They took a year off. After 28 seasons, the Kansas City Repertory Theatre needed a breather from their most successful show of every season. They replaced it with an even more successful show–A Christmas Story, The Musical! fresh from workshops and chomping at the bit for an audience to respond to its iconic, if irreverent lines.
But this year it’s back, in all its Dickensonian glory. The Spencer Theatre is bedecked with holly berries, pine garland and the increasing anticipation of the Christmas season. At the helm is the newly promoted associate director of the KC Rep, Kyle Hatley.
Hatley found himself at the helm of a juggernaut, a 52 person production with cast and crew. With newly updated sets and freshened costumes, the sparkle was back on in the production on November 27. A full house welcomed back veteran actor Gary Neal Johnson, who has made the role his own after inhabiting it for nine years. Walter Coppage illicited sympathy as Bob Crachit in a bit of color blind casting and Vanessa Severo enchanted in the roles of Belle and Mrs. Fred.
Hatley uses a deft hand to let his talented cast tell the story, allowing spectacular special effects take center stage for only brief moments. His towering Ghost of Christmas Present titillated the audience with current event references and even the acknowledgment of the newly engaged couple sitting next to me, whom Hatley had snapped pictures of with his phone at intermission to pass on to the Ghost, played by Jim Gall, as he stilted his way through the theater, cornacopeia of glitter in hand.
While the initial appearance of the Ghost of Christmas Present was definitely the most spectacular of the show, recalling the same scene in the 1984 version starring George C. Scott as Scrooge, it was not its only captivating moment. The seamless quality to set changes on the rotating stage held a certain magic of their own, adding texture and fullness to the production.
The only thing that keeps a production of A Christmas Carol from falling into the schmaltz category is the talent of the cast to find a deeper motivation, and this cast does exactly that. Coppage lends an earthy realism to his Bob Crachit, with an eye on the clock at Scrooge and Marley and an eye on his wife’s bum at home. His performance had a slight comic lilt that made his situation more relatable.
As for Scrooge, Johnson doesn’t necessarily perform as Scrooge, so much as he embodies Scrooge. His is a sort of world weariness and stiffness brought on by loneliness and its inherent denial that makes the role seem real, not just a put on. He almost convinces the audience too well that this humbug is his nature, to the point where his eventual conversion seems like the acting job.
Overall, the show is the perfect opening for the Christmas season. There is spectacle for the little ones and sentimentality for the adults, and plenty to discuss with children after the last carol is sung. For many people, A Christmas Carol may be the first experience they have with theater. In the case of the KC Rep, that’s a very good thing.
A Christmas Carol plays through December 26th.