Just when you think A Christmas Carol (now in its thirty-fourth season at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre) can’t offer any more surprises, a new producing director (Jerry Genochio) comes along, waves his magic wand, and makes the stagecraft even more dazzling. As a longtime reviewer of this annual production (with time out in 2009 for the KC Rep’s replacement of their traditional holiday classic with a musical comedy based on A Christmas Story), I didn’t expect the illustrious projections (no less worthy than those used on Cinderella Castle in Walt Disney World) that transpired this year on opening night.
Jeffrey Cady is the lighting designer responsible for all the illusions (which often elicited gasps of astonishment and even applause from the audience). The impressive special effects take over almost as soon as the show begins, with the jumbo Christmas wreath “title card” (looking much like a Hallmark greeting card) crumbling and crackling in a darkly ominous, foreboding way. The special effects introduced by former director Kyle Hatley in 2010 (which made the show seem just as much a “ghost story” as a venerable Christmas play) have been intensified in 2014, with the additional spectacle adding one more glistening layer to the production.
But, just because this version has amped up the “wow” factor, don’t think that the emotional tugging at your heartstrings by the show’s message (built in to Dickens’ original story in 1843) has lessened in intensity. Its power has, if anything, increased, and I found myself in unabashed tears at various times during the evening.
The cast never misses a beat, either. It was tough to believe that opening night this year was Gary Neal Johnson‘s 100th performance as Scrooge for the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. One hundred performances in the same role, night after night, year after year, and yet Johnson has the acting chops to make the role fresh and believable every single second.
Two children share the role of Tiny Tim, and seven-year old Delilah Pellow managed to steal each scene in which she appeared in that role on opening night, belting out, “God Bless Us, Every One!” both during the Cratchit’s Christmas feast, and also at the end of the show. This is only the second time in KC Rep’s history that Tiny Tim has been played by a girl, and the first time was so long ago that the young female who had that role is now married with children. Delilah has an amazing stage presence for one so young. Her older sister, Josephine Pellow, performs admirably as Belinda Cratchit.
The rest of the cast is examplary, as usual. Walter Coppage is, by turns, humorous and tragic in his role as Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s long-suffering clerk and father of the once-thought-to-be-doomed Tiny Tim. Matthew Rapport lights up the stage with his portrayal of the genial and ever-cheery Topper. Instead of playing Mrs. Cratchit this year, Cheryl Weaver appears as the Charwoman who pawns off Scrooge’s bed curtains in a particularly chilling scene. Weaver brings her standout acting skills to make even a simple charwoman appear memorable. Her strident tones as she holds out the blankets she removed from the corpse match the eerily dramatic lighting of the stage as Scrooge tries to figure out whether the corpse in the casket is himself.
It was Charles Dickens himself who popularized the phrase “Merry Christmas!” when he wrote A Christmas Carol. More than 600,000 audience members in the Kansas City area have made their Christmas seasons a little merrier by attending the KC Rep’s production throughout the years. Like the tinsel on a Christmas tree, it never seems to lose its glow.
THE FINE PRINT
A Christmas Carol runs through December 26, 2014 at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s Spencer Theatre on the UMKC campus. Call 816-235-2700 or go to kcrep.org.