KC Rep’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ still packs a punch

Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol” runs like a reliable machine, delivering laughs, chills and lumps in the throat precisely when we expect them.

“We” refers to theatergoers who have attended the show regularly through the years.

This is the third edition directed by Kyle Hatley, the Rep’s associate artistic director, and he’s refined the show to the point that it holds our interest despite its inability to produce many surprises. He approaches it as serious theater and strikes a balance between the material’s inherent sentimentality and its depiction of the human cost of raw capitalism.

The core players, admirable actors all, have been closely associated with the show in recent years, if not decades – Gary Neal Johnson as Scrooge; Walter Coppage as Bob Cratchit, Mark Robbins as Jacob Marley’s ghost; Katie Kalahurka as the Ghost of Christmas Present; Rusty Sneary as Fred and Young Scrooge; Cheryl Weaver as Mrs. Cratchit; Jim Gall as both Mr. Fezziwig and the Ghost of Christmas Present; Peggy Friesen as Mrs. Fezziwig; Vanessa Severo as Belle; and Charles Fugate as narrator Charles Dickens.

These performers are clearly comfortable in their roles, but there’s nothing perfunctory about the performances. Indeed, the actors are so committed that the show still packs a punch, even if you’ve seen it again and again. And again.

The curious thing about this adaptation (written by Barbara Field) is the way it can legitimately be viewed in different ways. People looking for light holiday entertainment can take it as that and nothing more. But on a deeper level it’s an implicitly religious tale of one man’s redemption. Old Ebenezer Scrooge is essentially “born again” after he has the bejesus scared out of him by visiting nocturnal ghosts and is transformed from an unapologetic member of the 1 percent to a philanthropist who can’t wait to give his money away. In other words, he buys his salvation

And that ties into the play’s political sentiment. Its depiction of 19th-century economic realities – grim working conditions, child labor, an absence of social safety nets – can’t help but resonate with anyone who’s been kicked out of a job or can’t afford decent health care.

But if political questions make you break out in hives (and who can blame you?) viewers can easily disregard that aspect of the script, because on its most basic level the play is about love. It depicts personal love – Scrooge’s adoration of his sister, his heart-hardening rejection by Belle, his post-conversion embrace of his nephew Fred – but also love of humanity. The basic question it poses is this: If we are not here to help fellow members of the human race, then what’s the point of living?

But, as I say, none of that will matter to theatergoers in search of comforting, ideologically neutral entertainment. The Rep dishes up a handsomely mounted production – John Ezell’s rotating set is as impressive as ever – full of good performances. You can’t ask for much more than that.