A lady Scrooge understudy is a welcome twist to Guthrie's 'A Christmas Carol'

Charity Jones as Scrooge

Charity Jones as Scrooge Dan Norman

A Christmas Carol has been adapted so many times, it might seem to be foolproof. After all, there have been Carols starring Muppets, ’80s TV producers, Klingons, and the Golden Girls. But successfully translating Charles Dickens’ novella to stage or screen requires a delicate balance of horror and heart.

At the Guthrie Theater, the setting is never going to be outer space or a corporate tower. The most apt Bill Murray reference isn’t Scrooged but Groundhog Day, since every November, the lights come up on the Wurtele Thrust Stage and it’s the Victorian era yet again. Still, the show does evolve, and this year’s production makes its own kind of history—even if all too briefly.

Lauren Keating takes over as director this year, still working from the Crispin Whittell adaptation that’s been so extensively revised since its 2010 premiere that it must look like the shooting script for Apocalypse Now. Keating’s Christmas Carol is the darkest and quietest in memory, suffused with poignant nostalgia and an elegiac sense of opportunities lost.

The Guthrie’s holiday tent-pole had already been sobered up in recent years, and more of the onstage tomfoolery has been sliced away this year. Good riddance to the explication of Miss Fezziwigs’ love affairs, and to Scrooge’s drunken schoolmaster.

Instead, Keating heightens an eerie yet hopeful sense of the supernatural, with characters blinking in and out of sight as Scrooge tumbles back through time. A highly symbolic snow globe is passed to Tiny Tim, and it must have been hard to avoid the temptation to give him a sled as well.

Nathaniel Fuller, who’s played just about every character but Tiny Tim in his many years of Carol-ing, is Scrooge, and he looks and acts precisely as we expect he will—which tends to bore, and provides a clue as to why this production really comes alive when Fuller’s understudy steps in.

For four performances this year, Charity Jones puts on the top hat as the first woman ever to play Scrooge at the Guthrie. The company hasn’t made much of this fact, and it’s hard to blame them given that Jones is so good, audiences who don’t get to see her might feel cheated.

With his traditional laugh lines downplayed, Scrooge in this particular production has to communicate an intense interior. We need to see the change of heart play across his face, since Keating isn’t going to hit us over the head with it. It’s there to be found in Fuller’s Scrooge, but Jones draws our eyes constantly to her.

The overall production doesn’t come together as powerfully as it might—the early establishing scenes feel rushed, and it’s a whiplash when the openhearted young Scrooge (Michael Curran-Dorsano) suddenly turns avaricious—but this Carol finds some new life in an old song. Here’s hoping that next year Charity Jones gets to lead the choir every night.

A Christmas Carol
Guthrie Theater
818 S. Second St., Minneapolis
612-377-2224; through December 30
Charity Jones' performances are 10:30 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 30; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 6; and Wednesday, Dec. 13 at 10:30 a.m.