The Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s 32nd annual production of “A Christmas Carol” continues to be lively and fresh. Since the first show 33 years ago, including a break from the show in 2009, the production has become a Kansas City tradition causing children, teens and adults to shiver in their boots one moment and bust a gut laughing the next.
Based on Charles Dickens’ classic novel “A Christmas Carol,” the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s adaptation by Barbara Field is true to the original.
The play begins on Christmas Eve and unfolds the life of an older businessman, Ebenezer Scrooge working in his office. Scrooge is a miserly man with a hardened heart and despises the words “Merry Christmas.” He complains Christmas only comes so he can have his “pockets picked” each year.
While Scrooge stays content working next to his large, warm coal fire, his clerk, Bob Cratchit tries, and fails, to warm himself with a single candle. Scrooge does not allow Cratchit’s coal fire to stay lit.
Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, enters to invite Scrooge to Christmas dinner.
“Bah! Humbug,” Scrooge says.
When Scrooge goes home that evening, he is visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley: his former business partner who died on Christmas Eve several years earlier. Marley is entangled in heavy chains and warns Scrooge of his future if he does not change his ways and begin giving to those in need.
Throughout the rest of the night, three more ghosts visit Scrooge: the Ghost of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come. It is only the journeys through time from the ghosts that allow Scrooge to learn his lesson. A series of unfortunate events is reversed.
Local actor and UMKC alumnus Gary Neal Johnson has been with “A Christmas Carol” for more than a decade.
Johnson’s ability to play Scrooge continues to enhance each season. He has an incredible ability to make the show fresh for the audience time and time again.
“Keeping ‘A Christmas Carol’ fresh has never been a problem for me. The story is so meaningful to so many, the character of Scrooge is so interesting, and the life-changing journey he takes on Christmas Eve is so profound that I relish doing it each performance, every year,” Johnson said.
“I discover new things often, but even when I don’t, it’s like an old comfortable coat that I love to put on each time,” he said.
It is obvious that Scrooge means something special to Johnson. He has what it takes to transform a cold hearted and lonely character into a generous and loveable man— a challenge any actor loves to accept.
One of the most impressive moments in the play is when the Ghost of Christmas Present, played by Jim Gall, makes his entrance.
Unlike several years ago when the KC Rep raised the ghost from underneath the stage on an elevator, he is lowered from the fly system above, wearing a massive gown that stretches down to the stage floor.
When this massive ghost finally reaches the ground, he remains bigger than life. Gall walks on stilts that add an extra three feet to his already impressive height of more than six feet.
Gall commands the stage, and the audience’s attention, as he walks around spreading handfuls of glitter and laughter. It is a beautiful moment, which includes a great deal of audience interaction.
But it isn’t just Johnson and Gall who are memorable. This year’s entire cast is better than ever.
“What’s different [this year] is that there isn’t an actor on that stage that doesn’t have full ownership of the story and their place in it,” Director Kyle Hatley said. “It’s one thing to have cool effects and beautiful designs to create the atmosphere and tone of the story, but it is truly something to watch a cast of actors and crew members take on the change of precision in storytelling. These actors are students of the play and they love telling it, and they tell it with a raw, human passion.”
Hatley said there is one scene that never gets old for him. In this sequence, young Ebenezer Scrooge, performed by Rusty Sneary, proposes to his love, Belle, performed by UMKC alumnus Vanessa Severo, but her response is not in his favor.
“It always, always, always gets to me,” Hatley said. “The text in the book, which is what’s in our play, is so human and so efficient and so, so, so heartbreaking. It’s one of the first moments we see our protagonist suffer like the rest of us. We can empathize with him because it’s such a human moment.”
No matter how old or young audience members are, the show has something to offer everyone. Children can be fully entertained and understand the importance of giving to others in need, while adults understand an even deeper meaning.
“It is a story about life and your responsibility to it. I want them [the audience] walking out knowing that each of us on this planet have a responsibility to participate in life. Our separation from it cripples it. Our involvement enhances it,” Hatley said.
“A Christmas Carol,” performed on Spencer Stage in the UMKC Performing Arts Center [PAC] is a must see this season, and will be for years to come.
The show runs through Dec. 26 with tickets starting at $25. Student rush tickets are just $10 and may be purchased at the box office in the PAC 30 minutes before the show begins.