Goodman’s ‘Christmas Carol’ and its longtime Scrooge wow a first-time viewer

Larry Yando portrays the miser’s transformation with admirable aplomb in a production of depth and spectacle.

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Scrooge (Larry Yando, right) is terrified by the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley (Kareem Bandealy), in “A Christmas Carol.”

Liz Lauren

Charles Dickens’ novella “A Christmas Carol” was first released in December of 1843.

By February of 1844, there was already a stage adaptation being performed in London.

To call the story popular would be to understate its hold on our imaginations both about Christmas and, for many, about the theater itself, since many a child was introduced to live performance by seeing a version of this tale following Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation from misanthropic miser to merry philanthropist.

It seems perfectly reasonable, then, to consider that the Goodman Theatre’s productions of the piece, which the company now is staging for the 45th time (a fact deserving of a jaw-dropping emoji!), has contributed to Chicago’s very development as a world-class theater city by nurturing new generations of ticket-buyers.

‘A Christmas Carol’

A Christmas Carol

When: Through Dec. 31

Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.

Tickets: $25-$144

Info: goodmantheatre.org

Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission

With a spirit of curiosity, and a bit of age- and era-induced softening of my “Bah! Humbug!” attitude towards the season, I made a virgin visit to see “A Christmas Carol” at our city’s largest theatrical institution.

Directed by Jessica Thebus for the third time and starring Larry Yando as Scrooge for the 15th (another jaw-dropper), the show comes across as one of ideal balance: scary but never too scary for kids; filled with a varied mix of stylish theatrical bells and whistles but most resonant at its simplest and most human; funny but never cheaply so; quickly paced but not without intriguing moments of detail. 

And, from start to finish, just self-aware enough of its presentational qualities. The diverse casting helps, but so does the choice of adapter Tom Creamer to keep narration, which he rather easily could have excised. He kept it with purpose, and as the Narrator, Andrew White reminds us at key times that this is an act of storytelling through and through. A good yarn.

Theater, you see, is pleasing and involving and emotional and … joyful. The form communicates the story’s meaning — be more generous; value people over riches, you can’t take it with you, etc. — but it does so through this marvelous thing called play-acting.

Which brings us to Mr. Yando and his Scrooge.

This is a meticulously polished performance. His gestures and expressions are exactly timed and yet always feel authentic. He attunes us to his different scowls and raised eyebrows and grunting/chuckling sounds so that his smallest change of expression communicates multitudes, whether for comedy or pathos. It’s the epitome of what’s meant by a performer who has the audience “eating out of the palm of his hand.”

And this deep, deep skill is an essential and oft-missing ingredient for a moving and meaningful “A Christmas Carol.” The heart of the story depends on Scrooge going on a journey that is too often portrayed, in productions I have seen, as passive; after all, Scrooge mostly is the audience of what the Ghosts show him, and then too shockingly abrupt.

Not Yando’s. Perhaps the actor had this character arc down some 15 stagings ago, but it’s more likely he has refined it over time to achieve the level of nuanced, stage-by-stage evolution we see here.

His Scrooge is terrified by the ghost of his former partner Jacob Marley (Kareem Bandealy, so compelling and helped enormously by Richard Woodbury’s richly evocative sound design). Then he’s made vulnerable by the Ghost of Christmas Past (Lucky Stiff, with a glowing half-moon on their head). With the help of the Ghost of Christmas Present (an exceptional Bethany Thomas as a type of nature Goddess, leading what I consider the strongest sequences of the evening), he discovers empathy and becomes conscious of how others perceive him.

And, finally, led silently by the visually striking Ghost of Christmas Future (Daniel Jose Molina, on stilts and with crow’s mask), he finally becomes so overwhelmed by the weight of social judgment and recognition of his own misery that he breaks and awakes reborn. It’s the most emotionally affecting version I have seen.

And then there is the spectacle of it all, thanks to a team of world-class designers. They place Scrooge within a world that is social, natural, and existential, from a realistic workplace and family feast, to a blanket of branches and a winsome background deer, to the heavy clanking sound of Jacob Marley’s chains and the visual splendor of a beautiful starry night.

Together, these visual and aural flourishes provide this classy evening with its crowning touch: a sense of wonder.

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