Review: “A Christmas Carol” at the Guthrie

Guest review by Courtney Lewis, Minnesota Monthly assistant managing editor

Jacob Marley may be getting a little concerned about the ticket prices demanded by the Guthrie Theater for A Christmas Carol these days ($70 on opening night). But the production values have arguably kept pace–nowhere in the country will you see a more polished production. Eight years into the directorial tenure of Gary Gisselman—four with Raye Birk as Scrooge—this juggernaut has settled into a sweet spot of sentiment and storytelling, with brisk pacing that never lets the moralizing stick long enough to become cloying. Gisselman was the founding director of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, of course, and blends a crowdpleasing knack for choreography and crowd scenes with crisp direction.

Consider some of the alternatives—and there are many, from zany to straight—and you may well find yourself coming back to the original; thus is it’s power, in the right hands. Not long ago, I saw a charming but poorly acted production at a community theater in the northern suburbs. I heard a wide array of accents—English, Cockney, Minnesotan, what could have passed for Austrian—out of the mouths of several characters (Mrs. Grisby repeatedly switched her dialect). Worse, Schoolmaster/Old Joe’s digital watch beeped during a key scene. Regardless, the audience gave a standing ovation. It was entertaining, but well performed? Enchanting? Better, I suppose, than watching Desperate Housewives.

There is a new influence slowly creeping into the Guthrie production–the fear factor, embodied by the corpse of Scrooge during his visit to the future. Obviously, it’s a sign of the times: Our CSI-influenced society can handle it, wants it, and the Guthrie delivers. (I did overhear one woman say she hoped the ghost of the future would’ve been scarier—not the reaction of the children who screamed when the ghost appeared.) Still it was hardly gratuitious, another sharp detail in Barbara Fields’s adaptation of what was once a grittier story.

Lastly, as crabby as Ebenezer Scrooge is (he’d simply be deemed a pessimist today), even the old codger can’t helped but be touched by Tiny Tim’s final wish to “God bless us, everyone.” It ranks right up there with Zuzu’s declaration that, “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.” The classics, it seems, rarely fail to please during the holidays—even when a digital watch alarm tries its best.