Guthrie Theater’s “Christmas Carol”: 40 years of figgy pudding

Guthrie Theater’s “Christmas Carol”: 40 years of figgy pudding

The critic Jan Swafford has pointed out that the genius of Bach’s music is apparent in its incorruptibility: arrange his Baroque compositions for jazz choir, Moog synthesizer, or electric guitar and they still compel. Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol has much the same quality, and in this analogy, the Guthrie Theater’s production of the story is like the London Symphony Orchestra playing the Brandenburg Concertos: essentially the original composition, but supersized and polished to a sheen.

This is the Guthrie’s 40th year presenting the show, which means that neither I nor anyone younger than I have ever lived in a world where Minnesotans don’t look forward to the story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s redemption as told on the theater’s signature thrust stage. Some frequent theatergoers dismiss the production as a cash cow, to which my response is: well, yes, the Guthrie is a professional theater company and they sell a lot of tickets by expertly presenting a play that people really want to see. Isn’t that general idea somewhere in the mission statement?

This is the company’s fifth year using the script commissioned from British playwright Crispin Whittell, and they’ve overcome the growing pains that accompanied the new version. Under the direction of Joe Chvala, it’s now a balanced two-act show with about the right amount of each ingredient: pathos, humor, spectacle, cheer. Traditional carols are skillfully interpolated (that’s the name of the game, after all); though Keith Thomas’s original music gets a little heavy-handed, it’s still a nice change from the clunky, show-stopping-in-a-bad-way musical numbers that cluttered the Guthrie’s previous take on the story.

An adaptation is still an adaptation, and everyone will have his or her own little bone to pick with the departures from Dickens’s 1843 novella. My mom misses the line “there’s more gravy than grave about you!”, and it seems wrong to me that Scrooge bumps into his nephew on the street on Christmas morning rather than going, hat in hand, to Fred’s door. There’s also an odd whiff of the pervy in Scrooge’s embrace of Fred’s wife, played by the same actress who portrays Scrooge’s old flame.

Whittell’s biggest departure in what’s largely a fairly faithful adaptation is to inflate the character of Scrooge’s housekeeper—given the name Merriweather—to a major supporting role. Dickens does a lot of the talking in the novel, so I appreciate the need to give Scrooge someone to talk to besides himself if you’re going to forego voice-over narration (presumably Gonzo wasn’t available). Still, Merriweather’s character turns the crucial opening scenes into a sitcom: she’s even more cynical than Scrooge, and more cartoonishly so. Instead of being the tortured soul at the core of the story, Scrooge turns into a sort of Victorian Archie Bunker, grousing in his chair while a human circus parades around him. (The scene with Merriweather and the mistletoe: again with the pervy. Why?)

That said, it’s better to err on the side of playing Scrooge soft rather than playing him hard, and the energetic J.C. Cutler presents a faultless reading of the character. Among the ghosts, I was unimpressed by Robert O. Berdahl’s hipster Marley (he looks like Justin Pierre from Motion City Soundtrack), but the other three deliver: Tracey Maloney strikes the perfect balance of tenderness and reprimand as the Ghost of Christmas Past, as the Ghost of Christmas Present Joel Liestman is jolly (and loose-robed) just as Dickens wrote him, and the Ghost of Christmas Future (Arusi Santesteban) enters in a gloriously terrifying flourish.

As the Cratchits, Kris L. Nelson and Virginia S. Burke are perfect parents; and the young actor who played Tiny Tim on opening night (kids are collectively credited) completely avoided smugness, which is surprisingly rare in portrayals of that plumb-pitiful character. Among supporting characters, though, the show is stolen—as it should be—by Jay Albright as the flamboyantly festive Fezziwig. Albright brings such life to the stage that he even gets chuckles when he returns as an old priest.

As it should be. Yes, this is the Guthrie’s Christmas Carol as it should be, full of warmth and hope. Really, what’s on the stage in this production is less important that what’s in the lobby: my girlfriend and I ran into family, friends, and coworkers who’d come out for the show and were already talking about buying their tickets for next year. A small orchestra of students from Murray Middle School played holiday songs, their tuxedoed band director conducting them with great seriousness. Outside, a light snow fell as the Gold Medal Flour sign reflected off the Guthrie’s chrome windowsills. Even if you didn’t have a merry urchin perched on your shoulder, it was impossible not to feel a little blessed.

Jay Gabler