Performing Arts

Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ gets a vivid retooling

Ebenezer Scrooge (Gary Neal Johnson) is confronted by the ghost of Jacob Marley (Walter Coppage) in “A Christmas Carol.”
Ebenezer Scrooge (Gary Neal Johnson) is confronted by the ghost of Jacob Marley (Walter Coppage) in “A Christmas Carol.” Kansas City Repertory Theatre

Everything old is new again — or so it seems with Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol.”

The show, based on Barbara Field’s adaptation of the Charles Dickens parable about greed and social responsibility, is never precisely the same from year to year. But Field’s structure remains sturdy and the production invariably delivers certain expected satisfactions — scary ghosts, friendly ghosts, a shape-shifting dream world, abundant humor and a pointed message about an individual’s responsibility to care for (or at least empathize with) the less fortunate.

Technically, this show is a Cadillac, purring long at cruising speed, gleaming with efficiency and dazzling us with occasional bursts of power. The design work — sets, costumes, lighting and sound — makes this a memorable visual spectacle.

The linchpin is, of course, Gary Neal Johnson’s expansive performance as tight-fisted Ebenezer Scrooge, who is changed for the good after witnessing his past, present and possible future courtesy of a succession of other-worldly spirits.

Director Jerry Genochio, staging the show for the second consecutive year, has made some interesting alterations and shaken up the cast. Many of the actors have been in the show for years, but in this edition some are playing new roles.

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Rusty Sneary, appearing for the first time as the Ghost of Christmas Present, delivers a revelatory performance. The role by definition is larger than life and each actor who plays it does so atop a pair of stilts. Sneary handles the stilt-walking coolly and adds a rich layer of humor to the performance, but he also finds a soulfulness in the role that makes the Ghost more than a symbol of mirth with a cautionary lesson for Scrooge.

Sneary makes the Ghost a receptacle for the all anguish and hardship in the world, a burden made tolerable only by his celebration of drink, food and laughter.

Sneary’s performance is remarkable in another way and it has to do with his voice. Sneary has always been a good actor but he evidently has worked to lower his range to a booming bass-baritone that he employs shrewdly — sometimes as a fearsome authority, other times as a delicate voice of compassion. The rich tones sound effortless.

Genochio also gives us a new take on the Cratchit family. Jason Chanos, making his first appearance in the show, plays Bob Cratchit, the underpaid but crazily optimistic clerk in Scrooge’s counting house, whose brood includes the physically afflicted Tiny Tim (played irresistibly by Delilah Rose Pellow.)

Vanessa Severo brings all of her tangible warmth to Mrs. Cratchit — although she looks so young we must assume she started having kids when she was about 15. Together Severo and Chanos make an attractive couple who, I would argue, don’t get quite enough stage time.

Cheryl Weaver, a veteran of the production, makes her first appearance as the Ghost of Christmas Past, a white-robed ethereal presence accompanied by two young Sprites (Ellie Shea McManamy and Claire Rupp), who function like assistant ghosts. All in all, it’s an interesting take on the role, which during the history of the production has been approached from myriad angles.

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Walter Coppage is gifted with two of the show’s liveliest scenery-chewing parts — the ghost of Jacob Marley and Mr. Fezziwig, the infectious personification of Christmas Cheer. Coppage seems to have a fine time in both roles and his Marley is particularly memorable.

Charles Fugate returns as Charles Dickens, efficiently guiding the show along as its narrator. Jacob Aaron Cullum makes an effective Young Ebenezer and the luminous Colleen Grate makes a vivid impression as Belle, young Scrooge’s would-be bride who can’t abide his obsession with money.

Martin Buchanan gives us a good-humored, precise take on Fred, Scrooge’s upbeat nephew, and Daria LeGrand is appealing as Fan, Scrooge’s beloved sister.

This is a huge cast — the program lists 46 speaking parts — and lurking in its ranks are some very good actors in small roles. Scott Cordes shows up as Old Joe, Dianne Yvette is a memorable Charwoman and Katie Kalahurka makes a contribution in the utilitarian role of Mrs. Fred.

Embedded amid the strong performances and the show’s technical polish is a clear message in our “greed-is-good” era — we just might have a better society if we gave a damn about the underprivileged.

Robert Trussell: 816-234-4765, @roberttrussell

Onstage

“A Christmas Carol” continues through Dec. 24 at the Spencer Theatre, 4949 Cherry St. Go to KCRep.org for ticket information.

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