Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
A Christmas Carol and Black Nativity
And, in the Twin Cities at the very least, it means another run of A Christmas Carol at the Guthrie Theater.
The 31st edition of the show - which puts it somewhere between venerable and warhorse - has ample charms to make up for both the familiarity (everyone knows the story, and this is essentially the same script and production that the Guthrie has used for the last 10 years) and some of the on-stage mushiness.
The charms? We'll start at the top. Raye Birk takes a wonderful turn as Scrooge. His character brims full of vinegar - Birk literally spits out the signature "bah, humbugs" - like some Victorian version of Bill O'Reilly. As the ice around Scrooge's heart slowly begins to melt, we not only hear it in Birk's voice, but see it through his body, as the weight of his greedy life crushes him until he is able to open his heart to the season.
The rest of the cast performs at a high level, creating a real, breathing environment on stage. Though the performances are broad at times, they never feel out of place for the show or the material.
The production is sumptuous. From the finely designed costumes to the rich details of the set, the entire production is set at sensory overload. Yet it is all held together by a script (by Barbara Field) and direction (by Gary Gisselman) that never loses sight of the show's purpose.
The mushiness? Everyone - well, a few of the youngsters in the audience may not - knows the story, so the only way to breathe life into A Christmas Carol is through the production. For the most part, the Guthrie does this, but the action seems to get stuck in a few places. There is far too much dancing, music and holiday cheer at the Fezziwigs. I got the point that they have grand holiday parties after one dance, I didn't need the seemingly endless stream of dances that follow.
At times, the production - from the director to the designers to the performers - are too caught up in the merriment of having such a fun place to play and forget about the story they are telling. A bit more discipline would help to accent the show's positives even more.
Yet this is minor quibbling in the face of such a delightful production, one that can even melt the most cynical of hearts (that would be mine). This is the last production of A Christmas Carol on the Guthrie's Vineland stage. Hopefully, its charms will survive the trip downtown.
A Christmas Carol runs through Dec. 24. For more information and tickets, call 612-377-2224 or visit www.guthrietheater.org.
Though a mainstay at the company since 1987, Black Nativity continually goes through revisions. The 2005 edition scales back the evening and presents the story of Jesus' birth in simple terms. Over the hour and a half of the show, we watch an African American family celebrate Christmas - gathering at the matriarch's house, trimming the tree, preparing for dinner - all the while singing the praise of the season.
This simplicity focuses the attention on the story - and spiritual praise - of the music, which ranges from traditional spirituals to gospel-infused versions of familiar carols. As the ensemble of 18 singers, dancers and musicians work their way through the more than two dozen, they infuse their own energy, drive and faith into the evening, making this a Christmas show clearly focused on its true meaning.
The rock-solid ensemble showcases considerable vocal chops, but augments with a deep feeling for the material. Throughout, there is a palatable sense of faith and sharing that invites the audience to share in the celebration of this family.
Show creators T. Mychael Rambo (who also has a stand-out performance in the show) and Lou Bellamy (who directs) have provided a simple storyline that run through the evening. The family is struggling with the loss of their patriarch, but that never brings them down. Instead, their faith and the glory of the season pulls them through the pain.
Black Nativity ends with a message - to keep telling your stories; not just that of the nativity, but of the families that celebrate these festive seasons every year. It's advice that all, even the most cynical scrooge, should take to heart.
Black Nativity runs through Dec. 18 at Penumbra Theatre. Call 651-224-3180 or go to www.penumbratheatre.org for tickets and more information.
Be sure to check the current schedule for theatre in the Twin Cities area