Matt Rapport as the Ghost of Christmas Present and Gary Neal Johnson as Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” (Don Ipock)
Critics love to gripe about recurring holiday shows—the stagnation, the repetition, the sugar-dusted cliches. The Kansas City Repertory Theatre has staged “A Christmas Carol” for more than 40 seasons, and this year’s production admittedly offers few surprises for repeat attendees. (I know: Humbug.)
But after a couple of years of “unprecedented times,” I found myself longing to return to something thoroughly precedented. There’s a comfort in “A Christmas Carol,” in Charles Dickens’ reminder that even the hardest-hearted among us can emerge from a dark stretch of loneliness into a crowded and fire-warmed home. Plus, after barely holding on through COVID-19, theaters need the holiday hits more than ever: they’re crowd-pleasers and revenue-easers that help subsidize riskier programming.
That doesn’t, of course, free them from the burden of being entertaining. The Rep’s 41st production of “A Christmas Carol” has its share of seat-edge moments and holiday magic—glimmering sets, glittering ghosts, spine-aligning carols led by vocalist Lauren Braton—but the energy on opening night felt surprisingly lethargic for the theater’s first indoor live performance since the pandemic.
Some of that’s the script. Director Jason Chanos has opted for the same adaptation, by Geoff Elliott, the Rep last produced in 2019. Elliot’s adaptation trims some scenes and backstory from Dickens’ novella, but what remains doesn’t always propel the play. A corpse-looting scene, for example, stretches on far longer than it needs to (abstracting from the fun of seeing actors John Rensenhouse and Peggy Friesen play some thoroughly seedy characters).
The Rep’s staging choices seem more to blame. Many theaters perform Elliot’s adaptation in 90 minutes; the Rep’s website promises the same. Sunday night’s performance stretched to two hours, not counting a late start and intermission. This “Carol” is stuffed with songs and just as many silent stretches of stage business. Ebenezer Scrooge (Gary Neal Johnson) and his housekeeper (Friesen, triple cast) shuffle leisurely around the house, lighting candles and adjusting bedclothes. The Ghost of Christmas Future (Riley Lucas) seems hell bent against getting us there. Even the jokes can seem to march in place: Johnson peeks his head out of the curtains after each peal of the clock bell in a stale gag that doesn’t improve with repetition.
Johnson nonetheless delivers an emotionally rich performance as Scrooge, a tight-fisted gruel-guzzler happiest when he’s mocking charity solicitors or ranting about how those unable to work should die to “decrease the surplus population.”
As the years go by, Scrooge strikes me less and less like a cartoon villain and more like any number of Guys On The Internet. After nearly 20 years of playing the man, Johnson seems aware of that, too. His Scrooge is brash and cruel only in front of an audience; on his own, he’s timid and cowardly, jumping at the slightest provocation. Although Johnson fumbled a couple of lines on opening night, he recovered quickly.
Actor Khalif J. Gillett makes the strongest contribution as Scrooge’s spirited nephew, Fred. Gillett has snappy comedic timing and current-defying pacing, buoying the production with Tituss Burgess-grade energy and style. Meredith Noël lends exceptional grace and gravitas to the Ghost of Christmas Past. And Matthew Rapport earns some of the show’s biggest laughs as the Ghost of Christmas Present—a larger-than-life Christmas Monster and booming, maximalist presence. As in years past, Rapport stilt-walks through the audience, attacking the aisles with glitter plumbed from a golden drinking horn (BYO poncho if you’re seated in the splash zone).
“A Christmas Carol” is a technically demanding show, with multiple settings and special effects. John Ezell’s turntable set whips energy into scene changes, while Rachael Cady’s lights redefine scenic elements to suit different purposes. And costume designer Gillian Rose Herold helps refresh the show’s sumptuous costumes, from Jacob Marley’s ghoulish, clanking chains to the Ghost of Christmas Past’s ethereal icicle gown.
Scrooge and the Ghosts may have the flashiest roles in “A Christmas Carol,” but large swaths of the second act are devoted to the Cratchitts. Any production is going to struggle to make them lively—the family exists, narratively speaking, to help a rich man self-actualize. Here, as in most adaptations, Scrooge’s long-suffering assistant, Bob (Cody Proctor), and his sickly son, Tiny Tim (Mimi Wood or Louisa Bartlett, depending on the date), are rendered flatly as the angelic poor. Bri Woods comes closest to complicating the stereotype in a performance highlighting Mrs. Cratchitt’s independence and strong will.
Nuance isn’t the point of “A Christmas Carol,” I suppose. Simple messages and warm holiday fuzzies are. The KC Rep more than delivers on those, with spectacle and scenery to boot. But complication is conflict is energy, in my view—and this “Carol” could do with a little more of all three.
“A Christmas Carol” runs at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre (Spencer Theatre) through December 26. For more information, visit kcrep.org.