Pictured: Gary Neal Johnson. Photo by Don Ipock.
By Abigail Trabue
If you regularly hop aboard KCRep’s annual voyage of “A Christmas Carol,” you know that the production has gone through some changes over the past few years. A new script from former Artistic Director Eric Rosen that was implemented two seasons ago suffered in an attempt to find some new revelations in the original Dickens text that are oft-ignored in stage versions. The previous script had worked so well that, frankly, I couldn’t understand why it was scrapped.
This year, mercifully, a different adaptation of the Dickens classic (by Geogg Elliott) has been implemented, along with new direction from Associate Artistic Director Jason Chanos.
Gary Neal Johnson is rightly the driving force behind this production as Ebeneezer Scrooge — and as much as that sounds obvious, it wasn’t the case the last two seasons. The dialog committed the sin of softening Scrooge from the outset, forcing Johnson to round some of the jagged edges. This year, he’s as vile as ever, and it sets up the whirlwind of ghosts to come and the ultimate payoff we’re all here for — Scrooge’s redemption. The whole point of this story is to show us we can be better people. We can care more. Not much else really matters. And to do that, we need to witness Scrooge’s miserly ways and comprehend the events that led him down that path.
For those who don’t look too closely, the changes aren’t that drastic. We’re still playing on John Ezell’s turntable London set, with many of the same cast members in Emily Stovall’s stellar costumes. There’s no more Charles Dickens reading from his giant light-up manuscript. Instead, we get the genial Walter Coppage as capable narrator. The full cast sings the musical interludes in place of the quartet of carolers. The projection design by Jason H. Thompson and Kaitlyn Pietras has simultaneously been reigned in and improved. The sound design by Joshua Horvath is the key that pulls everything together and makes us feel as if we are truly flying with the ghosts through London. But what we’re mainly getting this year is efficient storytelling. Nearly every scene is just about the right length, and some of the excessive musical interludes are gone. Perhaps the most delightful addition is the joyous pre-show welcome from newly minted Artistic Director Stuart Carden, who seemed about as pleased to be walking the aisles of KCRep as anyone else in the audience.
This script isn’t perfect, however. In favor of a short first act, much of the “Christmas Past” sequence is rushed, which is most preferable to it being drawn out — but we need to understand what turned Scrooge into a Scrooge, and we really don’t get that, whether invented or from the original text. Part of the problem is Scrooge’s former love, Belle. No “Christmas Carol” that I’ve seen has really transposed Belle from the page to the stage effectively, and this script is no exception. In a rare moment of stodginess, Belle’s dialog is as stiff as a British upper lip. I can’t say for sure, but I’m guessing most of it is direct from Dickens, and it just doesn’t ring true coming out of the mouth of a real live person.
Chanos’ new direction hasn’t found its groove either. There are some awkward stage pictures, and the scene where Scrooge’s belongings are sold off by scavengers goes on far too long, shelved far away on the upper deck of the set. But he’s solved other problems, like the overall pace and transitions that previously took far too long. The grand entrance of the Ghost of Christmas Present works particularly well this year.
On the cast front, Rusty Sneary brings a depth to nephew Fred that is rarely seen. Some of his simplest looks let us consider Fred as a rounded human instead of, well, the proverbial Dickens character. Victor Raider-Wexler’s unique, booming bark is a joy to hear painted onto the ghost of Jacob Marley.
And Johnson is at the top of his game. He is aptly foul at first, and then, completely understands how Scrooge is transformed well before he wakes up Christmas morning. We see it on his face as he travels with the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come. He is beyond making himself a new man; he’s trying to figure out how to make reparations for the failings of his past. That’s most evident when actor, script, and director combine to deliver the climax, which Chanos and Johnson know doesn’t fall on Tiny Tim’s final blessing. No, it’s much earlier. The minute Scrooge steps outside into the bustling street, we are thrown into a rollercoaster of emotion. I have never begun to tear up at Scrooge hiring a boy to buy a prize turkey before. This year, the waterworks turned on at that moment, on through adding zeros to the charitable donation. Through appearing at Fred’s door to humbly ask to join the festivities, and into the final line of the play: “God bless us, everyone,” which no longer feels like manipulative emotional warfare directed on this mother of three. It’s now an inevitable coda that reminds us of our personal fallibility and need for salvation, whether it be from a higher power or our fellow man.
If the cast isn’t feeling a wall of appreciation immediately at lights-out each and every night, it’s because we in the audience sit stunned, moved, and rethinking every Scrooge-like failure of our past twelve months on earth.
KCRep’s “A Christmas Carol” is a superb way to find the true meaning of Christmas this and every year. The company makes it a genuine communal event, as we see our neighbors of all walks of life tell this timeless story.