By Bob Evans
A newly crafted production of Kansas City’s favorite holiday play, “A Christmas Carol,” by Kansas City Repertory Theatre opened to a full house on the UMKC campus on Nov. 25 with major changes that reflect the language and flavor of Charles Dickens’ original book.
Give credit to Artistic Director, Eric Rosen, for re-tooling the script to add more of Dickens’ text and demeanor in a darker, more ghostly version of the classic Christmas story. The current production celebrates the 150 year anniversary of the Dickens masterpiece that debuted in 1867.
For the 37th annual production of “A Christmas Carol,” Rosen took the classic story of Ebenezer Scrooge closer to the original text of Charles Dickens’ book and added a darker element to the story, more reflective of Dickens’ other works, a spokesman for KC Rep said. Well-known and beloved Kansas City actors Mark Robbins and Gary Neal Johnson return as Dickens and Scrooge respectively, along with the rest of the talented cast.
“After 37 years it’s both daunting and thrilling to look at a much-beloved production through a new lens.” Rosen said. “This is a chance to re-examine, reimagine and remake a piece of art, and I’m finding Dickens’ original text much funnier and joyful than I remember. I’m fairly certain that this discovery will also be shared by our audiences.”
A Christmas Carol tells the story of lonely, friendless, miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, who after rejection of his father and a lonely childhood, learns that money holds the key to his happiness and success. As his fortune rises, he withdraws from humanity, similarly rejects his sole living relative, and resides in solitude. His only adult friend and business partner, Jacob Marley, returns as a ghost to advise Scrooge of his mistakes, providing an “escape plan” for Scrooge’s mistaken greed and values. Three additional ghosts arrive to educate Scrooge of his mistakes, providing him the chance to change in time for Christmas Day.
The new installment of “A Christmas Carol” saved the glorious revolving set and period costumes, and many of the cast from previous mountings. Much of the previous dialogue and many of the scenes were changed. Those familiar with past productions may miss parts, but to those new patrons will see and enjoy what is presented. The story always remains the same. Parts of the story can change, but the theme and outcome always remain in tact.
The 2017 version features a larger youth cast and a quartet of vocalists who perform various timely carols as scenes and time changes occur. The lavish production features more of Dickens’ text and language and a darker motif. The joy from past productions has been replaced with a more serious tone. Still, magic when Scrooge awakens from his nightmarish ghostly encounters seals the deal and brings the Christmas spirit to life, again.
This production marks the world premier of Eric Rosen’s revised retelling. Some scenes add more depth to the story, but some other scenes (now eliminated) gave the story a different texture. As a reviewer, I try to rate what is presented before me. This presents difficulty with seeing a play I have reviewed for six years and viewing an entirely different representation of Dickens’ work.
Even though I thoroughly enjoyed the added quartet, I thought the new version added too much singing and interruption to the story. During a party scene, I enjoyed the choreography, but felt like I was watching a musical more so than a play. I missed scenes where Ebenezer’s past was more significantly explained to viewers to display how drastically he changed once money replaced love in his life. I thought Belle’s speech when she breaks the marriage engagement was too long, yet, so much like Dickens’ original words. I enjoyed a scene where Christmas Present depicts miners and sailors and world conditions. And the best part was the larger than life depiction of Christmas Present with Rusty Sneary’s over-the-top portrayal of the larger-than-life spectre. Sneary uplifts the spirits as Act II begins and lifts the story out of sadness, grief, and past transgressions.
I applaud Eric Rosen for his brave adaptation of the story that has entertained Kansas City audiences for 37 seasons. The new version needs some tweaking to add better flow at times and to keep the story moving. New audiences will enjoy the production, but annual attendees will compare to what they have seen before. At that point, some may prefer one version over the other. It’s a coin toss on that. I like the old, yet I celebrate the fresh approach.
Never a fan of reading Dickens’ books, A Christmas Carol stands alone as the one novella I did enjoy. The book is rich and textured. Movies made from the story always charm me. The 1951 version with Alistair Sims produces eye-waterfalls annually.
Undoubtedly, “A Christmas Carol” ushers in the Kansas City Christmas season, and should become a family tradition–if it is not. Young and old will enjoy the story of Ebenezer Scrooge–even if they have seen it time and time again. It’s magical.
The cast is: Chioma Anyanwu, Lauren Braton, Walter Coppage, Sam Cordes, Bree Elrod, Peggy Friesen, Gary Neal Johnson, Shanna Jones, Jay Love, John Rensenhouse, Mark Robbins, Ken Sandberg, Megan Sells, Vanessa Severo, Emily Schackelford, Rusty Sneary, Charlie Spillers, Bradley J. Thomas, Jake Walker, Cheryl Weaver, Brianna Woods, Donovan Woods, John-Michael Zuerlein.
Two youth ensembles (Holly Cast and Ivy Cast) rotate performances. Holly Cast: Lucy Alcock, Emma Andrews, Ellison Shane Black, Estelle Gordon, Marshall Jones, Anna Mikeseic, Benjamin Preistland, Lauren Rose Rothhaas, Ashley Elliott Rowe, Aria Smith; Ivy cast: Maddox Bane, Siena Claure, Elliott Daggett, Ella Graham, Sarah Keary, Ellie Shea McMannamy, Ava Jane Meiners, Sawyer Nevins, Cara Parisi, Drew Squire.
Outstanding musical accompaniment and orchestration was provided by the small combo under the musical direction of Anthony Edwards. Musicians were Mike Prucha, Jonathan Lloyd Schriock,
Eric Rosen manned the task of developing and directing “A Christmas Carol.” The production team is: Anthony Edwards, music director/conductor; John Ezell, scenic design; Stella Yesultag, costume design; Jason H. Thompson and Kaitlyn Pietras, lighting and projection; Joshua Horvath, sound design; Tracy Terstriep Huber, period movement; Jason Chanos, associate director; Jason Chanos and Chip Miller, casting; Gene Emerson Friedman, associate scenic design; Jennifer Matheson Collins, production stage manager, Rachel M. Dyer, assistant stage manager.
Tickets for “A Christmas Carol” start at $25 and may be purchased by visiting the KC Rep website or calling the box office at 816-235-2700. Groups of nine or more receive discounted tickets. Performances run November 17 through December 24 at Spencer Theatre on the UMKC campus.
Tags: Kansas City Rep, Kansas City Repertory Theatre, “A Christmas Carol”, Kansas City Performing Arts, Kansas City Theater, Kansas City Arts & Entertainment