Rusty Sneary has added a skill to his resume: stilt-walking.
Walter Coppage has retired his top hat in favor of chains in the afterlife.
Vanessa Severo, once an ingenue with a conscience, is now a fluttering, loving housewife.
These are just a few of the shifts in the casting of Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol,” which begins performances Friday. This is the show’s 35th season, and while some actors remain in parts they’ve played for years, audiences will see others bring fresh takes to familiar roles.
“The shake-up is a good thing because a lot of people have new roles this year, and it’s good to see people breathing new lives into these characters,” said Katie Kalahurka, who this year takes over the smallish role of Mrs. Fred after five years as the Ghost of Christmas Past. “It’s fun to see different actors’ interpretations. And it is interesting to see someone doing the same role you’ve done for several years.”
Some of the changes were dictated by the absence of actors who had been regular cast members, such as Jim Gall, who had become a fixture as Fezziwig and the Ghost of Christmas Present. Gall, who lives in Seattle, chose not to return.
But several returning cast members find themselves in new roles thanks to a decision by director Jerry Genochio to make several key cast changes.
“The great thing about getting to work with actors … multiple times is that it gives you a sense of their abilities and what they are capable of,” said Genochio, who is directing the show for the second consecutive year.
So he made some surprising choices: casting Sneary as the Ghost of Christmas Present, tapping Severo to depict Mrs. Cratchit as a young mother and double-casting Coppage as the ghost of Jacob Marley as well as the expansive, jolly Fezziwig.
“You have to look at what’s going to bring new life to the piece,” Genochio said.
Anchoring the proceedings is the current company patriarch, Gary Neal Johnson, who again stars as Ebenezer Scrooge. Each year viewers return to watch Johnson as the penny-pinching money lender described by his creator, Charles Dickens, as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner … solitary as any oyster.”
Scrooge, of course, discovers a redemptive spirit of generosity after visits from nocturnal ghosts who scare the bejesus out of him.
It’s fair to say that Johnson has put an indelible stamp on the show. His history with the production goes back to 1982, when he was cast as Old Joe, the Cockney fence, and as a Young Gentleman at the Fezziwig party. He played Jacob Marley the following year. The year after he was double-cast as Marley and Old Joe. In 1986 he began playing Charles Dickens, the show’s narrator, a role he kept for 14 years. In 2000 he became Scrooge.
During his time with “Carol,” Johnson has worked for seven directors, including the late James Assad, who created the production. Each director wants to put his or her own spin on it without damaging the template.
Severo, who has worked with only three directors, put it this way: “For Linda (Ade Brand), it was like opening a beautiful Christmas card. Kyle (Hatley) would talk about how it was a ghost story, and we’re going to terrify the children. Jerry is about finding the heart of the piece.”
Johnson said it would be fine with him if the directors just left the piece alone, but he has enjoyed the rare opportunity to hone a performance for a total of 15 years. (In 2009 the show was displaced by the world premiere of “A Christmas Story,” a musical that eventually made it to Broadway.)
“Every year I’m older and Scrooge falls to the floor a lot, and each year I fall a bit more gingerly,” Johnson said.
The production, Johnson said, represents “six weeks of good work and a paycheck every Thursday,” but it also means that while he’s entertaining audiences in a family show, he spends less time with his real family than most of the viewers.
“You’re leaving the house at dinner time on a cold winter night, but once I’m there and I see everybody there’s no place I’d rather be,” he said. “It’s all good.”
Sneary this year plays the towering Ghost of Christmas Present for the first time. The performance requires him to negotiate the stage and the audience area on stilts.
“I’m doing my best Jim Gall impersonation,” Sneary joked. “For some of this show is very near and dear to our hearts and it’s become a big part of our holiday season. It’s always a fantastic family of artists. Everyone takes it very seriously and has a great time at the same time.”
Cheryl Weaver has played a range of roles, including three years as Mrs. Cratchit, and this year takes on the Ghost of Christmas Past. For her, like the other actors interviewed for this story, the show is more than a gig.
“You as a person are going to devote your Christmas to this project, so it becomes your tradition,” Weaver said. “We spend a lot of time off stage together. This becomes our little family. That’s the part I like the most.”
On the downside, the cast works right through Christmas Eve, when there are two performances. As soon as Weaver gets out of costume and makeup, she hops in her car and drives to Stillwater, Okla., where her husband’s parents live. Weaver and others said part of the “Christmas Carol” tradition for the actors is to decorate their dressing rooms elaborately in a friendly competition.
“It’s like coming back to family,” said Severo, who has been with the show seven years. “But it’s kind of like coming to family that’s a team. Everybody’s there for each other. I never get sick of it. Everybody’s ‘Team Christmas Carol.’ There’s never been nastiness or bad feelings, so let’s hope that trend continues.”
Next to Johnson, Coppage is probably the most recognizable actor in the show and has shown up as Bob Cratchit in some of the Rep’s promotional material. Coppage had played Cratchit since 2008 and had gone through a series of Mrs. Cratchits. But this year he shifts into two rich roles: Marley and Fezziwig, the irrepressible businessman who employs the young Ebenezer Scrooge.
“I loved Bob Cratchit and I’ve enjoyed that role immensely, but it is kind of fun to shake things up a little,” Coppage said. “And Marley is just a fantastic role.”
Marley, as he always has, makes his entrance through a trap surrounded by a cloud of smoke. But Coppage said Genochio’s staging of the Marley-Scrooge scene early in the show is a little different this year.
“Anytime a new actor takes over a role he puts his spin on it,” Coppage said. “Marley is challenging in the technical aspects but that’s exciting too. Every actor wants to be challenged, to push themselves a little bit. That’s part of the fun.”
Peggy Friesen, after Johnson, has the longest tenure. She joined the cast in 1985. Every year she plays the harp and for some time has played Mrs. Fezziwig. She has also played the Ghost of Christmas Past and Belle. Although the show is not a musical, choral music is important to its atmosphere and establishes a tangible mood.
Friesen said it never gets old.
“I love to tell this story,” she said. “I love to scare the dickens out of the audience — it is a ghost story after all. I love to remind people that if Ebenezer Scrooge can change his life so completely for the good, that we (as an individual and as a society) can do it as well.”
Like others, Friesen said the show is a tradition and the cast feels like family. “I can’t imagine celebrating the holidays without it,” she said.
The run of “A Christmas Carol” is grueling, thanks to the exceptional number of performances required. Most shows at the Rep would follow the standard eight-shows-a-week schedule. During this production, some weeks demand 10 shows, including 10 a.m. student matinees.
“They’re our best audience, but waking up and being ready to sing high notes at 10 a.m. is not easy,” said soprano Colleen Grate, who this year plays Belle for the first time.
Joining the cast as a conspicuous newcomer is Jason Chanos, the Rep’s associate artistic director, who plays Bob Cratchit. Chanos played a small role in the production years ago when he was a theater graduate student at UMKC.
Chanos has appeared at the Unicorn Theatre, the defunct American Heartland and the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, but this will be his first performance in Kansas City in years. Many of the younger actors he hadn’t met. Some of the veterans, like Johnson, are his seniors.
“I was, like, 10 when he started doing this show,” Chanos said. “It’s amazing.”
Chanos, who has four kids, said this is a happy time at the Chanos home, because “A Christmas Carol” is his wife’s favorite show. He joined the Rep staff a year ago.
“We already know this is a super-popular show,” he said. “Its got a great message. So I’m really excited. I didn’t see this coming when I was hired, that I might be Bob Cratchit.”
The production has had its good years and gone through periods when everything about it was rather lackluster. But under artistic director Eric Rosen, directors Kyle Hatley and now Genochio have tried to make it real theater with a sense of immediacy and the ability to surprise the audience. For some cast members, it’s more than a play. Rosen recently called the Dickens original “a work of intense social criticism.”
Here’s how Weaver put it: “We don’t do it year after year because it’s a pretty Christmas play. It’s an important story about redemption. It’s not just a Christmas story. It’s a ghost story. And it’s not just a happy Christmas pageant. It was big social commentary … and even if you’re 5, you can understand that it’s bigger than yourself.”
“It’s different than any other show,” he said. “There are hundreds and hundreds of people in this community who see it every year and introduce it to new family members. That’s an honor for all of us to be able to share this story with the city and I love it because it’s a really helpful way to keep me in the holiday spirit.
“It’s a great reminder of our duty as fellow human beings and how we should treat each other. It’s not every day you get to invest in a show that has a really strong and healthy message like this one.”
“A Christmas Carol” runs through Dec. 24 at the Spencer Theatre at the James C. Olson Performing Arts Center on the UMKC campus. Call 816-235-2700 or go to kcrep.org.
Many of the actors in “A Christmas Carol” have played multiple roles during their time with show. Here’s a partial list of this year’s cast and their history with the production.
Gary Neal Johnson as Scrooge. Previous roles: Charles Dickens, Old Joe, Jacob Marley, Young Gentleman.
Cheryl Weaver as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Previous roles: Mrs. Cratchit, Laundress, Char Woman.
Rusty Sneary as the Ghost of Christmas Present: Previous roles: Dick Wilkins, Young Ebenezer, Fred.
Vanessa Severo as Mrs. Cratchit. Previous roles: Belle, Mrs. Fred.
Walter Coppage as Fezziwig and Marley. Previous role: Bob Cratchit
Charles Fugate as Charles Dickens. Previous roles: Fred, Young Gentleman.
Peggy Friesen as Mrs. Fezziwig. Previous roles: Ghost of Christmas Past, Mrs. Cratchit, Belle.
Martin Buchanan as Fred. Previous roles: Ghost of Christmas Future, Old Joe.
Colleen Grate as Belle. Previous roles: Aunti Fezzie, Giggly Sister.
Katie Kalahurka as Mrs. Fred. Previous role: Ghost of Christmas Past.
Jason Chanos as Bob Cratchit. Previous role: Albert Hall.