It’s 12 years gone since Larry Yando took on the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in the Goodman’s annual staging of “A Christmas Carol.” That’s a full five years longer than Marley’s been dead at the onset of the seasonal favorite. From its dour, macabre opening narration (“Marley was dead, to begin with.”) to the cheerily sung closer (“We Wish You a Merry Christmas!”), little of substance has changed in the holiday warhorse adapted by Tom Creamer from Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella.
The show’s a chestnut, now in its 42nd year at the Goodman. But here’s the thing about chestnuts. Dress them properly, and they’re fabulous. So it goes at the Goodman, where the 21-person ensemble, anchored by Yando, makes you feel like you’re seeing “A Christmas Carol” for the first time.
Part of the secret to its success through decades of different directors and Scrooges lies in the Goodman’s refusal to gloss over the story’s darkness. Dickens’ London was a place of grinding poverty and nightmarish workhouses. The former contributed to a devastatingly high child and infant mortality rate (which Dickens personifies in Tiny Tim). The latter were so horrific that many impoverished Brits would (per the Ghost of Christmas Present) rather die than labor there.
The production directed by Henry Wishcamper (who has directed “A Christmas Carol” at least half a dozen times since 2013) is filled with lavish costumes (by Heidi McMath) and sets (Todd Rosenthal) worthy of a Currier-and-Ives print. But it also doesn’t skimp on the terror.
Scrooge’s weirdly tilted mansion evokes Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House.” (Bonus: A doorknocker of doom that provides one of the jumpiest jump scares ever.) Scrooge’s damned business partner Marley (Kareem Bandealy) is straight out of a horror movie. Ditto the faceless, towering Ghost of Christmas Future (Breon Arzell). And when the Ghost of Christmas Present (Jasmine Bracey) sics the raggedy, wretched specters of Ignorance and Want on Scrooge, you’ll feel the hair on the back of your neck prickle.
Still, this is “A Christmas Carol,” not “Silent Night, Deadly Night.” Ebenezer is (spoiler alert if you don’t know how the most ubiquitous holiday tale this side of the New Testament ends) redeemed and all ends in turkey, carols and healthcare for Tiny Tim (the expressive Paris Strickland for the third consecutive year).
Yando lays the seeds for Scrooge’s redemption early. In the opening scenes, Ebenezer demonstrates breathtaking cruelty. But flickering deep within the harshness there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nucleus of pain. This is a damaged man, not an evil one. When Scrooge scorns his kindly niece Frida (Ali Burch), there’s a microsecond when you can almost see him questioning his decision to remain ever alone, locked away secret and solitary as an oyster.
As for his ghostly visitants, they are a memorable quartet. Molly Brennan’s Ghost of Christmas Past is all spritely twinkles. Bracey’s Christmas Present intersperses handfuls of cheer-inducing glitter with booming moral authority. When Scrooge tries to “but actually” her by invoking societal hypocrisies done in her name, Christmas Present reads him for absolute filth. It’s a triumphant moment, with Bracey evoking the sort of badass action heroine who tosses a lit match at something villainous and then strolls off without a backward glance as the whole thing goes up in flames.
The chamber orchestra performing Andrew Hansen’s original music adds immensely to the production’s shifting moods — magisterial one moment, haunted the next, joyful the next. Finally, keep an eye on Mr. Fezziwig’s (a jovial Jonah D. Winston) Christmas party. There’s an truly impressive candlestick juggling act in it, courtesy of Philip Earl Johnson, who also balances a candlestick and a gigantic punch bowl on his nose. If that doesn’t say “Merry Christmas,” I don’t know what does.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.