Everyone gets indigestion after a massive Thanksgiving dinner, but for theater critics the discomfort may be particularly acute. They know that soon they will sit through another production of “A Christmas Carol.”
All across America, at nearly every regional theater, audiences flock to their own local version of Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella about loss, redemption and social inequities in Victorian England. Typically, each of those productions will sell more tickets than any other show of the season.
So when word came that playwright/director Eric Rosen, Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s artistic director, would unveil his own version of the book, I noticed a fleeting urge to click my heels together, like the reborn Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning.
Let’s face it: It was time for a change.
For 36 seasons the Rep staged an adaptation by Barbara Field, the former resident playwright at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. And while Field’s version was perfectly adequate, her adaptation became encased by barnacles of familiarity at the Rep.
You knew when to expect the laugh lines. You knew Scrooge would fling a paperweight at his nephew Fred. You waited for the big ensemble performance of “O Come All Ye Faithful.” You knew Scrooge and a street urchin would warm hearts as they taught each other to laugh.
Eric Rosen does away with most of those predictable moments and crafts a whole new approach to the material. His conceit is that Dickens, who performed “A Christmas Carol” on tour in England and America, is presenting it again — just for us. The show, in fact, honors the 150th anniversary of Dickens’ final North American tour.
One of Kansas City’s best actors, Mark Robbins, inhabits Dickens with style and is evenly matched by his counterweight in the show, the incomprable Gary Neal Johnson as Scrooge.
Rosen goes back to Dickens’ book to remind us that this is, after all, a literary work. He divides the show, as Dickens did in his story, into “staves” (rather than “chapters”) as we witness the penny-pinching Scrooge endure a series of nocturnal visits by ghosts who force him to confront searing memories of love and loss, the plight of impoverished children in his present and foreshadowings of doom. Like it or not, this play’s depiction of economic injustice is as current as the latest White House tweet.
That narrative sounds familiar, but Rosen shifts the emphasis to the reasons Scrooge became an incorrigible money-hoarder devoid of empathy for the less fortunate, hostile to his own nephew and contemptuous of the meaning of Christmas. In Rosen’s version, Scrooge’s hardened heart stems from a lonely childhood, the excruciating loss of his beloved sister Fan and the rejection by his fiancé. Rosen sidesteps obvious laugh lines and instead devotes much of the running time to deepening the characters.
This world premiere may not look all that new to viewers since many familiar actors are back on stage. Besides Johnson and Robbins, we have Rusty Sneary again threatening to steal the show as the towering Ghost of Christmas Present. Other returning veterans include Peggy Friesen as Mrs. Fezziwig, Vanessa Severo as Belle and Mrs. Fred, Walter Coppage as Jacob Marley’s Ghost, Sam Cordes as Fred and Young Ebenezer and Cheryl Weaver as the Ghost of Christmas Past.
Other “Christmas Carol” veterans include Jake Walker and Bree Elrod as Bob and Mrs. Cratchit and Emily Shackelford as Fan and Martha Cratchit. This year the respected Kansas City actor John Rensenhouse does memorable double duty as Fezziwig and Old Joe.
All that experience adds up to a show that glimmers with professional polish. Rosen knows actors and knows how to martial large numbers of people onstage. The sets by John Ezell are largely unchanged, although Rosen employs the big turntable in interesting ways. Lighting and projection designers Jason H. Thompson and Kaitlyn Pietras engage the audience with their imaginative projections of ghosts and other visions.
A dream-team vocal quartet — Lauren Braton, Shanna Jones, Donovan Woods and John-Michael Zuerlein — perform carols in stunning four-part harmonies. At times the entire ensemble joins in. Musical director Anthony T. Edwards scores individual scenes with a small ensemble — Friesen on harp, Mike Prucha on reeds and Jonathan Lloyd Schiriok on violin.
Rosen hasn’t exactly turned the show into a musical, but there’s more music than there used to be. The Fezziwig party scene remains a highlight of the first act, virtually rocking the house.
Costume designer Stella Yesul Tag, in her Rep debut, outfits the company with handsome clothes. The entire design team delivers a visually sumptuous production.
Rosen retains some of the traditional pleasures from previous productions. The Ghost of Christmas Present still saunters and ad libs his way through the audience sprinkling glittering “cheer” on the spectators. But make no mistake: This is a new show.
The show on opening night, clocking in at just over two hours including intermission, felt rushed at times. I wanted the actors to slow down a bit so the script could breathe and the emotional content could resonate. That’s my only complaint.
My verdict, after decades of watching the Field version, can be summed up in one word: Hallelujah! An old story is new again.
“A Christmas Carol” runs through Dec. 24 at the Spencer Theatre. Call 816-235-2700 or visit www.kcrep.org.