A Christmas Carol Review: Without Which I Have No Holiday Center

I find that year in, year out I have a love/hate relationship with the now PC-dubbed “Holidays.”   As a child of the eighties growing up in what can best be described as an agnostic household, we celebrated “Christmas” as it’s what everyone else did in the month of December, not because it was the birth of Jesus Christ.   As a child, I relished sugar cookies and the giant feast that came on December 25th as my waistline shows to this day. Some thirty years into my life, that same family and house has become a very divided split along the lines of the agnostic holdovers with the converted Catholics (some practicing, some not) and Baptist (Don’t get me started).  Because of my agnostic leaning toward atheist anti-material ways, I find most of what comes with this time of the year more and more revolting year in year out as the defacto “pinko” of the family.

But here is the thing, growing up I loved watching the Disney animated Mickey’s Christmas Carol.  If any other versions were showing on TV, I would watch those as well. As I aged, I grew to love the 1988 classic Scrooged staring Bill Murrary. Later it would be the Beavis and Butt-Head version. To this day I own all three of those versions mentioned on DVD. Further, all are required viewing around this time of the year. It could be said that Dicken’s tale is the only constant I tie to this time of the year and doesn’t make me want to stab someone each time I’m told “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.”  Funny that I’m so much like the pre-changed Scrooge yet love his tale so dearly.

This is also why I’ve managed to catch the Kansas City Repertory Theater’s production of the tale for more years now than I can even recall at this point. The show took a year off two years ago for the world premiere staging of a more contemporary Christmas classic based on the 1983 film A Christmas Story. Carol would return for its 30th run at the theater in 2010 in what was a near top to bottom, left to right new staging of the production at the Spencer Theater.

A year removed from that all new production, I questioned what the Rep and returning Director Kyle Hatley would have up their/his sleeve. The answer is subtle tweaks. If you enjoyed last year’s production of the Rep’s A Christmas Carol you’ll enjoy this year’s. If you’ve never been and count yourself as a fan of the tale, the holiday, and you are not a total Scrooge, well it’s a must see. Most of the cast, all of whom call Kansas City home, from last year’s staging return to the same roles this year. That includes Gary Neal Johnson as Ebenezer Scrooge, the only Scrooge I’ve ever known in the time I’ve been attending the Rep’s production and plays the role so well. I have to commend Mr. Johnson as I’ve seen him morph from character to character in the last several seasons at the Rep and the man is outstanding every time as he disappears into his characters so well.  Jim Gall returns as Mr. Fezziwig though most likely far better known for his oft 4th wall breaking Ghost of Christmas Present. This part of the show is almost always one of my most anticipated as Gall absolutely owns the role of the gregarious specter and seems to take much joy and have lots of fun with it. Mark Robbins is back as the ghoulish Ghost of Jacob Marley carrying the chains of his past and the warning for Scrooge. Charles Fugate is Charles Dickens and tells the tale so commandingly, he is perfect at grabbing your attention away from the stage while Scrooge and his Specter’s make their way from one scene to the next narrating the familiar tale. It’s a finely crafted show from a cast who has an obvious comfort for the roles they inhabit from the middle of November to the end of December for some time now.

I also have to give credit to the set designers and costume designers, which is something I appallingly left out of my review last year. The turn table set in use that helps give motion to the previously static show and also introduces a nice bit of depth to the production that was lacking prior to three years ago. The use of video projected effects is also a nice modern touch to the show. The costumes all feel period correct and seem as if they could have jumped directly off the illustrated pages of one of the many editions of Dickens’ book that I’m sure is still in print.

So here I’m having written quite the love letter to this production thus far. If I had one quibble with the show, it’s with the “third solicitor” who is not a usual character in the story.  It seems to be a bit of a variance to the story which was adapted by Barbara Field. I can’t find reference to the character in any online searches. I should note I’ve never read the book, so maybe that is where I’m missing this.   I don’t have a problem directly with him per se, it’s just that I don’t understand the characters purpose in the show. It’s a fine, trending toward ominous performance from Martin S. Buchanan.   It’s just his presence is never really explained. He shows up when the ghosts are visiting Scrooge and even seemingly interacts with them. I should note that Buchanan also plays the Ghost of Christmas Future. Perhaps that is the explanation, I was never really sure. Nor does it much matter as it’s such a subtle thing that my friend in attendance with me at the show barely even noticed, as the solicitor seems to weave in and out of scenes so quickly,  it’s almost easy to blink and miss him.

This is the 31st time the Rep has staged Dickens’ tale of Scrooge. It doesn’t feel tired, nor does it feel like a retread. Not necessarily an easy feat for a production that has been running for as long as I’ve walked this mortal coil. It’s also one that as I grow older hope doesn’t go anywhere. Though I’ve been quite alright with it growing and changing over the years, I hope like its filmed brothers, sisters, and cousins that I see it around this time of the year for years to come.   As much like family that comes to visit, it’s now part of the very fabric of this time of the year for Kansas City.

By John Coovert

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