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November 28, 2006

Carol melts inner Scrooges with yuletide comforts

I think the Goodman is trying to make up for the fact that it’s 60 degrees out and there’s no snow. If sheer holiday spirit and trimmings (plus a good amount of stage snow) can bring about real December weather, they’re on the road to get us the white Christmas of our dreams.

I arrived at the Goodman for the press opening of A Christmas Carol to find the lobby taken over by evergreens, glass balls, and the Benet Academy Madrigal Singers, a choir in Elizabethan dress performing traditional Christmas carols in five-part harmony. It was very effective— coming out after the show I was genuinely surprised not to see mounds of snow and carolers.

We all know the plot of A Christmas Carol: The miserly—and unforgettably named—Ebenezer Scrooge dismisses Christmas with an emphatic “bah humbug” until one Christmas Eve he is visited by the spirits of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come.

The Goodman offers a cute, slick production full of singing, dancing, and Victorian bustling. There are also elaborate sliding sets, including a two-story counting house and a fair bit of smoke and mirrors. Christmas Past—a sprightly young man in blue trousers—flies in on wires; Jacob Marley is dragged back to his purgatorial haunts with a burst of red light, lots of noise, and a full blackout; Christmas Yet to Come shows a gloomy future of loss, theft, and large amounts of dry ice.

Writer Tom Creamer has done a very faithful adaptation of the Dickens Christmas classic which leaves intact much of the narration, including the attention-grabbing “Old Marley was dead,” delivered with aplomb by a deadpan undertaker who then proceeds, in one of the show’s best moments, to discuss the problems of the simile “dead as a doornail” with another onstage narrator.

Creamer has also kept intact the darker parts of the novel. It’s wonderful to see each spirit become progressively rougher around the edges, and to see the whole play shift tone from the rosy lighting of the past to the harsh browns that pick out the unlovable thieves in the future. Through all the changes Jonathan Weir’s Scrooge remains constant, endearing and grumpy enough to carry the show, and perfectly aware of how much hamming is permissible.

The only problem with this faithful adaptation is that it is, well, faithful. Creamer preserves not only the memorable lines (“Are there no prisons? No workhouses?”) but also the sentimentality of the original, including everything from the glorification of plum pudding to Ignorance and Want personified as feral children.

The greatest problem is that this material is too familiar. Tiny Tim and Scrooge are cultural icons and making them new and exciting is very, very difficult. Some of it can be fresh and funny, as Brian J. Gill’s cheerful and only occasionally preachy Bob Cratchit so aptly proves, but other parts are destined to be sappy no matter what you do with them—for example, the action always seems to lag after the second Christmas party.

The lesson of A Christmas Carol has been repeated annually in many of our lives. It’s not necessary to belabor the need to show generosity and kindness to cripples and your employees, and the Goodman wisely encourages us to heed another lesson: Be happy this holiday season. Get your head out of your books and look at the people around you; wear a red tie, laugh, and, like Scrooge, see that the world is glorious at Christmas. Yes, “I-take-myself-so-seriously” U of C students. I’m looking at you.