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Scrooge U : Part XIII -- Guthrie stages spirited "Carol"

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Scrooge U : Part XIII -- Guthrie stages spirited "Carol"

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In ballet circles, "The Nutcracker" is now considered a lucrative cliché. Meaning that it's a show that most companies HAVE TO produce each year. Given that many people nowadays just don't consider it Christmas unless they're able to:

  1. Get dressed up.
  2. Go to the theater.
  3. Nod off while Clara & her wooden pal clomp around to the strains of Tchaikovsky.

Seriously though, a successful production of "The Nutcracker" can usually raise enough money (through the sale of tickets to people who don't typically go to ballet) to cover the costs of the rest of that season. Which is why most smart company managers always schedule a production of this holiday favorite to run during the weeks leading up to Christmas.

Mind you, this yearly "Nutcracker" windfall that many ballet companies enjoy has not gone unnoticed in regional theater circles. Which is why many theaters that have resident companies now present an annual production of "A Christmas Carol." With the hope that -- by giving the public exactly what it wants during the holiday season (I.E. Scrooge barking "Humbug," Marley rattling his chains & Tiny Tim saying "God Bless Us, Everyone!") -- that theater can then use this extra bit of money to underwrite the rest of their season.

Of course, the quality of these productions varies from theater to theater. But among the very best in the country is the version of "A Christmas Carol" that the Guthrie Theater has been presenting for 32 years now.

This particular live stage version of Dickens' classic holiday tale is so highly acclaimed that -- back in 1982 -- the Entertainment Channel (I.E. An early cable network that prided itself on presenting cultural programming) cut a deal with the Guthrie to create a television special that was based on that regional theater's annual presentation of "A Christmas Carol."

Copyright 1997 Anchor Bay

As you might expect, a TV movie that's based on a live stage show is rather stagebound. But that said, this version of "A Christmas Carol" is not without its charms.

"Like what?," you ask. Well, let's start with this play's framing device. Which has poor Charles Dickens being badgered to stop writing, come downstairs and join his family at their annual Christmas party. But Charles can't do that because he hasn't actually finished "A Christmas Carol" yet. And given that (as always) the Dickens family really needs the money that the sale of this story will bring, Charles has no choice but to continue writing.

So -- after he shooes his wife, son, daughter, father & maid away -- Dickens settles back into his upstairs office. Charles then begins reading aloud from the text, to see how his new story flows.

Copyright 1997 Anchor Bay

And -- with that -- Charles Dickens becomes the defacto narrator of this version of "A Christmas Carol." Stepping in every now and then as the play runs its course to offer a bit of commentary and/or smooth over a transition. It's a clever idea that playwright Barbara Field (who adapted Dickens' holiday favorite for the stage) manages to keep fresh by using this author-as-narrator device sparingly over the course of the show.

Of course, another fun aspect of the Guthrie Theater's production of "A Christmas Carol" is its set. Which is basically this twisted pair of stairs that lead up from the bare stage to a small platform. Which doesn't look like much at first. But add a little snow, some actors in 1840s period costumes, change the lighting and -- Presto! -- you're on the streets on London.

Copyright 1997 Anchor Bay

Or add two desks and a coal stove and you're inside Scrooge's counting house. Roll in a few settees and a Christmas tree, and you're suddenly at nephew Fred's Christmas party.

Copyright 1997 Anchor Bay

Better yet, cover the stage with fog and throw open a trap door and you can watch Scrooge's horror as Marley (having delivered that faithful warning to his old partner) now descends back into Hell.

Copyright 1994 Anchor Bay

Of course, given that we're talking about live theater here (Particularly live theater circa 1982), this version of "A Christmas Carol" isn't long on special effects. So it's really the performances of the individual actors that make the Ghost of Christmas Present (Peter Thoemke), Ebenezer Scrooge (Richard Hilger) and the Ghost of Christmas Past (Jonathan Fuller) so effective.

Copyright 1997 Anchor Bay

Mind you, Paul Miller (Who directed this television version of the Guthrie's "A Christmas Carol." Which was based on Jon Cranney's original direction for the stage play) uses a few camera tricks every now and then. Like that moment in this TV show where he superimposes Marley's face onto Scrooge's front door. (Borrowing a joke from "Young Frankenstein" here) What a knocker!

Copyright 1997 Anchor Bay

But in the end, what makes this TV movie version of "A Christmas Carol" moving are the very same things that would touch an audiences that was watching the live version of this show. Like the very clever idea of having the actress who played Ebenezer's fiancee, Belle (Keliher Walsh) also play the role of Fred's wife. Which makes it all the more poignant when the now-reformed miser finally comes to Christmas dinner at his nephew's house. And Scrooge gets a glimpse of the life he almost had.

Copyright 1997 Anchor Bay

By the way, if you're going to be out in the Minneapolis area over the next month, the Guthrie will be presenting performances of its acclaimed version of "A Christmas Carol" through December 30th. And -- based on how good the VHS version of this show looks -- I would imagine that it would be absolutely amazing to see in person.

Plus -- if you get tickets to this year's version of Dickens' classic holiday tale -- you'll also get the chance to check out the Guthrie's brand-new $125 million theater complex. Which (I'm told) has a killer view of the Mississippi.

Okay. That's enough talk about hoity-toity theater versions of "A Christmas Carol." Tomorrow, it's the version of Dickens' classic holiday tale that all you Disney dweebs have been waiting for. A certain short film that features a certain cartoon mouse..

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  • Wow, I wish I lived in the area that the play is shown...it looks amazing!

    I can't wait for the Mickey Mouse version of A Christmas Carol. It's the version I grew up with as a kid, and still one of my favorites

  • I've been reading JHM media for about a year now and this is the first time I thought that I needed to drop a comment because the Guthrie's performance of A Christmas Carol is something very special.

    As someone who lives in Minnesota, I have been fortunent enough to go see A Christmas Carol on the Guthrie Stage twice, and it a real treat.  I don't think that a video can do it justice Jim!  You have to see it.

  • OK, Jim - this article has brought me out of lurkerdom.  Living in the Twin Cities, I've had the opportunity to see the Guthries' performance of A Christmas Carol, and though the quality varies from year to year, the production continues to be a remarkable experience.  But, you don't have to live here to see a good performance - every metro area I've been in has some kind production.  I remember years ago in Kansas City a production included a "sleigh ride" to the theater!  Thanks for reminding us that dressing up, going downtown, and experiencing live theater can be a Christmas tradition.

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