For theatergoers who adhere to the don’t-tell-us-show-us approach to staged storytelling, Eric Rosen’s talky new version of “A Christmas Carol” may give pause.
In rejiggering the beloved classic — now in its 37th year at Kansas City Repertory Theatre — Rosen turns often to Charles Dickens’ original text, here spoken by Dickens himself (Mark Robbins) as he reads from a large illuminated volume. And we’re talking real illumination … when opened, this tome emits a golden glow.
(In fact, the evening begins with the cast members addressing the audience, pointing out that exactly 150 years ago Dickens toured the United States reading “A Christmas Carol” in a series of sold-out one-man shows.)
Beyond Dickens’ demonstrations of his impressive descriptive powers, the dialogue given many of the characters has been expanded. Where previous adaptations have whittled the language down, Rosen opens it up.
The results will find partisans on both sides. Can you have too much of a good thing? After all, Dickens practiced wordcraft of an exceedingly high order. This is prose that often soars into the poetic.
On the other hand, one may find oneself wishing this or that character talked a bit less. Leave the eloquent ruminations to the narrator.
However one may come down on the question, the good news is that this is still “A Christmas Carol,” which is to say it is one of the most sublime tales in the English language.
Let’s assume — and it’s not that much of a stretch — that many ticket holders for this seasonal classic have been coming for years. They’re aware that Gary Neal Johnson is a terrific Ebenezer Scrooge (especially delightful is his geriatric cavorting after he’s seen the light). They’ve seen John Ezell’s rotating scenic design (augmented this year with flanking sets of Victorian towers that reminded this viewer of those on the nearby Country Club Plaza).
But what other new discoveries await them?
Well, there are some clever casting choices. In an early scene Cheryl Weaver, Rusty Sneary and Ken Sandberg portray solicitors who descend on Scrooge’s counting house in a doomed attempt to collect money for the poor. Later on they will play, respectively, the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. The implication is that Scrooge’s dreaming psyche — ashamed of his stinginess — has cast these do-gooders as the instruments of his salvation.
Likewise, the terrific Sam Cordes and Vanessa Severo — who play Scrooge’s nephew Fred and his wife — are also cast as young Scrooge and his beloved Belle.
Rosen’s script revives a couple of scenes from the book that almost never find their way into stage productions. We get a glimpse of Belle as an older, married woman with her own brood of children (all the more agonizing for Scrooge to witness). And the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the Christmas observance by impoverished miners and another by sailors en route to combat.
And then there’s the music. The Rep’s production has always had its share of traditional Christmas tunes, but this time they play an even bigger role. It starts with a quartet of singers (Lauren Braton, Shanna Jones, Donovan Woods, John-Michael Zuerlein) who seem practically omnipresent, hovering over the proceedings and offering musical bridges between scenes.
Rather than delivering full treatments of traditional carols, the score offers brief snippets of familiar airs as a sort of aural background. Occasionally the music takes unexpected turns, as late in Act 1 when young Ebenezer breaks with Belle and the musicians (Peggy Friesen, Mike Prucha, Jonathan Lloyd Schirock and musical director Anthony T. Edwards) play a dirge-like version of “God Bless Ye Merry Gentlemen” that perfectly summarizes Scrooge’s sense of loss.
This “Carol” even has a dance number of sorts when Fezziwig (John Rensenhouse) leads the company in a high-kicking yuletide celebration. And late in the evening the entire cast combines voices for an ethereal rendition of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”
One thing hasn’t changed. The Rep’s “Christmas Carol” is among our city’s most reliable bringers of seasonal cheer. God bless us, every one.
“A Christmas Carol” runs through Dec. 24 at Spencer Theatre. Go to kcrep.org for ticket information.