A Christmas Carol reignites a classic
Real-life drama broke out Saturday night at the opening of the Guthrie's latest production of A Christmas Carol as one of the patrons collapsed midway through the first act. It was a scary scene that delayed the show for about 20 minutes as the man was attended to before he was sent to the hospital.
It could have been a real damper on the rest of the evening. The man was at least conscious — and waving to the audience as he left — which certainly helped, and the company made its way back onstage, restarting without missing a beat.
Maybe it was that burst of adrenaline, or the work of new director Joe Chvala, but this year's edition of the venerable Guthrie holiday show seemed to crackle with more energy than last year's rather dreary exercise.
One of the strongest elements from that production returns this year, as J.C. Cutler once again plays Scrooge. One of the most consistent and thoughtful actors in town, Cutler is able to expertly play both the humor in Crispen Whittell's adaptation and the drama and pathos of the character. He plays Scrooge's transformation to a T, giving us a character who isn't evil, but whose heart has been calcified by a fear of poverty and a myopia that sees the accumulation of wealth as the only possible goal in life.
All around Scrooge are the signs of a richer existence, if he would only pull his eyes up from his accounts book. There is his clerk, Bob Cratchit (the returning Kris L. Nelson), who keeps his cheer about him even as he struggles to put a "feast" on the table for his family, and while his youngest, Tim, is sliding toward death. There is Scrooge's nephew Fred (Hugh Kennedy), who would love to include his uncle in his Christmas celebrations — and the rest of his life — if Scrooge would just let him.
That leaves Scrooge with just Merriweather (Angela Timberman), his equally dour housekeeper. It's an existence as dark and cold as Scrooge's office, where he demands that Cratchit not put any more coal on the fire and the only illumination is from a pair of candles.
So it's for the best that the spirits come to take Scrooge on a whirlwind tour through holidays past, present, and future. It's familiar territory — Scrooge as a boy, alone at school; at the Fezziwigs, where he meets and loses the love of his life, Belle (Susanna Stahlmann); at the Cratchits' and Fred's; and then finally with visions of the sad end of Tiny Tim and his own life.
Chvala and company find the joy along the way, helping to keep the show moving. The staging seems to have found the sweet spot, with enough holiday joy and energetic dancing to build the story without going on so long that the party feels like a show unto itself.
Sometimes with Christmas Carol productions, Scrooge's transformation feels forced, as if the change is dictated by the script rather than coming from the character's heart. Cutler doesn't have that problem. We get signs of the warmth that exists deep within. It's not so much a transformation as shedding a crust of ice and breaking free. Cutler's moments with Fred and his wife, and especially with Tim at the very end, sit somewhere between heartbreaking and joyful; his are the emotions of a man who knows he has wasted so much of his life and is now ready to make the best of what he has left.
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