’s survived a seemingly stupefying number of traditional retellings, as well as innumerable adaptations (the Ice Cube version hits movie theaters in 2017), not just because it’s a seasonal comfort but because it elegantly fuses a narrative of personal redemption with a call for social responsibility.
200 years after the Industrial Revolution, the division of labor is as vexing as ever; and Dickens’s critique of the dominant stratification ideology cuts just as deeply as his call for honesty and courage in affairs of the heart. The Guthrie has built a juggernaut in its annual holiday production, but it succeeds because for all its elaborate sets and bourgeois trappings, this show knows how to get out of its own way and let a master storyteller work his magic.