Back in 1975, a Guthrie employee named Barbara Field contrived a way of putting the Charles Dickens novella on its feet, making it a ghost story narrated by Dickens himself with clever use of direct quotations from the book. Revisions — sometimes small, sometimes great, sometimes inspired, sometimes flaccid — took place over the years, many involving Field’s own hand. I haven’t kept track, but I’ve seen at least a dozen or more productions at the Guthrie and some have been wonderful and others endured.
I suspect it will be welcomed by some and denounced as sacrilege by others, and I’m not going to parse a judgment for either extreme.
Nonetheless, it’s clear that Whittell set out to unhinge the Guthrie’s annual holiday show from its past while still delivering the story that continues to bring in seasonal crowds. His adaptation is less literary in tone and sometimes almost contemporary-sounding, though he still mines some of the iconic lines (“humbug,” “God bless us every one,” etc.) and he’s eliminated (though not entirely, as it turns out), the narrative voice.
Overall, this production is less ghostly, though the three spirits all “fly” in. Once arrived, however, the ghosts of past and present seem much more corporeal — and, in fact, there are a few incongruities. For instance, the Ghost of Christmas Past (Kate Elfrig looking a little like Saint Lucy) takes Scrooge on a tour of his life, yet seems surprised by some of the things she’s showing the old sinner. The Ghost of Jacob Marley (Lee Mark Nelson) makes a great entrance, but he’s more affable than scary, turning his ghostliness into a hey-look-I’m-dead sort of joke.
And then there’s Scrooge. As written by Whittell and performed with restraint by Daniel Gerroll, he’s not a fellow who will be “scared straight” by spirits. His crankiness is droll and his conversion does not erupt into out-of-control giddiness. On one hand, I welcome this because the idea of Scrooge being frightened into goodness should not be the message of the play. On the other hand, Whittell has given Scrooge a litany of snarky comments to utter during his journey of revelations and he comes close to being something of an annoying guest.
Dickens was a social moralist and in “Christmas Carol” the epitome of his moralizing comes in the moment where the Ghost of Christmas Present (Nic Few) explains the appearance of two young children: a boy representing ignorance and a girl representing want. Both are called the “children of man” and a threat — especially the boy — to civilization itself. This scene is tossed off with a brief moment in Whittell’s adaptation and replaced, I think, by an emphasis best expressed by Fred, Scrooge’s nephew, when he visits the Cratchits in a future Christmas to express condolences on the death of Tiny Tim.
That sentiment aside, the new “Christmas Carol” is a handsome holiday machine. Walt Spangler’s set is a big Victorian street scene that is mostly a backdrop. Scrooge lives above his counting house, in a room with a skylight that is open to ghostly invasions. Those who come to this show for a holiday spectacle will not be disappointed. The crowd scenes with kids and carolers flash through in what ultimately is a well-paced show, and the Fezziwig ball is a terrific, folksy dance interlude, attributed to Joe Chavala as the production’s “movement” specialist.
Whittell also has given us some memorable new characters: a boozy schoolmaster named Mr. Sykes (Nathaniel Fuller) and, especially, Scrooge’s laconic, cynical housekeeper, Merriweather (Angela Timberman in a hilarious turn). Whittell also combines all the final Christmas-day scenes into an appealing roundup at Bob Cratchit’s house. There is, however, no effective way to end the show without retreating back into a narrative format, and Dowling’s staging goes to it with a kind of “Return of the Jedi” sort of ending, bringing back all the characters, living and dead, including the ghosts.
Some may find this odd, but it works for me.
“A Christmas Carol” continues through Dec. 30 at the Guthrie Theater.