BWW Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL at Kansas City Repertory Theatre
Do you think you know about Ebenezer Scrooge and his three nighttime spirit visitors? Prepare for a delightful surprise with the Kansas City Repertory Theatre's reimagined version of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."
KC Rep Artistic Director Eric Rosen has created an all-new adaption of Dickens' 1843 tale of ghostly visits on Christmas Eve. Rosen resurrects the author's original language and sense of irony, pays homage to Dickens 1867-68 American performance tour, and sprinkles in modern theatrical devices that make the complicated story race by as if it were being seen for the first time.
The complex background behind creation of "The Christmas Carol" and Charles Dickens' own tortured personal life is beyond the scope of this piece, but almost exactly 150 years-ago he embarked on a second American performance tour. Beginning on December 9, 1867 in Boston, Dickens traveled up and down the eastern seaboard of the United States ending in April of 1868. The content of these one-man shows, performed before sold-out audiences, was the by-then beloved yarn of Ebenezer Scrooge, Jacob Marley, the Cratchits, and their associated ghosties. After an 1867 intermission, the author often read selections from his "Pickwick Papers."
Like for most graduates of American school systems, Dickens was standard fare in literature class. While researching this year's production, I was surprised to find several of Dickens' obituaries from 1870 referred to him as Britain's foremost humorist.
Director Rosen has paid homage to the 1867 American tour in this re-imagining and has recaptured pieces of Dickens' dry sense of humor and irony. This re-appreciation of the source material causes a familiar cast and crew to whole-heartedly buy into Director Rosen's premise and together imbue an old story with unexpected joy and lightness.
As in the original text, the author takes on the role of narrator looking much as he might have appeared in 1867. Charles Dickens carried a prop book during his long ago "readings." Mark Robbins as Dickens carries the book (often lit from inside), sets the scene and steps aside, only to reappear when appropriate. Mark Robbins is quite good although it should be noted Mark is considerable more robust than was Dickens at this point in his life.
Back for the umpteenth time as Scrooge is the inimitable Gary Neal Johnson. His 2017 Scrooge has evolved from previous versions. The adherence to the original words makes him significantly more crotchety early on and allows for his transformation to become more remarkable in the end. We learn how lonely he was as a child, about his lost love, and more about his relationship with the previously unlamented partner Jacob Marley. More of Dickens' dialog also allows for more of Scrooge's dry wit to emerge for audience members quick enough to catch the humor. The actors are rewarded with periodic twitters from the audience.
The mammoth, excellent setting is mounted on a huge turntable that constantly rotates from scene to scene. Director Rosen has invented a Victorian-costumed quartet of excellent singers armed with period Christmas music. They ease transitions between scenes and set more firmly the 1843 atmosphere. The quartet becomes as much a presence to the show as Dickens himself. They are Lauren Braton, Shanna Jones, Donovan Woods, and John-Michael Zuerlein.
There is much more to compliment about this "2017 A Christmas Carol." Walter Coppage's Jacob Marley is scary and funny and difficult all wrapped up in a single spirit. Vanessa Severo as both the lost love of Ebenezer's life and later his niece is luminous and touching. John Rensenhouse as Mr. Feziwig is delightfully exuberant. And Rusty Sneary as the Spirit of Christmas Present offers a towering portrayal. Rusty is as nimble on stilts as anyone short of Ringling Brothers now sadly extinct circus. His interactions with the audience are traditional and always looked forward to.
Although "A Christmas Carol" is not a musical, the extensive scoring and excellently costumed orchestra might fool you into thinking it is. There is little left to chance. Special effects, setting, sound, and costumes are all top efforts.
The 2017 KC Rep "A Christmas Carol" is special. It kicks off the season. It sets the mood. On the way home, we even took in the Plaza lights. I will resist quoting Tiny Tim's parting comment.
Photos courtesy of Kansas City Repertory Theatre and Cory Weaver