Regional Reviews: Chicago
A Christmas Carol
I was very pleasantly surprised.
Staged in a comfortable 329-seat auditorium, this A Christmas Carol might not offer the huge sets and extravagant costumes (or the flying spirits) you'll see downtown, but that is to be expected. What it offers instead is the chance to see that Dickens' uplifting story doesn't need all that glitz and glamor to have an impact on the heart.
Scrooge is played by Steve Connell, who has done so many times in the past. Opening night did not see him at his best, as he was clearly struggling with a bad cold that undoubtedly limited his range a bit, but even so his version of the venerable character is very strong. Done well, Scrooge should be a mean, miserly old man who carries buried within him enough painful and difficult memories to make his remarkable transition believable–once he is forced by the ghosts to revisit them. Connell's Scrooge doesn't seem to take any pleasure from his miserliness; all joy has been withered within him by the years he has been alone. Even with his energy depleted, though, Connell was able on opening night to show the rebirth of that joy as the night's visitations force Scrooge to confront the consequences of the life he has chosen.
The overall structure of Jacqueline Goldfinger's solid adaptation, which is directed by Brendan Ragan, is not dissimilar to that of the Goodman: in a celebration of the glorious descriptive prose that Dickens created, Goldfinger employs many narrators, Londoners out and about on Christmas Eve, to give voice to the author's clever (and often humorous) depictions. (Her treatment of the "Marley was dead as a doornail" moment is wonderful and foreshadows the fun she has throughout the play.) For his part, Ragan and his impressive cast populate even the most forlorn parts of the city with vibrant, real characters. Even the thief (played by Maura Crowley) who rips down Scrooge's bed curtains is individually memorable. And the more well-known characters are portrayed beautifully, sensitively and imaginatively. I don't know if it was Goldfinger or Ragan who came up with the idea of having Tiny Tim himself (Spencer Schillinger) deliver the "who did not die" line about his character, but it was utterly epic.
Bob Cratchit (Andrew Bosworth) handles his life and poverty with the kind of sweetness and open-heartedness that makes him such a perfect contrast to his horrible boss. The 85-minute running time of this production (which includes two major dance scenes and multiple cast-sung Christmas carols) does not allow a lot of time for character-building nuance, but Bosworth is nonetheless a standout. In fact, there isn't a weak performance in the whole show. Others who require mention include Peter Briseño Gertas (aided by sound designer Daniel Etti-Williams) playing a desperate Marley, trying to break through his ex-partner's stubborn shell. Gabriel Fries' Fred is another character in contrast to the dour Scrooge: his ebullient Christmas spirit is unextinguishable. All three ghosts (Zoya Martin's Past, Josh Frink's Present, and the huge, red-eyed puppet Future designed by Patrick Maguire and played by Michael J. Santos) are excellently portrayed.
Choreographer Kaity Paschetto's work is lovely here as well. The Fezziwig dance party and Fred's family gathering are both fun and thoroughly enjoyable, and the added character called Winter, danced balletically throughout the show by Emma Grace Bailey, is a welcome embodiment of the season. Music director Ken McMullen's choices for her perfectly conjure the emotions of her dance.
Scrooge's story is the very embodiment of the spirit of the season, so it isn't surprising to find multiple versions of it playing on Chicago's stages. What joy to discover that this one, out in the northwest suburbs, hits the (door)nail on the head and proves that Dickens' tale doesn't require a huge budget to succeed brilliantly.
A Christmas Carol runs through Sunday, December 24, 2023, at Metropolis Performing Arts Center, 111 W. Campbell Street, Arlington Heights IL. For tickets and information, please visit MetropolisArts.com