“A Christmas Carol” has been dramatized for film and television repeatedly, and stage versions began popping up almost as soon as Charles Dickens’ novella hit book stores in 1843.
In Kansas City, family audiences have turned out to see Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s annual stage production for some 40 years. The great irony, of course, is that a book illuminating 19th century greed and oppression of the poor was and remains essentially a commercial undertaking. At the Rep, casts and crews would sometimes perform the show three times a day for school groups and general audiences. Everyone expected that tradition and the brisk ticket sales it generated to keep motoring along.
But then COVID-19 happened. The resulting pandemic made live theater and sold-out audiences impossible. Stuart Carden, the Rep’s artistic director, decided there was no way a year could pass without offering the public some version of the show. So, like other artistic directors, he turned to virtual theater and created a video version of the of the story designed for digital consumption on TVs and computer screens.
The resulting film, produced in partnership between the Rep and Kansas City PBS (formerly KCPT), is polished to a high sheen through atmospheric imagery, tight editing of the Dickens story and the work of four talented actors — Walter Coppage, Vanessa Severo, Bri Woods and Gary Neal Johnson — whose performances are both subtle and overtly theatrical. The Vaile Mansion in Independence provides the ideal Victorian setting.
The end result is an exercise in storytelling at its most essential. Moving scenery and eye-popping projections are all very nice in the theater, but this version employs subtle lighting effects and performers interpreting Dickens’ prose in a series of monologues performed explicitly for the camera. The result is a level of intimacy that is very hard to achieve in live theater.
The golden-throated Walter Coppage is our first interpreter, vividly projecting penny-pinching Ebenezer Scrooge’s Christmas-is-a-humbug persona and his terror when visited by the ghost of his deceased partner, Jacob Marley. Vanessa Severo takes over in the second segment, assuming the mantle of the Ghost of Christmas Past and voicing the characters of Mr. Fezziwig and Scrooge’s beloved sister Fan. Next up is Bri Woods, who offers us the Ghost of Christmas Present as he warns Scrooge of the harm done by neglect of impoverished young people and others in need. Taking us home is Gary Neal Johnson, the actor most closely identified with the annual stage production thanks to his many years of performing as Scrooge. Johnson negotiates Scrooge’s terror when the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows him a grim picture of the future and his own possible fate before waking on Christmas morning a changed man.
Each performance is unique. Coppage comes across as a larger-than-life performer you might have expected to actually see in the 19th century. Severo finds a surprising amount of humor in her segment. So does Woods, who takes advantage of opportunities to inject moments of behavior firmly rooted in the present century. Johnson’s performance invites an emotional response on two levels. Yes, he’s a good actor who makes the story clear as possible, but he’s also voicing some of the same dialogue he has spoken so many times on the Spencer Theatre stage. Both the actor and the material represent a long pilgrimage dedicated to finding universal human values in the written and spoken word.
Each actor occupies an arm chair positioned near a fireplace (illuminated by candles rather than a real fire) and a prodigious Christmas tree surrounded by a levee of wrapped gifts. Coppage and Johnson are costumed in the more-or-less accurate garb of Victorian gentlemen. Severo and Woods, on the other hand, appear in versions of black pant suits with no obvious connection to the 19th century but never quite seem incongruous.
The show opens with a brief musical introduction performed by music director and keyboardist Anthony Edwards with harpist Peggy Friesen and violinist Jonathan Shriock (all wearing masks, I might add). Edwards also contributed the incidental music and sound editing. Costumes are credited to Jenny Green and “location art design” to Grace Hudson. The film was edited by Brad Austin.
This show, by the way, marks Carden’s debut as a film director. It’s a discipline I hope he embraces going forward.
Note: A somewhat abbreviated version of this show will air at 7 p.m. on Dec. 17 on Kansas City PBS, Channel 19.1.
“A Christmas Carol” will be available for streaming through Dec. 31st. Visit kcrep.org for more information.