The rapid-fire shifts from ferocity to hilarity that characterize this season’s Goodman Theatre production of “A Christmas Carol” are evident from the start.
You sense it from the moment the show’s narrator (the shrewdly ironic, rich-voiced Kareem Bandealy) reminds us that “Marley [Ebenezer Scrooge’s business partner] is as dead as a doornail,” and then comments that “dead as a coffin nail” might be a far better analogy. It’s a subtle thing, but Bandealy reminds us that one of the great delights of Charles Dickens’ storytelling was the way he could flip from dark to light in the blink of an eye. And director Henry Wishcamper, in his second season with the work, deftly amplifies this effect in every scene.
‘A CHRISTMAS CAROL Highly recommended When:Through Dec. 28 Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn Tickets: $31-$101 Info: (312) 443-3800; goodmantheatre.org Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission
The bones of the Goodman Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol” have remained much the same since 1989, when Tom Creamer’s adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic replaced several earlier versions, and then, in 2001, Todd Rosenthal’s handsome, mechanically complex set added an elaborate, “Masterpiece Theatre”-style environment to the show. Larry Yando’s uncannily brilliant performance as Scrooge has been part of the mix since 2007 (with a single break in 2010), and while certain actors and musicians in the large cast have come and gone over the years, there is always a new crop of faces ready to heighten the interpretation of Dickens’ crazy gallery of characters.
“It was really too scary,” said a tiny girl as she filed out of the theater after Sunday’s opening. And yes, the moments of from-the-grave-horror certainly do come with blasts of sound (cheers to Richard Woodbury) and light (via Keith Parham) and fury. But she was onto something. This is a story about mortality and about how we treat “our fellow passengers to the grave” while we are among the living. And for all the laughter it generates along the way, that reality is never forgotten.
Yando, straight off grueling acting assignments in “King Lear” and “The Dance of Death,” remains in peak form. His volatility is wonderful, so that one moment he can snap angrily at a couple in search of charitable donations, and the next he can be seen flying back to his youth, his arms flapping like crazy flippers and his face beaming with wonder. At one point, simply stunned by his own transformation, his mouth just opens wide to form a tunnel of awe and you cannot help but laugh.
But Yando is not alone. There are sharp performances by Ron E. Rains (a veteran in the role of Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s much-abused clerk, who mixes pathos with mischief) and Penelope Walker as his good-hearted wife; Anish Jethmalani as Scrooge’s irrepressibly kind and generous nephew, Fred; Patrick Andrews (in a sort of punk-gladiator angel costume ) as the Ghost of Christmas Past; Lisa Gaye Dixon, exceptional as the Ghost of Christmas Present, who mixes fire and ice as she alternately seduces and lambastes Scrooge; Bret Tuomi and Kim Schultz (hilarious in her flirtations) as the high-spirited Fezziwigs and others; J. Salome Martinez as Dick Wilkins, Scrooge’s youthful co-worker; Joe Foust as a heavily enchained, fire-and-brimstone Ghost of Jacob Marley; Larry Neumann Jr. as a spot-on Schoolmaster; Kristina Vilada-Viars as Belle, the woman who loves Scrooge but cannot abide his obsession with money, and Paige Collins as the Cratchits’ lovely oldest daughter. (The younger Cratchit children too often mumble, although as Tiny Tim, Nathaniel Buescher, an exuberant dancer, blasts out his “God bless useveryone.”)
Music director Malcolm Ruhl (on accordion), along with violinists Greg Hirte and Andrew Coil, and horn player Justin Amolsch, add to the merriment in this evergreen production. It is a show perhaps best understood by adults, but just haunted and haunting enough to engage kids.