When English actor and director Gerald Charles Dickens travels to perform his one-man shows based on his famous great-great-grandfather's works, his tour stops in the United States tend to vary.
Nearly every year, though, the Mid-Continent Public Library is able to get him back to the metro area for a few performances, and Dickens expresses both in person and on his travel blog his affinity for the area. Obviously, the one performance Mid-Continent President/CEO Steve Potter remembers from years ago when Dickens gashed his head from leaping and accidentally hitting a piece of staging hasn't deterred him.
Tuesday marked the end of his stay here, as he performed his one-man rendition of “A Christmas Carol” to about 350 people at the Midwest Genealogy Center in Independence. Library officials estimated about 800 people had registered for the evening performance at John Knox Village in Lee's Summit.
“I've always enjoyed it here,” the 56-year-old Dickens said before his afternoon show, all dressed in costume and ready to go.
Ironically, Dickens didn't always enjoy his famous relative's works, saying he “hated it” when they studied Dickens works in school.
“I was probably slightly rebelling,” he says, smiling.
The light bulb for appreciating and acting out Dickens works came when he and his family saw a Royal Shakespeare Company performance of “Nicholas Nickleby.”
“That was the first show that made me go 'Wow,'” Dickens said. “Suddenly it all made sense.”
He developed his “Christmas Carol” show in 1993, based on his great-great grandfather's renditions that started in 1867, nearly a quarter century after he first published the novel. He first came to Kansas City soon after that, in the stead of his father, who had helped with the Kansas City Holiday Fair. With some days to fill after a similar appearance in Galveston, Texas, he started performing at Mid-Continent branches.
All these years later, performing “A Christmas Carol” or other Dickens works like “Nickleby” and “Tale of Two Cities” never gets stale, he said. Sometimes while preparing a tour he might re-examine a character in certain spots, but it develops all through a tour, he says, and rarely alters a performance consciously.
Everybody has their favorite movie version he said, and thus has a different expectation of sorts when they come see his performances, which invite some audience participation at certain spots.
“Some like the humor; some like the more dramatic,” he said.
So what's Dickens' favorite movie version of the Christmas Carol story?
“Actually, the Muppets one I absolutely love; it's very wittingly done,” he said referring to the 1992 movie with Kermit the Frog and friends. “I like the George C. Scott as Scrooge (1984) and the 1950 version (with Alastair Sim). There isn't one I haven't enjoyed.
“The story is so perfect, you can't go wrong with it,” he said.
Of the 30 characters Dickens voices over the course of a 70-minute show, Ebenezer Scrooge is naturally his favorite.
“He's the only character that develops over the course of it,” he says, but as Fezziwig he gets to dance briefly, and “Dickens never wrote a bad character,” he adds with a smile.
In his show, Dickens deftly goes from one character to the next and back and forth, with appreciably different voice inflections, and whereas the author's renditions tended to be seated readings, the current actor will make use of the entire available stage.
“A Christmas Carol” was a popular hit after its 1843 release, though the author didn't make much money at first because he self-published much of it, as publishers balked at selling at the low price Dickens wanted, to make it more accessible.
“He wanted everyone to have it, as kind of a Christmas gift,” Dickens said. “It's never been out of print since.”
Dickens said his favorite novel by his relative is “Great Expectations,” which he also recently adapted for a one-man show, but the enduring appeal of “A Christmas Carol” is clear.
It's short and reads fast, he said, and it can feel modern even now.
“It's so familiar to us now,” Dickens said. “Imagine reading it for the first time in 1843 and not knowing what happens next.”