Larry Yando in Goodman Theatre’s ‘A Christmas Carol.’ (Photo: Liz Lauren)
By Becky Sarwate
Goodman Theatre’s 44th annual rendering of the Charles Dickens’ holiday classic, A Christmas Carol, is a refreshing joy to behold for several reasons. Perhaps the most palpable sense of delight stems from the production’s return to the stage, in front of a live audience, after COVID-19 forced most theaters to go dark in 2020. So many of our common cultural rituals were re-configured in virtual haste, out of the valid argument that some kind of experience is better than complete drought. The vaunted Chicago theater company did enjoy success last year with an audio version of the production, drawing more than 150,000 listeners through a partnership with Chicago Public Radio station WBEZ.
I should go no further into this review without a personal confession: despite a lifetime of Chicago residency, and full familiarity with the Dickens’ cannon, this past weekend was my first Goodman/Carol experience. Labeled the “crown jewel of the holiday season” by local publications such as The Daily Herald, I wondered if missing the production’s first 42 live years would join a growing list of pre-pandemic regrets.
After viewing this latest gem of an iteration, however, and hindsight being 20/20, A Christmas Carol was worth the suspenseful wait. Featuring spirited work (pun intended) from a cast of welcome newcomers and returning favorites, brilliant, economical set design from Todd Rosenthal and supported by a respectfully raucous crowd ready for anything like a return to seasonal normalcy, director Jessica Thebus has a surefire hit on her hands.
Most are familiar with the broad plot lines of A Christmas Carol. Elderly miser Ebeneezer Scrooge (played for the 14th consecutive year by the wonderful Larry Yondo) sits in his office counting coins and totaling debts on Christmas Eve while handing out doses of “Bah, humbug!” to anyone who tries to engage him with the holiday spirit. This unpleasant attitude applies equally to family and trusted employees and goes double for well-wishing strangers. Casting himself in the light of the practical, one-dimensional businessman devoid of time for pleasantries, Scrooge is the determined enemy of frivolity, gaiety and generosity.
However, after the old man returns home to the cold, all-but-abandoned mansion once occupied by his deceased partner in profits, Jacob Marley (Kareem Bandealy), a succession of spirits visit, forcing Scrooge to take a hard look at his place in the world — past and present — and how he might eventually leave his mark upon it. The audience learns that Scrooge wasn’t always devoid of love and compassion, and he still has time to change his ways before death permanently imprints a nihilistic legacy.
There are timeless but sober questions that remain as relevant to the living today as they were to Londoners in the 19th century. Where is the line between kindness and foolishness? Is it more important to protect oneself and one’s assets or risk reputation and riches in the pursuit of bettering the lot of your fellows? And at the end of one’s life, does any of it matter if you die alone?
I was prepared for the gravity of Goodman Theatre’s A Christmas Carol. Less so for the surprising, organic wit and humor infused into Tom Creamer’s adaptation by actors and a production crew who know and love the material so well. Special accord in this regard is owed to Yando, bringing laugh-out-loud physical comedy to the role of Scrooge, as well as William Dick, who adds a satisfying, if unexpected lightness to the part of perennially put-upon Bob Cratchit. Actress Dee Dee Batteast, as Scrooge’s only niece and heir, Frida, is the embodiment of holiday gaiety, juxtaposed with firm determination to emit nothing but goodwill toward her difficult, unpleasant uncle. It’s no easy feat to toggle back and forth between darkness and light with such aplomb. This cast of 31 makes it look effortless.
The production is supported by stellar technical work, including magnificent, multi-purpose set design from Rosenthal; colorful, period-appropriate, yet functional costume design from Heidi Sue McMath; and seamless, natural choreography from Tommy Rapley.
Running two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission, Goodman Theatre’s A Christmas Carol feels like a much shorter experience in all the best ways. Time flies when you’re having holiday fun, perhaps even more so after the theater deprivation of 2020 leaves a burning thirst for quality, live work. It’s here in seasonal abundance.
A Christmas Carol
170 N Dearborn, Chicago
Through December 31
Becky Sarwate is an award-winning journalist, theater critic, blogger, and author of Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team (Eckhartz Press). She is a proud Chicago resident, where Becky lives with her husband Bob, their cats, Wendy and Lisa and their dogs, RuPaul and George Michael. Check out her collected work at BeckySarwate.com, and follow her on Twitter @BeckySarwate.