Scrooge Takes Center Stage as KC Rep’s Jason Chanos Directs His Production of “A Christmas Carol”
For Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol,” the Noel is greater than the sum of its parts.
The perennial holiday show’s crowd-pleasing components include its huge cast of 20 adults and 10 youths sporting mid-19th-century fashions and ear-tickling British vernaculars, captivating singing and dancing underscored by live period music, a computerized rotating set and a series of unforgettable ghosts who deal in dynamic tough love after making supernatural entrances to die for.
Yet the transcendent appeal of KC Rep’s annual edition of Charles Dickens’ soul-stirring Christmastime tale resides in the notion that redemption is possible for even the most flawed among us.
Get the show’s salvation story right — make the audience relate to Ebenezer Scrooge’s bumpy passage from bitter miser to infinitely better human being — and it’s hard to go wrong, says KC Rep associate artistic director, Jason Chanos, who this year is directing his first production of “A Christmas Carol.”
“I line up all the pieces and parts to be successful, but at the end of the day, it’s art,” Chanos says. “I just want to make sure that the story is being told in a way that will move the audience. I don’t want them to just be watching the show the way they would watch anything and eat popcorn, and drift. I want them to be swept up in the story in a way that lingers long after they’ve seen it, that makes them kind of walk with a different mindset through the world.”
Chanos’ first mission was finding a new script, which would emphasize Scrooge’s pivotal perspective. After passing on a host of other stage versions of Dickens’ 1843 novella, Chanos turned to friend and fellow thespian Geoff Elliott, playwright and co-artistic director of the Los Angeles theater troupe A Noise Within. Elliott’s script for his company’s own staging of “A Christmas Carol” authentically reflected the purity of Dickens’ original story.
“It was faithful to the novella, which is so close to being a play script, anyway, because it has so much dialogue,” Chanos says. “It was just perfect. It layered right on top of everything I wanted to do.”
As much as anything, Chanos wanted Scrooge to be not only the narrative’s primary mover but also its predominant observer, which hasn’t always been the case in the Rep’s productions, he says.
“Scrooge has been lost in the shuffle a little bit,” Chanos says. “When there are a lot of bodies onstage, we tend to forget that we’re looking at this story through him. So I’m bringing Scrooge back into focus for the audience. He doesn’t get to disappear in a big dance scene anymore. I want to reignite this idea that we are watching this story of redemption through his eyes.”
Once again, Gary Neal Johnson plays Scrooge, a role he’s skillfully shouldered in all 19 KC Rep productions of the show since 2000. That’s a lot of “Bah humbug!” to handle for any actor, but Johnson is grateful for the continuing opportunity to touch so many hearts year after year.
“It’s a legacy that most actors don’t have,” Johnson says. “If that sounds immodest, I don’t mean it to. What’s most important to me is the humanity of the role, that the audience can look inside this guy and say, ‘OK, I understand him and I’m with him.’”
But gaining audience empathy for Scrooge is intended to be a gradual process. At the start of “A Christmas Carol,” the elderly misanthrope is a broken man who doesn’t realize his true state of despair. Devastated by pain and loss from long ago, as a tightfisted London banker incapable of loving or feeling love, his only devotion is to his profits.
Scrooge can summon nothing nicer than smirking disinterest regarding his dutiful employee Bob Cratchit and Cratchit’s deprived family, including sickly youngster Tiny Tim. But when the greedy coot is visited by the tortured spirit of his late business partner, Jacob Marley, it leads to the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future to terrify, fascinate and ultimately school Scrooge in the tragic errors of his ways.
Will Scrooge be able to change before it’s too late? Can he save himself from solitary death and eternal disgrace? Even if every audience member knows the outcome, the ever-savvy Johnson remains dedicated to his classic character’s tumultuous trajectory in 10 demanding performances a week over the show’s month-plus run.
“Once upon a time, (the process) was more stressful for me,” Johnson says. “But now it’s second nature to start at the beginning of every show and take the entire journey. It’s what we do. We do these shows over and over again. And our job is to make it like the first time every time, no matter how many times we’ve done it.
“I have no tricks for keeping it fresh,” he says. “The show does that for me. The character does that for me. The story does that for me. Often, I feel like my No. 1 job is to not get emotional, to not get weepy. Because I can go there over the course of the evening. Maybe a couple of times a year I’ll just sort of let it go. I don’t sob, but I think people in the audience can see it. It’s no transgression, but I’m not especially proud of it, because the job is to time Scrooge’s journey and not get to the end too soon.”
Perhaps Johnson’s biggest acting challenge comes in the always emotional Candlelight Carol scene, featuring dozens of singers zealously spreading the season’s greetings.
“It’s a beautiful moment and the culmination of a lot of things going on that are affecting Scrooge — but it also has to do with Gary,” Johnson acknowledges. “I’m walking amongst my cast members and sometimes I’m face to face with them as they’re singing out to the house. And that can be compelling for me — not just the humanity in the world that Scrooge inhabits, but also the humanity onstage, this group of actors and good souls who are singing their hearts out and giving it all they’ve got all night long because they want to tell this story.”
Stilts, Ghosts and Costumes
No one is more onboard with Johnson’s all-in approach to his art than actor Matt Rapport, who returns to the cast of “A Christmas Carol” after a six-year absence and for the first time as the 10-foot-tall Ghost of Christmas Present.
As a highly experienced stilt-walker, Rapport had the towering part of his role down pat before even learning a line.
“I’m not expecting to do backflips, but I’m certainly comfortable on stilts,” Rapport says. “I’m able to move around on them in a way that looks more like realistic movement, rather than sort of fearfully tottering around. And I think by being fearless, that helps to serve the story, because Christmas Present is there to say (to Scrooge), ‘Hey, look around, this is humanity. There are good things you are missing out on, because you’ve chosen to focus on things that don’t really matter and shut yourself off from any potential joy in life.’
“All of the Ghosts, of course, are ultimately giving him the same message. But Christmas Present specifically gets to say, ‘You’ve got to look at the here and now. You can change things.’”
Improving upon the Ghosts’ show-stopping entrances is a key goal of “A Christmas Carol,” says director Chanos. “I don’t want it to be, ‘Oh, there’s a ghost.’ I want it to be, ‘Oh, my God — that was amazing.’”
Chanos is especially drawn to the entrance of the Ghost of Christmas Present, “because I’ve never seen an entrance of Christmas Present that I like,” he declares. “How do you bring in a 10-foot person in a spectacular way? In the novella, he kind of rises above Scrooge’s bed. So you almost need an actor to come in, step on a scissor lift, rise above the bed and then gracefully come back down and go on with the scene. It’s a technically complicated entrance.
“We’ve had him or her come in through the audience or in a basket — kind of a hot-air balloon — but you could see all the wires in the basket. The thing is, I don’t want to make it fresh just because I want to make it fresh. I want it to be magic.”
The ramped-up enchantment also goes for the Ghosts costumes. Early on, Chanos told veteran KC Rep costume shop manager Gala Voss that he wanted the Ghosts to be “organic and treelike” with a “floating feel,” Voss says.
“Jason is one of the few directors who really looks at costume designs and really thinks about them,” she says. “He’ll ask questions about things and you’ll go, ‘Oh, yeah, you noticed that? That’s great!’ A lot of directors don’t know what they’re seeing until they actually see it onstage.”
“Family Coming Together”
In a show with so many moving parts, there are bound to be blips both big and small, both seen and unseen.
Some glitches are tough to miss: “One season, we had a little girl who played Want and also played Belinda Cratchit,” Voss recalls. “And one night she just didn’t make the (costume) change and she ended up rolling onto the stage to get into the scene that she was supposed to be in.”
Other bugs are best kept hidden: “It’s such a long run that people are always getting sick,” Chanos says. “There are always those stories about when people just finish their scene and then run offstage to throw up in a trash can.”
Behind the scenes, KC Rep’s “A Christmas Carol” is “a family coming together to create this epic story,” Chanos says. “And we have a huge cast and they’re all local, so I know them. I go to their theaters to watch their shows. I have artistic directors of other theaters that are in this show. So people know me, and there’s some comfort in that.
“But the creative process has its ups and downs, right? There are six steps to the creative process: Number one, this is going to be awesome! Number two, ooh, this is hard. Number three, this is shit. Number four, I’m shit. Number five, this might be OK. Number six, this is awesome! So when you go through the valley of the dark with your friends, it’s awkward. There just comes a point when they just go, ‘I don’t trust you anymore.’ And then they trust you again.”
Chanos hopes that audiences of “A Christmas Carol” will trust their hearts as Scrooge eventually does his, which is to say enough to make a change. When the lights come up, redemption of a sort may even be in order.
“I would love people to leave the theater and donate to a charity,” Chanos says. “I could say, ‘I’d like them to have a deep self-examination of themselves and an appreciation of the world they’re in.’ But I really want them to leave going, ‘I’ve been very lucky in my life and I feel like I’ve taken it for granted, and I want to start changing now.’”
Kansas City Repertory Theatre performs “A Christmas Carol” Nov. 22 – Dec. 19 in the Spencer Theatre. For times and tickets, www.kcrep.org.
Above: Gary Neal Johnson plays Scrooge, a role he’s skillfully shouldered in all 19 KC Rep productions of “A Christmas Carol” since 2000. (photo by Cory Weaver)