NSMT’s ‘Carol,’ Coffee remain local treasures

Peter S. Adams (The Ghost of Christmas Present) and the cast of A CHRISTMAS CAROL at North Shore Music Theatre – Dec 8 – 23. Photo©Paul Lyden

BEVERLY – It’s the same where it counts, but different in several important ways.

The North Shore Music Theatre’s 27th production of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” – subtitled a “musical ghost story” – has had a bit of a makeover, but the basic elements that have made it a North Shore holiday joyous tradition remain intact.

Star David Coffee’s portrait of Ebenezer Scrooge – and especially his ultimate glorious redemption after the visits of three spirits – has changed through the years just as Coffee has, with the wisdom and perspective that the years tend to give.

Some of the changes and tweaks in his performance – a laugh here and there, a change in emphasis on a few words, are noticeable. Also noticeable are the changes in his character that have begun a little earlier through the years, but the aforementioned redemption – 15 joyful minutes after the last of the three spirits has vanished – is better than ever. He has gradually added to that segment, making it a quarter-hour of pure theatrical joy.

David Coffee (Ebenezer Scrooge) and Cheryl McMahon (Mrs. Dilber), both celebrating their 24th production of A CHRISTMAS CAROL at North Shore Music Theatre – Dec 8 – 23. Photo©Paul Lyden

Former NSMT Artistic Director Jon Kimbell, assisted by David James and David Zoffoli, could not have known the adaptation he premiered in 1989 would still be enchanting audiences well after the millionth customer bought a ticket.

One of the secrets to its success has always been the music. That includes a collection of carols and songs that would have been familiar to audiences in Dickens’ days, augmented by original music composed and arranged by Alby Potts and James Woodland.

Kimbell’s take on the classic tale includes a Narrator (Tommy Labanaris), who recalls for us the telling of the tale told to him about Scrooge and the spirits. He is aided in that regard by the dancing Pearlies (Will Geary and Brad Trump), acrobatic spirits modeled on London’ street buskers of the time.

NSMT Artistic Director Kevin P. Hill, who directs and choreographs, has breathed new life into the annual production with his innovations and tweaks. That includes changes to the opening scene, other alterations to production numbers, while also making generous and effective use of projections.

The special effects and pyrotechnics – long a strong point of this production – are even stronger this year.

This run marks the 24th time two key players have been part of the production, Coffee as Scrooge and Cheryl McMahon as Mrs. Dilber, his housekeeper, and the scenes between the two have also evolved into an extended, multi-layered comic pas de deux with two polished pros.

Coffee and McMahon aren’t even the senior members of the production. That would be trumpeter Jay Daly, performing for the 25th time. Music Director Milton Granger and his roving band of musicians perform in areas around and above the stage, giving a surround-sound feel to the production.

A few other key holdovers are also welcome returnees, including the silken-voiced Leigh Barrett, who was in the first “Carol” in 1989 and this year returns for her seventh production, doing double duty as the Ghost of Christmas Past and Mrs. Cratchit and whose moving rendition of “The Little Child” never fails to bring a tear to the eye.

Tommy Labanaris as the Narrator in A CHRISTMAS CAROL at North Shore Music Theatre – Dec 8 – 23. Photo©Paul Lyden

Russell Garrett is also doing his seventh tour in the show as a warm-hearted Bob Cratchit ,whose polished comic interactions with Coffee’s Scrooge are also an annual delight.

Freddie Kimmel’s terrifying Jacob Marley had the kids hiding under their seats for a few minutes.

Labanaris as the narrator has a secret you may guess before the end, and Peter Adams exudes good cheer as the Ghost of Christmas Present while Andy Tighe is a charming Fred, Scrooge’s nephew.

The heartbreaking scene with Young Scrooge breaking up with his only true love, Belle, is handled with aplomb by Ryan Mardesich and Joy Clark, and the children are all charming and talented .

Due to a late scheduling change, the show I attended was heavily populated with schoolchildren, who were all well-behaved and observed proper theater etiquette. They will be, hopefully, the future subscribers of the theater.

As Coffee strode around the stage after the finale wishing them a “Merry Christmas,” they responded vigorously in kind.

Next season will mark Coffee’s 25th year as Scrooge – I have been lucky enough to see all of them to date – and his 50th year as a working actor, and nothing lasts forever, so if you haven’t caught this show and this performance, what are you waiting for?

For now, this “Carol” remains a local treasure, a happy marriage of music, merriment and a Scrooge for the ages.

The North Shore Music Theatre production of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Adapted by Jon Kimbell, assisted by David James and David Zoffoli. Original music composed and arranged by Alby Potts and James Woodland. Directed and choreographed by Kevin P. Hill. Original scenic design by Howard C. Jones. Lighting design by Jack Mehler. Sound design by Leon Rothenberg. Costume coordination and additional costume design by Paula Peasely-Ninestein. At the North Shore Music Theatre through Dec. 23. nsmt.org.