Gary Neal Johnson, Cheryl Weaver, Rusty Sneary and Ken Sandberg. Photo by Cory Weaver.
By Abigail Trabue
I wrote of last year’s production of A CHRISTMAS CAROL at KCRep, in part, the following:
“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 portrays 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…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.”
I also said that “I would urge anyone to see Kansas City Repertory’s production, for, in it, you just might find absolutely everything good theater should be.” It’s with that performance so ingrained in my mind that I viewed this year’s new iteration and wondered what the heck happened.
Eric Rosen has adapted and directed this new-ish production, one that I had every hope would expand an illuminate the familiar tale and was excited to see with fresh eyes, but that was nearly impossible with largely the same cast and design in front of me. Comparisons will have to be made, and they are necessary, for I spent the evening contemplating why Rosen has stripped everything that worked so well out in an attempt to find some new revelations in the original Dickens text, while including (unsuccessfully) a tongue-in-cheek self-awareness and way too much music.
The evening begins with a labored, unfunny, and pretentious sounding set of pre-show announcements from the cast, who profess “Mr. Rosen’s” rules for the audience. They explain how Dickens’ reading tour of A CHRISTMAS CAROL was so popular in America that he earned the equivalent of so-many-millions of dollars and with that in mind we should imagine we are at one such reading. What? The odd nod to commercialism aside, the one thing Rosen does manage to improve upon in those beginning moments is the incorporation of Dickens as the narrator, portrayed with welcomed new purpose by Mark Robbins.
But A CHRISTMAS CAROL is Ebeneezer Scrooge. If ever there were a character arc, this is supposed to be it, and Rosen has hamstrung Gary Neal Johnson with an impossible task. So much of what makes Scrooge work is gone, or ran roughshod over. Beginning with the first counting house scene — which previously took its time and allowed Johnson to establish the character thoroughly — we are rushed through mildly altered dialog that more closely resembles Dickens’ words, to a fault. For instance, perhaps the second-most famous line in the show — “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population” — is almost a throw-away, climaxing with the original “besides–excuse me–I don’t know that” tacked on.
And this theme of throwing away moments that define Ebenezer doesn’t stop in the offices of Scrooge and Marley. We blow through the Ghost of Christmas Past with lightning speed, glancing by or eliminating everything that makes Scrooge a Scrooge. Visions of his lonely childhood, everything having to do with Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig (John Rensenhouse and Peggy Friesen are criminally underutilized), and his failed engagement to Belle (Vanessa Severo) are so watered down it’s a wonder they are even there.
After Rusty Sneary awkwardly rises and descends, and is disconnected from a wholly unnecessary flying harness, his comical-yet-moving Ghost of Christmas Present remains thankfully intact. Here, Rosen has penned perhaps the best addition to the show, a Christmas Eve journey from miners to sailors across the countryside under a starlit sky as the full cast sings a nearly-rousing rendition of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”
Part of the break-neck pace as we whirl round and round dizzyingly on the turntable set is to make room for musical numbers such as this, mostly delivered by a quartet to expedite the transitions. The traditional carols are unfortunately unimaginatively arranged and balanced. The music, which seems intent on being the centerpiece of this production, is as anemic as its Scrooge.
Even the Cratchit family and Tiny Tim don’t get their due consideration, making the first-most famous “God bless us, everyone” miss its waterworks-inducing mark.
Still, it’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL, and it’s not so far off-base from what you might know to be offensive. Stella Yesul Tag’s costume design is a beautiful picture of Victorian England and, when not in carousel mode, John Ezell’s set wonderfully transforms to more locations than one can keep track of.
Those who have spent year after year with the Rep’s production will still enjoy themselves and may appreciate a change of pace. Just don’t expect to be blown away by some 21st-century re-imagination, because you won’t find it here.