THEATER | “A Christmas Carol” at the Guthrie: Superb performances enliven a newly brisk take on the traditional tale

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As we were heading out the door after the Saturday night performance of A Christmas Carol at the Guthrie, my mom and I passed a woman who was saying that she loves the story so much that she reads the book every year—but when it comes to “putting slapstick in classic literature,” she has issues. “Exactly,” said Mom.

Mom is a traditionalist when it comes to Christmas, and while she enjoys attending the Guthrie’s Christmas Carol every year (she reviewed the show for the Daily Planet last year), she’s always said she could do with less of the peanut-gallery humor. Specifically, she was hoping that this year’s condensed adaptation—the production now runs just 90 minutes, with no intermission—would omit the scene where Fezziwig’s roast turkey jumps up off the table and chases the guests around the stage. Does it? Suffice to say that you can’t get everything you wish for at Christmas.

a christmas carol, playing through december 31 at the guthrie theater. for tickets ($29-$70) and information, see guthrietheater.org.

On balance, though, Mom and I agreed that this new production is somewhat of an improvement; the cuts were judicious, and whatever you love most about the Guthrie’s holiday chestnut, chances are it’s still there. It’s been three years since I saw the production, and the treat for me this year was the casting: I can’t imagine anyone who cares about theater passing up a chance to see Richard Ooms (a former Guthrie Scrooge himself, conspicuously having a ball with a few bit parts in this production), Emily Gunyou Halaas (glowing as Scrooge’s niece-in-law), and Steven Epp (Marley, blowing in like an icy wind) on the same stage. Honorable mention goes to Elizabeth Pryce Davies, who gets fewer than ten seconds in the spotlight as Marigold Fezziwig and still manages to win laughter and applause.

Even when playing one of literature’s most famously hateful characters, Peter Michael Goetz seemingly can’t help being lovable. That means that his curmudgeonly scenes play more for comic effect than emotional impact—but that’s fine, since when the harrowing Epp strangles Goetz with his chains and warns him that he’s on the road to perdition, we believe him. Goetz plays Scrooge with admirable modesty, nailing his own role without stealing the show from his costars. If I were assembling a thespian basketball team, I’d want Goetz as point guard—and from the spring in his step as he clicks his heels, I’d wager the 67-year-old actor has a decent jump shot.

A Christmas Carol

The production is a technical marvel, and the elaborate sets are put through their paces this year as the show clips along from one episode to another. (It doesn’t take a whole lot longer than 90 minutes to read the original book; the extra length in previous years’ productions came largely from musical numbers.) Director Gary Gisselman and writer Barbara Field have the supporting characters hover around the main action both to contribute narration and to speed transitions; for the most part they’re unobtrusive, but the show does feel a bit rushed in places. One character plays the violin, and I had the impression he was prepared to use it like the orchestra at the Oscars if any of the lead characters took too long with their speeches.

In my rave review of the Jungle Theater’s Seafarer, I noted that it covers the same emotional territory as A Christmas Carol, but in a fresh way and without romanticizing poverty. That’s true, and I do strongly recommend you see that show, but Dickens’s classic story has been a holiday tradition for longer than Santa’s been fat, and just about everyone who celebrates Christmas has a favored way to get their annual Scrooge fix. (Personally, I’m a partisan of Patrick Stewart’s performance in a now-obscure and otherwise undistinguished TV movie.) If the Guthrie is your tonic of choice, you’re going, no matter what. If you absolutely hate the Guthrie’s traditional take, maybe I’ll see you next weekend at Theatre Arlo’s Golden Girls version. If you’re on the fence, then I’d recommend you get off it and make your way to the Guthrie to enjoy the fine acting in this effective production.

This event is featured in the Daily Planet’s complete guide to holiday theater. Throughout the holiday season, the guide will be updated with links to new Daily Planet reviews—so you know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.