A NEW CAROL: KC Rep creates more faithful adaptation of Dickens classic, as KC Ballet’s refreshed holiday favorite receives accolades
Change is almost always frightening, but when it comes to timeworn holiday traditions it can be as terrifying as realizing you left the Christmas turkey in the oven on “high” all night. For arts organizations whose popular yultetide fare provides a substantial chunk of annual revenue, tinkering with it can fill administrators and board members with dread.
That’s why our hats are off to Kansas City Repertory Theatre, which this season decided to scrap Barbara Fields’ long-in-the-tooth adaptation of A Christmas Carol and allow Artistic Director Eric Rosen to write his own. And after decades of watching the same rather loose adaptation of Dicken’s original novella, many will find Eric’s more faithful adaptation a breath of fresh air.
“Every year, I have ideas about what I want to do with it,” said Eric recently of the production, which is celebrating its 37th anniversary this year. “We decided that, this being my tenth season, it was time. It’s particularly interesting that I get to be the playwright: Directing a production is one thing, but here I get to create a version that is sort of a culmination of 10 years of thinking about this.”
But don’t panic, Eric said: The production still features John Ezell’s marvelous rotating sets, and the central roles are still performed by Gary Neal Johnson, Mark Robbins and other local favorites. Some observers might not even notice much change, but one crucial aspect sets Eric’s version apart.
“The sigh of relief I get is when I say that what I have done is 80 percent Dickens, whereas what we were doing before was from 60 to 65 percent Dickens,” he said.
“I’ve tried to preserve as much of at least the spirit of the earlier version. … I’m not here to say, It’s terrible, let’s start over. But rather let us preserve what need to be preserved, because we know it’s part of people’s lives and holiday traditions. So let’s refresh it.”
While the story remains the same, the mode of storytelling is different, he said: There is a more prominent role for the role of Dickens (Mark Robbins) as roving storyteller, partly in homage to the fact that 2017 marks the 150th anniversary of the author’s 1867 “reading tour”—during which Americans paid a lot of money to listen to Dickens himself, live onstage, reading A Christmas Carol from cover to cover.
“I’d forgotten how funny Dickens is as a narrator,” Eric said. “He’s really wry, and throughout the book he makes jokes and comments on the action and the characters.” At several points in the book, in fact, Dickens speaks in the first person, which is surprising for the reader but makes the storytelling inherently theatrical. “It turns out Dickens is much smarter than we are.”
For Eric, the themes of Scrooge’s tale are deeper than we sometimes acknowledge. “It’s not just about a guy who goes to bed one night and wakes up the next morning. It’s about a dream: a dream that transforms not just a person, but the whole world. And that’s sort of at the heart of what we’re trying to do.”
Change is scary, yes. But dreaming big is what arts organizations need to be doing, all the time. KC Ballet Artistic Director Devon Carney, who introduced an all-new Nutcracker three years ago to national critical acclaim, urges the Rep to keep the faith and surge forward.
“Trust your Artistic Director,” was Devon’s “message” to the Rep’s leadership. “It’s not his first rodeo. He understands the community, he understands the significance of this one production that’s done on an annual basis. It won’t be exactly the same, but it’s going to be great. And there’s the potential for evolution to occur here, and for it to be better.”
Need proof that Devon knows what he’s saying? This season the Ballet was invited to present its new The Nutcracker in Washington, D.C, after which it will doubtless return to the Kauffman Center with a new glow. Though the comparison between the Rep’s new production (which does not include a complete resign) and the Ballet’s version is not perfect, it does show what a bit of courage can bring.
And for the Ballet, it’s paid off in spades. “This handsome production … positively oozes charm,” writes eminent dance critic Sarah Kaufman in the Washington Post of KCB’s performances. “This little-traveled company from the Midwest is an unusual choice for the Kennedy Center’s annual Nutcracker run, but it’s easy to see why it won over the programmers. Artistic Director Devon Carney’s version of the holiday ballet, created just two years ago, is especially lovely with its bright, fresh decor.”
Whoa, KC. “I think every person who cares about the arts in Kansas City can feel good about what we’re doing,” Devon said. “That the Kennedy Center called us up out of the blue and said, We’d like to bring your Nutcracker to Washington, D.C.”
As for A Christmas Carol, adapting novels for the stage has long been one of Eric’s specialties, a skill for which he is recognized nationally. Thus, throughout the process of the Rep’s evolving Christmas Carol, there has always been an organic foundation, Eric said. “If the recession hadn’t happened (in 2008-2009) I probably would have done what Devon did (a complete redesign). In a way, I’m glad we didn’t. What I’m doing now is much smarter for us, as producers, than throwing the whole thing out and starting all over.”
And as always, Eric added, it’s modesty that guides an adaptation. “I’m trying to serve a text that is revered and quotable and loved. I’m not jumping out as the playwright, saying ‘Hey, here’s the play that I wrote.’ … I’m the mediator between the audience and the imagination. It takes a lot of humility to say, ‘This is about Dickens, not about me.’ And it’s about our audience.”
KC Rep’s A Christmas Carol runs through December 24th at Spencer Theatre. 816-235-2700 or kcrep.org.
KC Ballet’s The Nutcracker runs from December 7th through the 24th at the Kauffman Center. 816-931-8933 or kcballet.org.
Photos by Cory Weaver / KC Rep
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