Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

A Christmas Carol
Goodman Theatre
Review by Christine Malcom

Kareem Bandealy and Larry Yando
Photo by Liz Lauren
When any production is declared a tradition, and certainly when the number of times that "tradition" has been celebrated creeps up on fifty, there's a danger of stagnation. There's the possibility that attending said production becomes a duty or something one simply does. In the case of the Goodman Theatre's A Christmas Carol, now in its forty-sixth year, these are things that "may be" not "will be." Under the direction of Jessica Thebus in her fourth year at the helm, and featuring Larry Yando in his sixteenth year as Scrooge, the show remains a vibrant, spooky, affecting affair that rouses the audience.

The secret to success undoubtedly begins with the truly magical stagecraft. Todd Rosenthal's set employs a series of scrims to capitalize on the depth of the stage, static set pieces that flank the downstage proscenium to create a pair of two-story house fronts, and gorgeous mini-stages that glide smoothly in from the wings.

The first of these establishes Scrooge's business near the top of the play, and with simple set dressing, it's impressive how the same physical space conveys warm conviviality during Fezziwig's party and a bleak, cold space when Scrooge and Bob Cratchit alone occupy it. The second, Scrooge's house, is an unnerving masterpiece, with its German expressionist geometry and dark, heavy colors. Just as important as the look, though, is the functionality: The emergence of Marley from the depths of the bed next to Scrooge is harrowing, and the transformation of the dank space to something lush with winter greenery is amazing.

Keith Parham's lighting design and the sound design by Richard Woodbury and Pornchanok Kanchanabanca are equally magic-making. The show opens with a spot on one of the cast's children who begins "Dona Nobis Pacem," eventually joined by the rest of the Londoners who arrive out of the blackness and expand the circle of light. The extent to which Parham is willing to push the play of gloom and bright warmth is striking, as is the deft mixture of naturalistic voices, music (Andrew Hansen, composer, with music direction by Malcolm Ruhl) that is ebullient and eerie by turns, and nightmare sounds.

Heidi Sue McMath's costume design likewise distinguishes itself by perfectly capturing class and character in the realistic ensembles, as well as creating truly memorable looks for the all the ghosts. Marley's ghost and the dark fantasy of Christmas Future are particular triumphs in which every element of the production's design comes expertly together. Similarly, Andrea Gentry's fly direction shows off McMath's prowess as Scrooge and Christmas Past soar effortlessly around the stage.

Larry Yando is, of course, a complete delight as Scrooge. His physicality, comedic timing, and his genuine rage and grief are perfectly blended. Moreover, he has an unfailing instinct for when and how to make his presence felt at the fringes of the past, present and future. As Young Scrooge, Daniel José Molina's performance clearly speaks to Yando's, yet as an awkward young lover and as his ruthless nature begins to establish itself, Molina is a fully realized character unto himself.

Thomas J. Cox allows his Bob Cratchit to be more overtly comedic than is usual. This pays off particularly well when he allows real desperation to war with the man's relentless optimism at the Cratchits' meager Christmas Eve feast, and his breakdown at Tiny Tim's grave in the future that may be is truly affecting. Cox's performance works well in collaboration with both Dee Dee Batteast's confident, cutting, but ultimately caring Frida as well as with the harder edges that Susan Jamshidi sports as Mrs. Cratchit.

Although the stagecraft that brings the ghosts to life is impressive, these characters are certainly not simply smoke and mirrors. Lucky Stiff is all otherworldly light and sparkle as Past; Bethany Thomas fills the room with her voice and force of personality as Present; and the absolutely perfect coordination of Kareem Bandealy's movements with the sound and lighting is complemented by the true horror Bandealy manages to convey through both voice and movement.

As Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig, Robert Schliefer and Penelope Walker, together with the wildly talented ensemble, conjure infectious cheer through voice, Sign, and movement. Thanks also to Tommy Rapley's deft choreography, the scene at the Fezziwig party, which might have easily slid into an awkward, heavy-handed exercise in box-ticking inclusivity instead becomes a legitimately joyous celebration of diversity.

Andrew White's performance as the Narrator and Amira Danan's as Belle should not go unmentioned. White both sets and maintains the tone from his earliest musings on doornails as odd metaphors for death. Danan enriches the audience's understanding of Scrooge and establishes how deep a loss it is when Belle walks away from Ebenezer and his growing avarice.

A Christmas Carol runs through December 31, 2023, at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit call 312-443-3800.