Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL at Kansas City Repertory Theatre

A Ghost Story Of Christmas

By: Nov. 22, 2023
Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL at Kansas City Repertory Theatre

Last night, November 21, 2023, a Kansas City tradition, the 42rd annual (almost) Kansas City Repertory Theatre production of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” opened at the Spencer Theater on the UMKC campus for an extended run through Christmas Eve.  Except for the Covid year when the live production was replaced by a video version, audiences have gathered for “A Christmas Carol” every year since 1980.

Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL at Kansas City Repertory Theatre
Gary Neal Johnson
as Ebenezer Scrooge

The house lights dim and a cast of Victorian holiday carolers appears complete with an onstage costumed orchestra. Our Storyteller (Nedra Dixon) also dressed in stunning early Victorian garb, welcomes us.  Ms. Dixon is elegant and charming in this her first stint as the Storyteller. 

Ebenezer Scrooge (Gary Neal Johnson), our protagonist, is introduced. He is a mid-nineteenth century money-grubbing miser; the prototypical grumpy old man. Scrooge’s firm is called Scrooge and Marley.  Mr. Marley has gone on to his reward seven years previous to the Christmas portrayed in this story.

Scrooge’s immortal response whenever wished a “Merry Christmas” is a brusque “Bah, Humbug!” Tonight will be a dreadful night at the dark, sinister Scrooge mansion.  

Again donning the Victorian style overcoat, top hat, and later an ornate robe complete with tasseled nightcap is venerable Kansas City actor Gary Neal Johnson. Johnson plays the role for the twenty-third time.  He first joined the company as “Old Joe” in 1982.

Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL at Kansas City Repertory Theatre
Nedra Dixon as
The Storyteller

Gary Neal Johnson is super as Ebenezer Scrooge. He is, by stages, grumpy and despicable, droll, transformative, very funny and warm.  He does a fine job of showing us Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation while staying believable throughout.

Christmas Eve, Ebenezer Scrooge glumly closes up his office at 7:00 p.m., snarkily pays his clerk Bob Cratchit (Cody Proctor) his measly fifteen shilling salary, and heads for the home he had occupied with Jacob Marley.  He sits down for a bowl of gruel, but before Scrooge can settle in, an apparition materializes. 

It is the ghost of Jacob Marley (John Rensenhouse) wrapped in the chains “he forged in life.”  Marley has gone on to his reward, but perhaps not the one he had hoped for.  The chains represent Marley’s misdeeds in life.  He is here to warn his old partner that he might yet avoid suffering an ugly fate. 

Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL at Kansas City Repertory Theatre
Scrooge confronted by
the phantom of Jacob Marley

Later that same night, Scrooge will be visited by the first of three ghosts.  They are the Ghosts of Christmas Past (Chioma Anyanwu), Present (Matt Rapport), and Yet to Come (Tanner Rose).

So you think you know Ebenezer Scrooge and his three nighttime spirit visitors. Prepare for some delightful surprises in this the Kansas City Repertory Theatre's reimagined vision for "A Christmas Carol."

The original title of the piece is “A Christmas Carol, In Prose. Being A Ghost Story of Christmas.” Dickens’ story first appeared as a five chapter (stave) novella. The first six thousand copies were released in London on December 19, 1843 under the publishing auspices of Chapman & Hall publishers, but at Charles Dickens’ personal expense.  Chapman & Hall had declined the opportunity because of lagging sales of Dickens' previous book. They were very wrong.  Six days later, the first edition of “A Christmas Carol” had sold out. 

Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL at Kansas City Repertory Theatre
The spirit of Christmas Present

By Christmas 1844, eleven additional authorized printings of Dickens’ tale of redemption had been loosed upon the marketplace plus a number of pirated editions. “A Christmas Carol” shaped the way citizens of the United Kingdom and America have celebrated the Christmas holiday ever since.

Within three months, a stage version premiered by one Edward Stirling, but sanctioned by Dickens. This first staged version played forty performances. 

Director Jason Chanos has created this all-new production of Dickens' 1843 tale of ghostly visits on Christmas Eve. In this re-imagining, playwright Geoff Elliott has resurrected the author's original language and sense of irony.  Director Chanos 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.

This re-appreciation of the source material causes this cast and crew to whole-heartedly buy into Director Chanos’ premise and together imbue a hundred-forty-three year old story with unexpected joy and lightness.   There is a cast of sixteen adults and a split cast of eighteen young people. It is remarkably balanced group.  Each character is individual and better than the last.  I was impressed with them one and all.

Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL at Kansas City Repertory Theatre
The Spirit of Christmas Past

The mammoth, excellent setting is mounted on a huge turntable that rotates from scene to scene. Scenic Director is John Ezell

Director Chanos has invented a Victorian-costumed quartet of excellent singers and supporting players They ease transitions between scenes set firmly the 1843 atmosphere. The quartet is  Chioma Anyanwu, Lauren Braton, Darrington Clark, and Tanner Rose.

New Victorian costumes are designed by Jenny Green.  Sound is by Josh Horvath. Lighting is by Minjoo Kim . Musical Director is Anthony Edwards.  The Choreographer is Marc Wayne.

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 2023  KC Rep "A Christmas Carol" is special. It kicks off the season. It sets the mood. Looks forward to the Plaza lights. To quote Tiny Tim “God bless us every one. It marks the sixtieth anniversary season of the Kansas City Repertory Theatre.

Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL at Kansas City Repertory Theatre
The cast with Scrooge, Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim

Photos courtesy of Kansas City Repertory Theatre and Don Ipock