Chicago Theater Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL (Goodman Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on November 28, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


christmas-carol-at-the-goodman-4-777x1024Goodman Theater’s holiday happening has now reached the age of 39 (which, of course, is where Jack Benny stayed the rest of his life). A very annual treat, A Christmas Carol (a play, not a song) is envied by Chicago theaters as the cash cow they would love to milk. And in 2016 a mean Ebenezer Scrooge and his nasty partner Jacob Marley have a not so silent partner named Donald Trump (at least as a dark presence validating this cautionary tale from 1843).

With every traditional edition, including this omni-competent staging by Henry Wishcamper from Tom Creamer’s faithful adaptation, the same perplexing problem arises: The show’s style separates it from the spirit of its source. At the risk of repetition, there is nothing comically cute or cranky about Charles Dickens’s miserable miser. The author, his Victorian readers, and most pre-Goodman stage adaptations agreed in fearing Ebenezer Scrooge as a modern-day Bogeyman, a grasping, greedy, party-pooping, joy-killing misanthrope, selfish, lonely, cold-hearted, and not very nice. He is a blight, a fright, and not a delight.


But from the show’s start, smugly complacent audience members condescendingly chuckle, titter and giggle at rascally Mr. Scrooge, as if to reassure children that the old skinflint really means no harm.

So how did this 19th century Grinch become a twinkling, gibbering cartoon of a grumpy geezer who just loves scaring street urchins, denying alms for the poor, refusing his nephew Fred’s holiday invitations (this year transformed into his niece Frida), and, despite the income he gets from usury, living on little and dining on scraps?


Alas, Larry Yando’s curmudgeonly, cantankerous Ebenezer, with his flagrantly hammy double takes, is no threat to anything but Dickens’s intent.

Scrooge’s eleventh-hour redemption, of course, is the transfiguring work of four spirits. Opening his eyes and finally his heart to cruelties and iniquities which Ebenezer too long accepted, like Tiny Tim’s crippled legs, they visit him all in one night to show him how good deeds are paid forward. Exposing fatal turning points (i.e., lost opportunities) in his past, they hold out hope for reform—for us as much as Scrooge.  (Interestingly, in the original serial version Marley says it will take three night; Dickens forgot to retrofit the error when he finally made it all transpire on Christmas Eve.)


But Scrooge’s salvation should never seem a certainty. More than just being exasperated by not getting a full night’s sleep (as Yando mostly depicts him), he must seem chagrined by guilt and driven by desperation to stand for more than the tombstone unearthed by the Ghost of Christmas Future (which this year didn’t even have Scrooge’s name on it).


But in Goodman’s gorgeously mounted, unshakably revered production you won’t find any rude reminders that Ebenezer could ever be us. By the end he’s older but not necessarily wiser, behaving like a baby as if regressing—and what could be more selfish than that?


Worse, Ebenezer remains a tintype frozen in the past, a Madame Tussaud automaton who growls on cue and minces with delight when he gets his last chance to make good. It’s as the plot is so perfunctory we just cut to the chase (i.e., the goose as big as Tiny Tim that Scrooge anonymously offers to the Cratchits). Rather than tightening the action after all these years, this year’s version indulges in pauses that don’t refresh, dragging out the obvious without driving home the truth. Bah on this humbug?


Well, not quite: Though contrived to comfort the unafflicted and console the well-off, Goodman Theatre’s A Christmas Carol honors enough of the 80-page novella to suggest, if you listen hard enough, Dickens’s goal. He still wants—and we need more than ever—to awaken “fellow passengers to the grave” to the non-negotiable fact that no one is the “surplus population” destined for “prisons and workhouses.” We cannot, says a still-beseeching author, allow a girl named Want and a boy named Ignorance to threaten us with utter destruction. Not even in an elegant theater on Dearborn Street. Not even, or especially not, in 2016.


photos by Liz Lauren

A Christmas Carol
Goodman Theatre
Albert Theatre, 170 North Dearborn
ends on December 31, 2016
for tickets, call 312.443.3800 or visit Goodman Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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