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Chicago by John Olson

A Christmas Carol
Goodman Theatre

Also see John's review of Miracle on 34th Street

A Christmas Carol
Larry Yando and Andy Truschinski
It's long been a running joke that this Dickens classic is a cash cow for regional theatre companies. There's even a play (Inspecting Carol) dedicated to that joke. But, if one can ignore that baggage and look at the Goodman's production for what it is, one would have to admit this is a highly satisfying piece of family theater. With a largely Shakespearean-trained cast and production values that equal many a big Broadway touring show, it's a production that would make most Top 10 lists judged on its own merit and viewed as one might a new show.

Even compared to the memory of countless stage, film and TV versions, this production adapted by Tom Creamer and directed by William Brown feels fresh even while keeping a mostly traditional approach to the material, thanks to superb performances, some unexpected casting choices and a visual inventiveness that keeps surprising us. The set, designed by Tony Award winner Todd Rosenthal is marvelous, including a two-story office for the firm of Scrooge and Marley and a bedroom for Scrooge with a 20-foot high ceiling. A portrait of Marley above Scrooge's fireplace comes to life, as does the ornate knocker on Scrooge's front door. Lighting design by Robert Christen and sound design by Cecil Averett combine for some startling special effects. (Let's hope The Addams Family, in its pre-Broadway tryout just around the corner from the Goodman, does as well at being creepy and spooky.)

Scrooge is played by the Chicago-based Larry Yando. He can show the nastier side of Scrooge with ease—he's been some of the greatest villains, like Roy Cohn, The Lion King's Scar and Richard Nixon, after all—but he also shows Scrooge's underlying humanity. Yando mines the comic potential to its fullest, especially in the scenes following Scrooge's transformation with a physical energy, and also in his reactions as he surprisedly comes to realize how much he is disliked by others.

When the Ghost of Christmas Past arrives, he's younger than you'd expect, but that's appropriate given that he's taking Scrooge back to his youth. This ghost is played by Alex Weisman, the Northwestern University senior who won raves as Posner in TimeLine's The History Boys earlier this year. The ghost is as jolly as ever, plus he flies and takes a reluctant Scrooge up in the air with him.

The Ghost of Christmas Present is Penelope Walker, an African-American actress outfitted in a bright red hoop dress, one of the many detailed costumes designed by Heidi Sue McMath. This ghost's travels with Scrooge—here the old man takes flight by way of moving platforms and lifts—take them across a sky of tiny stars. They visit the homes of Bob Cratchit (Ron Rains plays the role with a perfect balance of comedy, pathos and a believable display of British stiff-upper-lip-ism in the face of adversity) and nephew Fred (energetic and quite likable in the hands of Matt Schwader). The Ghost of Christmas Future is a nearly formless black specter that appears to be some 12 feet tall. In revealing to Scrooge that the miser has been witnessing his own funeral, the Ghost causes a gigantic tombstone bearing his name to thrust up from underneath. This ghost doesn't speak, so I'll have to trust that Andy Truschinski is somehow inside, as the program indicates. Truschinski is far more visible in his touching portrayal of the awkward and increasingly isolated young Scrooge as he loses Belle, the love of his life, played winningly by Jessie Mueller.

The 24 cast members provide narration, dance and sing carols that are effective comments to the action. The original music by Andrew Hansen includes underscoring and arrangements of traditional songs (the carol "Keeping Holy Vigil" is a recurring theme) and gives the piece something of the feel of a musical.

Brown and Creamer's approach to this classic is family-friendly and comic, but the heart of the piece, including moments of genuine sympathy for Scrooge and pathos for the Cratchits, is all there. It remains a moving and entertaining piece. While it's easy to put off seeing a perennial like this, figuring it'll always be around next year, this production really is a must for its richness of stagecraft and acting technique as well as its always uplifting message.

A Christmas Carol runs through December 31, 2009 in the Goodman's Albert Theatre at 170 N. Dearborn. Tickets are $25 - $74 and can be purchased online at www.goodmantheatre.org, at the box office, or by phone at 312-443-3800.  


Photo: Liz Lauren

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-- John Olson



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