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Wrapped in tradition or rapped in new beats, ‘Christmas Carol’ sparkles at Goodman, CST

Submitted by on Dec 5, 2017 – 11:17 am

Ebeneezer Scrooge (Larry Yando) is amazed to find his bedroom occupied by the Ghost of Christmas Present (Lisa Gaye Dixon). (Liz Lauren)

Review: Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” at Goodman Theatre ★★★★
“Q Brothers Christmas Carol” at Chicago Shakespeare ★★★
Both shows run through Dec. 31.
By Lawrence B. Johnson

While Larry Yando’s indelible Ebeneezer Scrooge is once again delighting children and tapping into adult truths in Goodman Theatre’s indispensable staging of “A Christmas Carol,” the Q Brothers are back at Chicago Shakespeare rapping Dickens’ parable on greed and misanthropy to a reggae beat. The Spirit of Christmas Present walks among us anew.

As Scrooge (GQ) looks on, Lil' Tim (JQ) gives a recitation of his many maladies. (Liz Lauren)This is the 40th year of Goodman’s well-loved and well-made “Christmas Carol,” and Yando’s 10th as the tight-fisted old sinner redeemed through the good offices of his late partner Jacob Marley – even though Marley has been dead for seven years. Dead as…OK, all together now: A DOORNAIL! Exactly.

By all means, take a bunch of kids to see this lovely show. But mind you, don’t be late. You do not want to miss narrator Kareem Bandealy’s evocative prelude to the play: the bit about how Marley is dead, dead as a you know what, and how your firm grasp of this fact is essential if all that follows is to serve its wonderful purpose. Bandealy’s patient, wholly engaged scene-setting establishes not just the show’s tone but also its high dramatic (and comedic) standard.

The real comedy begins promptly with Yando’s curmudgeonly Scrooge and his long-suffering, good-hearted clerk Bob Cratchit. Back in Scrooge’s servitude is Ron E. Rains, whose Cratchit is a winning sort of klutz, an everyman with a family and a cheerful word for all comers — but also an oft-chastised soul who knows it’s best to walk softly around Scrooge, and that to add a lump of coal to the room’s meager heat is to put his employment at risk.

Revisiting his own past, Scrooge (Larry Yando) beholds himself as a boy (Cameron Goode) with his sister Fan (Ariana Burks). (Liz Lauren)Into this grim Christmas Eve picture bounds Scrooge’s nephew Fred. You knew that. But wait! It isn’t Fred at all, not this year. It is Scrooge’s niece, Frida (the ebullient Ali Burch). Quite au courant. But not unproblematic:

In Dickens’ original version, Fred delivers one of the key, and best, speeches in the story: “There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say, Christmas among the rest.” Whereupon Scrooge wryly praises his nephew and expresses ironic surprise that he has not run for Parliament. Yando’s bitter old man so chides his niece. But for Frida in 1843 England, public office would not have been an option. Bit of a misfire, that.

Tiny Tim, Cratchit’s congenitally hobbled little son, also undergoes a slight change here, but to very happy effect. Tim is played by a girl, Paris Strickland – not as Tiny Tina, but as Tim. And a radiant slip of a lad she is.

Bob Cratchit (Ron E. Rains) hoists Tiny Tim (Paris Strickland) on his shoulders as the family eyes their Christmas goose. (Liz Lauren)Such luminosity – of heart and mind and spirit – is the core quality, the fundamental message, of “A Christmas Carol.” It permeates the production directed by Henry Wishcamper: in Molly Brennan’s lighter-than-air Ghost of Christmas Past and the earthy jollity of Lisa Gaye Dixon’s Ghost of Christmas Present; in the jubilation of the company Christmas party of Scrooge’s youth, and, to be sure, in the imagined bounty of the Cratchits’ dinner on Christmas Day.

But if anything wonderful is to come of this beautiful show – handsome sets by Todd Rosenthal, costumes by Heidi Sue McMath, lighting by Keith Parham – we must believe in Scrooge and his transformation: his reclamation. And if there’s anything Yando clutches more tightly than the old miser’s money, it is the truth of Scrooge’s journey. Mugging, whining, resisting, regretting, Yando is funny and touching and credible. His newly awakened Scrooge has not slept through Christmas Day – not in body, and never again in spirit.

“The Q Brothers’ Christmas Carol” puts Dickens’ tale through a mill of brisk, edgy, hilarious rap in this reprise at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Brothers GQ and JQ, together with Jackson Doran and Postell Pringle, play all the characters in a show that moves at bobsled speed in CST’s adaptable new space called The Yard.

In the Q Brothers' version, a redeemed Scrooge (GQ) hasn't missed Christmas after all. (Liz Lauren)Here, The Yard is scaled down to nightclub size, with much of the audience seated at cabaret tables on the floor just below stage level. A Chicago-like cityscape traced in brightly colored lights forms the backdrop and a DJ (Kieran Pereira) creates a soundtrack high above the stage at the rear. We’re definitely not in 1843 London.

In the Qs’ irreverent, fast-forward gloss on “A Christmas Carol,” GQ plays a contemporary Scrooge who hugs his big bag of cash and dismisses the whole idea of seasonal generosity with a self-satisfied “Chris-my-assmas.” Then he comes face-to-face with the chance for redemption that he didn’t know he needed: The redeeming face belongs to his old partner, Jacob Marley, who now looks a lot more like reggae icon Bob Marley.

But it really is Jacob (played by JQ), eternally damned to sing reggae, which he hates. This Marley’s musical warning to Scrooge – in a super-cool trio with Doran and Pringle – may be the funniest (and the smartest) number in the show. Its closest competition would be another hysterical JQ routine, as Lil’ Tim: a rap about the poor kid’s frailty, punctuated by a sort of itemized list of the dread diseases and conditions that afflict him.

The Qs may be the stars, but Pringle and Doran are riotous as they swing from role to role. Pringle bounces from Scrooge’s misused, underpaid clerk Bob Cratchit to a hip, light-on-his-feet Ghost of Christmas Past, then — in one crazy dinner scene — plays both Cratchit and his daughter Martha.

Besides Scrooge’s resolutely merry nephew Fred, Doran limns the young Scrooge’s co-worker Dick Wilkins and Mama Cratchit. Half the fun is in watching this sure-handed duo pop from character to character, donning a bad wig and a fragment of costume to help us keep track of who they are now.

It’s a lean show, crisp and quick and often astonishing in its brash rhymes. The palpable vibe in the audience – anyway at the cabaret tables – was charged. The customers were into it. Score a success for CST’s still-unfolding Yard, which has the look of a home for the Qs’ “Christmas Carol” for many a season to come.

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In the Q Brothers' "Carol," the ghost of Jacob Marley (JQ) looks a lot like reggae icon Bob Marley. (Liz Lauren)

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