'A Christmas Carol' is subtly alive to our precipitous moment in history

Dan Norman

Dan Norman

While director Joe Chvala doesn’t radically depart from recent years’ productions, this year’s A Christmas Carol at the Guthrie is subtly alive to our precipitous moment in history. Judicious edits and shifts in pacing dial back the show’s goofy energy and sharpen its focus on Scrooge’s crisis of conscience.

Guthrie Theater

In a welcome change, this year’s production features actors of color more prominently than in the past. Meghan Kreidler plays Mrs. Cratchit; she is Asian-American, as are a number of the actors playing the young Cratchit children. As Mrs. Fezziwig, Regina Marie Williams makes a jolly wife to Jay Albright’s priceless merry-maker, and Tatiana Williams warmly plays both Belle and Kitty.

Both Williamses are black, as is Ryan Colbert, who plays Scrooge’s nephew Fred. In our current political climate, the casting adds a sad but unmistakable resonance to the scenes where angry white man Marley (Robert O. Berdahl) denounces the planned marriage between the young Scrooge (Ryan Dean Maltz) and Belle — and also criticizes the rising hem of Daisy Fezziwig’s skirt. Did Marley learn his trade at the Victorian equivalent of Bob Jones University?

Crispin Whittell’s script has finally been edited to cut the character of Merriweather, a maid who previously served as sidekick to Scrooge (J.C. Cutler). That undercut the isolation of Scrooge’s character, and led to a creepy scene where Scrooge gave the maid an obviously unwanted mistletoe smooch.

Scenes that play more fleetly this year include the Cratchits’ meager feast, the haggling over Scrooge’s material goods, and the party scene at Fred’s house. There’s still plenty of song and dance at the Fezziwigs’ — as there should be — but long gone are the days when the turkey would jump up off the banquet tray and chase the revelers around.

This Carol cuts to the heart of the story. Cutler remains a warm Scrooge, as most of his predecessors have tended to be. If you’re looking for a sharp contrast between a truly wicked Scrooge and the man who stands humbled at show’s end, look elsewhere. That’s fine for this production, though a little more gravity could reasonably be asked of the posthumous Marley — who Berdahl plays as stagily as a zombie from “Thriller.”

You don’t go to the Guthrie for a minimalist take, and the production is as sumptuous as always — unfolding on Walt Spangler’s towering snow-flocked London set, full of traditional carols sung by passing choirs. Dramatic flourishes abound: Scrooge’s rotating two-story home office, the airborne entrances of the ghosts, more artificial smoke than a Prince video.

The ghosts are still good too (an empathetic Tracey Maloney as Christmas Past, a merry but stern Joel Liestman as Christmas Present, Eric Sharp appropriately ominous as Christmas Future) — and their message is pointed. Flying over the bustling London streets, Liestman makes a key observation about the Christmas spirit: It means, he tells Scrooge, realizing “that what brings us together is greater than what drives us apart.”

A Christmas Carol
Guthrie Theater
8181 Second St. S., Minneapolis
612-377-2224; through December 30