The Kansas City Chorale performs “A Christmas Carol” at the 1900 Building. (Image: Ryan Hernandez, courtesy of The Kansas City Chorale)
Each December, there’s a fine line to navigate between adhering strictly to tradition and exploring a newer option for holiday entertainment. The Kansas City Chorale offered an engaging compromise with a new approach to Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” for narrator and choir.
This work by Benedict Sheehan premiered last year with Skylark, a choral ensemble based in Massachusetts. The Chorale gave the work its Midwest premiere, conducted by Charles Bruffy. The sold out concert at the 1900 Building on Saturday was the second of five performances of “A Christmas Carol” this month, each at a different venue.
Sheehan created a evening-length work, running a continuous 70 minutes, scored for a narrator performing a “good bits” version of the story and the choir creating the soundtrack, a mix of original music and new arrangements of familiar carols. There was ample opportunity for soloists, as well. Matthew Guard, Skylark’s artistic director, abridged and edited Dickens’ text.
The story was told by actor Matt Schwader. Instead of the anticipated straight ahead narration, Schwader’s presentation was surprising and captivating, his performance much more than simply relating the text. There are one-man-play versions of “A Christmas Carol” and Schwader’s interpretation could certainly have qualified.
Each character was given a unique voice, with Scrooge’s a nasal, biting tone and Tiny Tim’s a weary sweetness. In a conversation between two bit characters, Schwader literally spoke out of each side of his mouth, a witty device in a small but effective moment. Even the familiar lines we’ve come to expect got chuckles due to the verve of his delivery. His burst of “infectious laughter” from Scrooge’s nephew Fred was startling and proved accurate, generating reciprocal laughter in the audience.
Performing a cappella, the choir did more than just sing songs. They created mood and nuance, with sound effects and vocalise under Schwader’s narration. They sounded excellent in the 1900 Building space, though volume of the choir in the dramatic moments did threaten to overwhelm Schwader, who was miked. In a few sections, the drastic range put some strain on the singers, but those moments passed swiftly.
Sheehan had a painterly approach to his score, bringing a range of techniques to the piece. Many of the songs and carols he used dated back to the 15th or 16th centuries, some obscure and others more familiar, like “God Rest You Merry” or “Deck The Hall.”
He applied to each tune a particular palette, adjusting to the flow of the story. At times, the choir echoed the spoken text with ethereal effect. Of course, they intoned the ding dong of bells during Marley’s visitation, but they also served as violins a-tuning, shifting up and down, at the beginning of “Fezziwig’s Ball,” leading into a rousing triple meter as the characters danced in our imaginations. Sheehan dipped into dissonances generously, emphasizing the terror and tensions caused by the ghostly visitors.
The moment where it was revealed by the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come that Tiny Tim would die was touching, leading into a haunting “Coventry Carol,” soloist Meredith Barreth with an ornamented lament. But there was an eager brightness to the singing at Scrooge’s awakening, featuring the tune “Gloucestershire Wassail.”
When so many productions involve lavish sets and pedantic period details, it was refreshing to see the story stripped to its essence, simple and direct, focusing on Dickens’ wry and revealing language, the message of repentance and charity wrapped cozily in song.
Reviewed Saturday December 3, 2023 at the 1900 Building. The Kansas City Chorale will present Benedict Sheehan’s “A Christmas Carol” December 9, 11, 16. Visit kcchorale.org for more information.