Pictured: Gary Neal Johnson. Photo by Cory Weaver.
Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL at Kansas City Repertory Theatre
By Abigail Trabue
Those of us in the industry like to take jabs at the practice of theater companies cashing in on Christmas with an overblown family-friendly spectacle each December. The truth is, though, that sharing a live experience that fills an audience with such unfettered warmth and love is a real joy for most performing artists. Many audience members have their first theatrical experience this time of year, and companies take great pride and responsibility in conveying the power of the theater in their holiday offerings.
Kansas City Repertory’s production of A CHRISTMAS CAROL wields that power with both the wisdom of 36 seasons and the acute awareness of the here and now. Jerry Genochio’s staging is both steeped in the tradition you expect from a holiday classic, and full of surprises of stagecraft that present those new audiences with a primer on what makes live theater so special.
The force behind this production is, of course, its Ebenezer Scrooge, expertly portrayed by Gary Neal Johnson for the sixteenth time. In Johnson, KC Rep has perhaps the most perfect Scrooge you’ll find. He’s no Alastair Sim or Patrick Stewart, no Ben Kingsley or Michael Caine. No, Johnson doesn’t lend the gravitas to the role of those heavy hitters, and rightly so. He doesn’t approach Scrooge as a set-in-his-ways man who can’t see beyond his ideology. Instead, he portrays perhaps the foulest, deplorable, contemptible Scrooge I’ve seen. So much so, that I found myself wondering early on if I could possibly believe in his coming redemption. He’s a small, angry man with no use for humanity. Johnson understands that Scrooge’s sadness and anger force him to disappear behind his beliefs.
Though I know the story so well, Johnson’s vile depths inject the one thing that is usually missing from A CHRISTMAS CAROL — suspense. Throughout the play, Johnson takes Scrooge on a true character arc — with a good bit of humor — and at the final redemption, we feel his rapture so deeply because we see such a truly changed man before us.
There are many pleasures to be had in the cast of near forty. Walter Coppage’s Fezziwig is a sheer delight, and Finnegan Jones’ Tiny Tim delivers the waterworks where they count. Perhaps a few other supporting roles don’t sizzle off the stage, but as an ensemble, you’d be hard pressed to find such a diverse and adept group of actors in any of the hundreds of other productions of the Dickens yarn across the country.
The design elements are pitch-perfect, particularly in the way they complement and ornament each other. Jeffrey Cady’s lighting and projections illuminate and expand upon John Ezell’s enchanting set with more vivid purples and greens than you’re likely to see in any other CHRISTMAS CAROL, but it all works perfectly. Joshua Horvath’s sound immerses us in both Scrooge’s intimate chambers and the streets of London with a smart sense of time and place.
Without getting into political discourse, there’s so much in A CHRISTMAS CAROL that reflects on us as a society, and it’d be difficult for anyone to not contemplate the past year upon viewing. The avid theatergoer may deem A CHRISTMAS CAROL beneath their palate, but I would urge anyone to see Kansas City Repertory’s production, for, in it, you just might find absolutely everything good theater should be.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL runs thru December 24th. For more information and to purchase tickets visit kcrep.org