None of the actors seems to be fretting about the fact that, in two hours, the curtain will rise on yet another performance of the Rep's annual Christmas show -- now in its twenty-first year.
"I've done about 400 performances of the show," Fritts says, adding that, though he's not lackadaisical about the gig, it is firmly embedded in what actors call "muscle memory." The main focus is "being in the moment then," he says, emphasizing that "then" isn't now.
This time of year, the large number of Kansas City actors (more than in any show all season) who count on that Christmas Carol paycheck are all too happy to be in the moment ten times a week. The Dickens story is, in fact, a universal exception when it comes to the contracts signed by the actors who belong to Equity, the stage actors' union; only A Christmas Carol can squeeze that many shows out of them without breaking union rules.
But that doesn't mean a reviewer can get all agog seeing the show every December. Still, the show's message has always gotten to me, regardless of whether the rest of the world thinks I'm a heartless bastard. So I've requested a new vantage point this year, one from behind the scenes.
Fritts, Greer and Warfel -- and about four dozen other actors and backstage personnel -- gather at 6:30 p.m. at the theater on Cherry Street. While other actors opt for a side entrance, Fritts walks briskly through the front door. In the lobby, patrons are sampling desserts, sipping coffee or yakking on cell phones. What separates this audience from, say, the crowd who will gather for next month's The Winter's Tale is the abundance of holiday sweaters.
Because the show includes about ten children, the backstage green room doubles as a nursery. "I have six little ones," says Vanessa Dorsey, the evening's official babysitter, who is called a child wrangler. "But the teenagers can take care of themselves."
Backstage right, I meet several crew members: stagehands Erin McGrane, Tyler Miller and Charlie Frank, assistant stage manager Chris Bolender and stage carpenter Peter Ferrell. They're all dressed head-to-toe in black, lest an audience member seated to the side get an unwanted glimpse of what one wigger calls the "controlled chaos" that keeps Carol so damn smooth.
McGrane looks like she's working in a restaurant kitchen. She's wiping out the glasses that will hold candles for the "candlelight carol" scene at the top of the second act. "This is my first year with the show," she says, "and I'm not sick of it yet. The exciting thing is the rhythm we have backstage. It's so tight we don't even have to talk to each other."
Stage manager Jim Mitchell sees his longevity with Carol in a few of the set's pieces. He helped build them when the show premiered 21 years ago. Though he has taken a few years off, he is glad to be back in charge of the production, which he says is "always a great experience." Unlike other shows, in which the workload eases when performances actually begin, Mitchell says that with Carol, the work starts on opening night.
"With the number of kids in the company, the number of parents, understudy rehearsals -- plus cold and flu season -- the maintenance of the show is always an issue," he says, defining his job as "anything I can do to bolster the spirits...." He continues, "We're in a situation where we have three days in a row with two shows per day, and if you lose them spiritually or emotionally, the show suffers."
"With all the fog cues, light and sound cues, plus the lift and the trapdoor, to have it all go smoothly is very, very complicated," director Linda Ade Brand tells me. "We want to have a certain level of production values, yet we don't tack on gratuitous stuff. Subsequently, there are a huge number of places where things can go wrong." The mistakes, however, go unnoticed by the people in the audience, which is a testament partly to the actors' instinctive abilities to cover almost anything.
At five minutes before seven, assistant stage manager Chris Bolender practically whispers, "Places." I'm sitting near the stage-left prop table, where Tiny Tim's crutch and several other pieces are laid out on butcher paper, outlined like murder victims on a sidewalk. The actors who will enter from that side of the stage begin to gather; some have shut their eyes in concentration while others are whispering "Have a good show" to one another. Fritts is making like Muhammed Ali, doing a boxer's dance to pump himself up for his impending entrance.
An audience's laughter has hooked many an actor, and the first bit of it this evening is evoked by Gary Neal Johnson's Scrooge's grumbling about how cheap he is. Waves of floating laughter hit the back of the set like an invisible surf.
In preparation for the Ghost of Christmas Past's entrance, Bolender heads for the fog machine. It looks like a short, stumpy water heater and hums like an air conditioner. Lauretta Pope, who plays the ethereal Ghost, paces in furry slippers, abandons them in a predetermined spot and takes her place just out of the audience's sight. The fog is shot into the air from the ceiling and from a spout held by a stagehand. "That way, we can direct the fog anywhere we want," Bolender says.
The first scene of Act Two, in which the Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge a jovial Christmas party, requires no work from the backstage crew, so they step out to a makeshift break room on the theater's loading dock. Through the haze of cigarette smoke, they talk about terrorists and the weather. They also make a couple of choice comments about this actor or that costume.
After watching most of the show from the wings or beneath the stage, I enter the back of the house to get a glimpse of everything the audience has seen. What's most impressive is the accurate London street scene: A wood frame and plain muslin appear to the audience as a grocer's store, a poultry shop and Scrooge's front door. Transporting a full house of people from their lives in Lee's Summit or Lenexa to those of the Cratchits and the Fezziwigs in 1843 is a mix of art and science, part choreography and part physics -- as when, in Act Two, a lift is calibrated to the combined weight of the actors and set pieces upon it. Nothing has been left to dumb luck.
And then, as he has for 21 years and hundreds of performances, Tiny Tim speaks his immortal lines. "God bless us everyone," he says, bringing on the final light cue.