‘Tex’ is still New England’s favorite Scrooge

So just how did a native of Arlington, Texas become New England’s longest-running and most-beloved Ebenezer Scrooge?That would be David Coffee, the star of North Shore Music Theatre’s annual production of the Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol,” which opens to the public Dec. 7 and runs through Dec. 23.

NSMT is presenting its adaptation of the classic holiday tale for the 21st time, and for the 19th time Scrooge will be performed by Coffee.

David Coffee as Ebenezer Scrooge in North Shore Music Theatre's "A Christmas Carol."Photo: Paul Lyden

David Coffee as Ebenezer Scrooge in North Shore Music Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol.”
Photo: Paul Lyden

The production became so popular it helped bring down the theater. The decision to forego “Carol” in 2008 in favor of a disastrous production of “Disney’s High School Musical 2” was blamed by many as a factor in NSMT’s closure in June 2009.

Coffee will actually be playing the role for the 20th time in the area. He performed it in December 2009 at Seacoast Repertory Theatre in Portsmouth, N.H. while NSMT was shuttered.

Coffee was asked if playing the role for so long allows him to begin rehearsals each year without the usual learning curve. “You’re absolutely confident because of what you‘ve done in the past. So at that point you’re more open to some changes and tweaks a director might want to make because you have the basics down pat. But that doesn’t mean you’ll agree if he wants to hang from your ankles or something like that.”

Before he even assumed the role of Scrooge, NSMT patrons already knew and loved Coffee from a variety of roles through the years; the Independent Reviewers of New England gave him an IRNE Award for his performance as Pellinore in “Camelot.”

Next summer, he will be part of the theater’s production of “The Wizard of Oz”; he played the Cowardly Lion in a past production.

If you talk to him outside of character, you’ll find Coffee’s twang is Texan to the core; he is a graduate of Texas Christian University and a fan of the Texas Rangers.

Coffee’s familiarity with the role and the theater has reached the point where Coffee knew that something was wrong one year with the way his bed was positioned on the set. He told the stage director that it was on the wrong place; the director checked a past production and, sure enough, Coffee was right.

Marblehead’s Cheryl McMahon has been part of “Carol” 19 times — 17 of them with Coffee as Scrooge — playing the frazzled housekeeper Mrs. Dilber. The byplay between the two has been honed into pure comic gold and is one of the highlights of the production.

“I think David is a superb Scrooge because he can immerse himself in polarized opposites of the character…the miserly, miserable, heartless man in the beginning who becomes reborn, joyous, and utterly changed at the play’s end,” said McMahon. “The audience knows what’s going to happen, but the ritual of his transformation is a reminder of who we are and what we are capable of.”

Just after Bill Hanney had signed the deal to reopen NSMT in 2009, he went up to Portsmouth to see Coffee perform in “Carol” and was blown away.

“He had never seen the show,” said Coffee. “He told me ‘I’d be a fool not to bring it back. I’d be run out of town on a rail.’”

Coffee believes that the adaptation by former NSMT artistic director Jon Kimbell and other members of the theater staff, the original music by Alby Potts and James Woodland and the period music are all integral to the success and longevity of the piece.

The musicians are situated in different areas around the stage and move around during the performance.

“The music sets the mood and the pace for every scene,” said Coffee. “I recall in the mid-90’s Albie Potts did some underscoring and that added to the effect.”

The show’s special effects have also grown and become more spectacular with time, including a flying, chain-snapping Jacob Marley who would send my kids running for cover each year.

Not long after he first played Scrooge, Coffey started the tradition of staying on stage after the curtain call, making the rounds of the audience to shake hands, greeting old friends and wishing one and all a “Merry Christmas.”

“I remember the night I started it,” he said. “It was a Friday night 2-3 years after I first started playing Scrooge and the weather was horrific and we had maybe 200 people in the theater. I just had to stay up there and thank those people who had come out to see us. People have so many things going on and they didn’t have to come to the theatre and they did.”

He started doing it every show, save for those shows when he was nursing an illness.

“There are people I see every year and would miss it if I didn’t say hello.”

Coffee said he looks forward to coming east and just as Scrooge was transformed by the three spirits, the sights and sounds of a New England Christmas and the people who come up to him in the streets and greet him also have their effect.

“It makes me feel good all over,” he said.

North Shore Music Theatre’s production of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Adapted by Jon Kimbell, David Zoffoli and David James. Directed by Arianna Knapp. From Dec. 7-23. Nsmt.org.