For NSMT’s Coffee, Scrooge is a role of lifetime
The story below is an expanded and revised version of a story that ran in the Boston Globe’s Holiday Arts Preview on Sunday, Nov. 24
BEVERLY — He was — and still is, in many ways — the unlikeliest of Scrooges.
David Coffee, (cq) a native of Arlington, Texas, (cq) was only 35 years old (cq) when he was tabbed by North Shore Music Theatre (NSMT) in 1992 (cq) to star in its fourth production of its adaptation of the Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol.” (cq)
The rest is holiday history. Coffee’s annual arrival has become a harbinger of the season, and he’ll be starring as Ebenezer Scrooge for the 20th time (cq) when the run opens on Dec. 6. (cq)
In a recent interview, Coffee was asked how it feels to be so closely associated for so long with a character almost synonymous with meanness, miserliness and greed.
“When people ask, I just say you didn’t read the end of the book,” said Coffee with a laugh. “You should remember him as he is at the end of the book.”
So just how did a character actor from Texas become what the theater believes to be the Northeast’s longest-running and most popular Scrooge?
NSMT’s then- artistic director Jon Kimbell, (cq) now retired, said in a recent interview that in 1992 he was well aware of Coffee’s talents because the theater often collaborated on shows with Casa Manana, (cq) a Fort Worth, Texas theater which also has an in-the-round stage, and where Coffee frequently performed.
Kimbell admired Coffee’s versatility and wanted someone who could appeal to all ages.
“Because we were performing so many shows for schools, we wanted the actor to be a comedian who could bring out the humor as well as the drama to the role,” said Kimbell, who crafted the adaptation he has called “a musical ghost story.”
He knew Coffee had often played older as an actor, but had no idea how old he was. As Scrooge, he turned out to be older and wiser than his years.
“He’s always anchored in the script but he’s a born actor, completely brilliant in his choices,” Kimbell said. “He’s the rock of the production., and his commitment to the role has never wavered, whether it’s Saturday at 8 p.m. or a 10 a.m. show for the kids.”
Longtime friend Joel Ferrell, (cq) who directed Coffee in this summer’s “Wizard of Oz” in Beverly and is currently directing “A Christmas Carol” at the Dallas Theater Center, said in a recent interview there’s a good reason the Texan who speaks with the distinct twang has prospered in a Yankee stronghold. “He’s a community oriented, small-time guy with big-time talent.”
In all, Coffee has performed in 48 productions (cq) at NSMT, portraying 24 (cq) different lead characters (cq) with one turn in the ensemble.
Ferrell praised the theater for giving his friend an artistic home — the kind of security few actors ever get — and gave Kimbell credit for taking a chance on Coffee, even though “he was young and he wasn’t New York-based.”
The theater’s decision to forego “Carol” in 2008 in favor of a disastrous production of “Disney’s High School Musical 2” (cq) and debt accumulated rebuilding after a disastrous fire in July 2005 (cq) were factors in NSMT’s bankruptcy declaration and subsequent closure in June 2009. (cq)
With North Shore closed, Coffee took his Scrooge that year to the Seacoast Repertory Theatre (cq) in Portsmouth, N.H., where the theater staged essentially the same show with costumes borrowed from North Shore.
It so happened that someone in the audience that year was Bill Hanney, (cq) who had just agreed to buy North Shore and reopen it and wanted to see the show. He was blown away, and sought out Coffee after the show to discuss its return.
“I would have been ridden out of town on a rail if I didn’t bring it back,” laughed Hanney in a recent interview. “I don’t know if I would have reopened the theater without it.”
Hanney estimates that 90 percent (cq) of those attending the show are repeaters.
“I might be a few points low,” he said. “I talk to people who used to come themselves and are now bringing their children.”
Coffee said that after the theater reopened in 2010 and he stepped onto the stage to play Scrooge for the first time in three years, the moment sent a chill down his spine.
“I had never heard a welcome such as the one I got that night,” he said. “Now I know what a rock star feels like.”
Another tradition was born a few years into Coffee’s run. He recalled in a phone interview the night a huge snowstorm hit and 200 or so theater-goers braved it. After the show, he went around the audience shaking hands and wishing one and all a Merry Christmas.
Since then, he takes a “victory lap” after each performance, circling the stage, shaking hands, and greeting old friends.
He continues to be amazed by the many times he get notes from people who say “I can’t make it this year and I feel very bad about it.”
Coffee is single, but he has stayed connected to the “Carol” family, especially the many young actors who have become like nephews, nieces and grandchildren to him.
“Many of us stay in touch with Facebook,” he said. “And many of those kids I used to act with have brought their kids back to see me.”
Marblehead actress Cheryl McMahon (cq) is marking her 20th time (cq) playing the role of the frazzled housekeeper Mrs. Dilber (cq) in the show, 18 of them (cq) with Coffee as Scrooge. The hilarious byplay between the two is one of the highlights of the production.
“He has this incredible range and the emotional breadth to portray the many facets of the character — the cold-hearted miser, solitary, to the man who is childlike in his delight and his openness to the world,” said McMahon in a recent interview. “He has a unique ability to make that all seem real.”
Coffee said that aside from the natural aging process — he’s now 56 — his approach to the role hasn’t changed all that much, or his ability to play it been affected.
As for his future, there appears to be no end in sight, with Hanney saying that as far as he’s concerned, Coffee and “Carol” will remain a holiday tradition.
Being a great actor may not even be the most important ingredient when it comes to being a great Scrooge.
Ferrell said “A Christmas Carol” is most successfully performed by actors who fundamentally believe in the redemption of the human spirit and “in this jaded world, they’re hard to find.”
Coffee, he said, is just such a person. “His generosity is such is that he believes no one should give up on a person. He will go to the mat for someone, believing the situation will get better and that person can helped.”
“I’ve always believed in the play’s message about redemption,” said Coffee. “If you don’t believe it, there’s no reason for the piece to be around.”
Rich Fahey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org