Finding a way to balance the familiar with the fresh is an annual holiday tradition at the Guthrie Theater. Few likely imagined when the company first produced an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” in 1975 that it would be undertaking its 48th production of it in 2022. It stands alongside the Minnesota State Fair as one of those comfort food kind of events that inspire folks to ask, “What’s new this year?” when most would rather re-experience the old.
Mind you, a cynic could posit that it’s something like the theatrical version of “Black Friday,” a guaranteed coffer filler that can go a long way toward helping fund the rest of the company’s work. But the best versions offer considerably more than comfort. Dickens was what would today be called a social justice warrior, intent upon opening his readers’ eyes to the suffering around them and the human cost of capitalism.
This year’s “Christmas Carol” clearly articulates that, yet does so in quite entertaining fashion. The adaptation by Lavina Jadhwani, now in its second year on the Guthrie stage, lends color and complexity to many characters, and the 18-member cast takes full advantage.
And that’s saying something, when you consider that the design elements could easily steal the show. Matt Saunders’ set is a feat of imagination and engineering that employs turntables, sliding walls and flying set pieces to pull off some impressive transformations. And, of course, transformation is at the center of “A Christmas Carol.”
That would be the metamorphosis of Ebenezer Scrooge, literature’s most famous miser, ungenerous with both money and compassion until four ghosts gradually chip away at the ice around his heart. It can be an iconic role, but this production — helmed by Guthrie artistic director Joseph Haj — is far more an ensemble piece.
Seeming the youngest Scrooge in my memory, Matthew Saldivar doesn’t do anything particularly memorable with the character, making him more an onlooker while more colorful characters drive the action around him. Such as Charity Jones’ magnetic Marley, the chain-clad ghost who delivers Scrooge’s first wake-up call. Jones makes his visit a chilling one, although it may have been even more so if Saunders’ set design didn’t place that pivotal scene as far from the audience as possible.
Also impressive are the emissaries of gratitude and goodwill who weave through the story, particularly John Catron’s offering of a Bob Cratchit who cowers in the cold office but becomes a source of warmth at home, complemented by Emjoy Gavino’s engaging take on his kind but world-weary wife. And Eric Sharp proves the ideal nephew Fred, full of joie de vivre and intent upon defending Scrooge as a damaged man.
In Barbara Field’s 1975 adaptation, Dickens acted as narrator, thus bringing the author’s delightful descriptors into the play. Underlining this production’s ensemble feel, all 17 actors who aren’t Scrooge take a turn telling the tale in Dickens’ words. Quickly changing in and out of the period-perfect costumes of Toni-Leslie James and Emily Tappan, they prove engaging guides. But the consummate costuming creation is the creepiest Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come you may ever meet, one who could scare anyone into changing their ways.
‘A Christmas Carol’
When: Through Dec. 31
Where: Guthrie Theater, 818 Second St. S., Mpls.
Tickets: $134-$17, available at 612-377-2224 or guthrietheater.org
Capsule: A less Scrooge-centric staging that impresses with its design and puts its warmth in the right places.
Rob Hubbard can be reached at email@example.com.