It's a ghost story where the frightful apparitions scare folks not just for entertainment. The spirits that drop from the ceiling amid histrionic pyrotechnics in "A Christmas Carol" are like supernatural therapists, showing Scrooge episodes from his life to have him see the error of his ways — and change his behavior.
"Carol" opened its 45th edition Saturday at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis with good cheer and warm spirits. The stage adaptation of Charles Dickens' 1843 allegory has become the Twin Cities' most beloved holiday tradition, a testament to evocative stagecraft and masterful storytelling through various directors and adaptations.
The play speaks to our desire to grow past shortcomings and blind spots. And it's timely not just at the holidays, when people pause to reflect on their service to humanity. Different themes light up in the narrative each year as the show, like most works of art, become framed by the larger social and political context.
Surehanded director Lauren Keating again takes the reins for this year's production, which is more embracing of the American mosaic. The script, by British playwright Crispin Whittell, has small but potent tweaks that makes this show more contemporary and broadly inclusive. Gone is Scrooge's tipsy charwoman.
The smart female characters that remain have more agency and a desire for knowledge. Scrooge's fiancée Belle (assured and assertive Maya Lagerstam) earns her own money. The party thrown by Fezziwig (Jon Andrew Hegge with joy etched on his face) includes a same-sex couple. The Ghost of Christmas Present (ebullient and witty Ansa Akyea) delivers with a West African accent.
"Carol" looks and feels like today. And yet it remains, at heart, an old story of hope. Even Scrooge, a hateful and narrowminded figure who would rather cast aspersions than blessings — can change.
The action plays out on Walt Spangler's Victorian-era set, well-lit by Christopher Akerlind and suggestive of the base of a snow globe. The production has epic scale and flourishes, especially from the interstitial compositions by Keith Thomas and brief "Les Miserables"-esque choreography from Regina Peluso.
But for all the design elements, this is work delivered at human scale.
Nathaniel Fuller, who alternates with Charity Jones in the headline role, shows that the Scrooge we see as an old man shaking in his Victorian PJs is a child trapped by his traumas.
As he's led by the Ghosts of Christmas Past (porcelain Elizabeth Reese), Present (Akyea) and Future (scarily silent Andy Frye), Fuller's Scrooge carries us along. The spirits help him — and us — see how he became this transactional businessman who abuses people's goodwill.
Fuller sometimes chews his words like a beaver talking through wood. He plays his signature phrase — "bah humbug!"— like piano notes. And, most importantly, he lets us see his transformation from sulky misanthrope to a happy-go-lucky figure skipping along like a youth.
Fuller leads a witty and winsome acting ensemble that features John Catron as chain-bound Jacob Marley, Aimee Bryant as jolly Mrs. Fezziwig, Emily Gunyou-Halaas as emotive Mrs. Dilber, Eric Sharp as big-hearted nephew Fred, Ryan Colbert as Young Scrooge and precious Elsa Dungan-Hawks as Tiny Tim.
The cohesive cast also includes Juan Rivera Lebron as Bob Cratchit, Meghan Kreidler as Mrs. Cratchit, Katie Bradley as Deirdre Fezziwig, Christine Weber as Daisy Fezziwig and Richard S. Rigmaiden IV as Dick Wilkins.
Some years ago the Guthrie ran an ad campaign for "Carol" that played with the name on Scrooge's partner, Marley, as a pun on reggae icon Bob Marley. That reference is apt here in a different way. Keating and her winning cast show that "A Christmas Carol" is a Scrooge's heartfelt and beautiful redemption song.