Ten years ago, when Eric Rosen was angling for the job as artistic director of Kansas City Repertory Theatre, he pitched a new adaptation of A Christmas Carol. It was something he'd wanted to do for years while running a theater company in Chicago. Now he's finally bringing it to the stage.
"It's sort of a dream project in the sense of having a scope and a cast and a capacity to make something huge that we don't often get to do," Rosen says.
The Kansas City Rep has staged an annual production of A Christmas Carol for nearly 40 years. But, when Rosen started at the Rep, his attention was diverted by other holiday shows: A Christmas Story, a musical based on the film, which premiered in Kansas City and went on to Broadway; and The Santaland Diaries, drawn from David Sedaris' stories about his time as a Macy's elf during the holiday season.
But he continued to re-read A Christmas Carol and think about how much more of Dickens' own words he'd like to include in a production. This year, he's directing the premiere of his own adaptation.
"Strangely, my ambition was to return to the original text in a much more conservative way," he says. "Eighty-five to 90 percent of what's said on stage in my adaptation is directly from the Dickens."
Charles Dickens's text and his role as narrator are more prominent in Rosen's version. In 1867, Dickens toured the United States giving public readings of A Christmas Carol, and a re-creation of one of these readings helps launch this production.
That need to be performed out loud, Rosen says, is why A Christmas Carol is a theatrical work rather than a literary work.
"Mark Robbins as Dickens is not just the frame of how we understand the text, he is the heart of the text itself," Rosen says. "And preserving that language makes the show much more powerful."
Veteran Kansas City actors, such as Robbins as Dickens and Gary Neal Johnson as Scrooge, return to the show. But there are also new faces and design elements — and much more music. Lauren Braton, Shanna Jones, Donovan Woods and John-Michael Zuerlein form a quartet of singers, and there are four onstage musicians. And all cast members will sing, which has made casting requirements different from in other years, Rosen says.
"I do a lot of musical theater, I do a lot of integration of sound and music and live music into my plays, the regular plays," he says. "So I knew that it wanted to be more musical."
Despite the story's well-known plot and familiar characters, Rosen says, he hopes audiences will discover something new in his adaptation, particularly in the way they view the central character. It's not Scrooge's confrontation with his own death that changes his behavior, but seeing how he used to be and returning to his "original self," Rosen argues.
"At his very heart, Scrooge is an intensely imaginative person with a huge heart," Rosen says. "Therefore it's a person with tremendous imagination being able to go to sleep in one night, have an extraordinarily vivid dream and wake up in the morning transformed."
Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @lauraspencer.