Still the champ: Coffee, NSMT’s ‘Carol’ roll on

Peter S. Adams (The Ghost of Christmas Present) with David Coffee (Ebenezer Scrooge) and the cast of A CHRISTMAS CAROL at North Shore Music Theatre – Dec 7 – 23. Photo©Steven Richard Photography

BEVERLY – One of the pleasures of being there at when a performer begins to develop what will become of an iconic performance is that you get to see all the little things added along the way that helped make the performance one for the ages.

As David Coffee celebrates his 25 years Ebenezer Scrooge in the North Shore Music Theatre’s production of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” I have watched him continuously adding layers and nuances to his portrayal of the character.

The last 15 minutes of the piece – Scrooge’s joyous transformation from miserable miser to Father Christmas – have become a sublime pleasure as Coffee has refined his level of giddiness, such as the delightful cackle as he prepares to raise poor Bob Cratchit’s salary.

Much of that byplay after the spirits have worked their magic is alongside Cheryl McMahon in the role of Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge’s beleaguered housekeeper, also celebrating her 25th time performing the role at NSMT.

Coffee’s transformation and his hilarious scenes with McMahon are the result of two gifted actors and polished pros who over time have learned what the audience wants and given it to them in ever-larger doses.

NSMT Artistic Director Kevin P. Hill has directed and choreographed this 28th edition of the adaptation by Jon Kimbell, NSMT’s former longtime artistic director and executive producer, again keeping the essential elements in place while tweaking here and there.

Joy Clark (Belle) and Ryan Mardesich (Young Scrooge) in A CHRISTMAS CAROL at North Shore Music Theatre – Dec 7 – 23. Photo©Paul Lyden

It’s a given that any production that gives silken-voiced Leigh Barrett as the Ghost of Christmas Present and Mrs. Cratchit the chance to sing two beautiful pieces of music starts out ahead of the game,

Russell Garrett’s Bob Cratchit exudes warmth and bonhomie, and Andy Tighe as Scrooge’s nephew Fred doesn’t mind butting his head against the wall in a bid to get his miserly uncle to join him for Christmas dinner.

Peter S. Carey is a hale-spirit-well-met as the Ghost of Christmas Present and with J.T. Turner as the hapless gentlemen who call on Scrooge to help the poor.

Freddie Kimmel is a beyond scary sight as Scrooge’s ghostly late partner, Jacob Marley, who carries with him a ponderous chain forged in life.

The young actors and actresses also shine and contribute mightily to the production numbers.

In addition to playing the aforementioned Dilber, McMahon authors a feisty Mrs. Fezziwig opposite Turner’s Mr. Fezziwig, and McMahon also gets a chance to show off her dancing and singing chops as Mrs. Dilber in “Isn’t it Grand, Boys?”

There are tender moments aplenty, with Coffee as Scrooge dancing along with his younger self (Ryan Mardesich) and Belle (Joy Clark) before the heartbreaking end to their relationship. An important facet of acting is, of course, is reacting, and Coffee through the years has made it just as important as his own delivery of lines.

What has made this “Carol;” special and continues to make it special is the almost perfect marriage of all the disparate elements: the elaborate period-perfect costumes, the at-times spine-chilling special effects and pyrotechnics; the grace and precision of the choreography by Hill; and the lovely music, a combination of traditional carols and original music composed for the piece by Alby Potts and James Woodland.

This year, beautifully-realized new projections are added to the many others layers of scenic design and special effects.

Trumpeter Jay Daly is also celebrating his 25th year in the orchestra, here led by Milton Granger; the spacing and interspersing of instruments around the theater and above the stage allowing theater-goers to be surrounded by live music no matter where they sit.

It doesn’t hurt that NSMT owner-producer Bill Hanney has really embraced the show and invested in it since he acquired the theater out of bankruptcy in 2010, making one of his first official acts as owner to re-establish both the show and Coffee in the starring role.

One of the tweaks that Kimbell authored in his adaptation was to introduce a Narrator (Tommy Labanaris), who recalls for us the telling of the Dickens tale as it was told to him 20 years in the past on a Christmas Eve; eventually, his relationship with the other characters will be revealed.

The Narrator is aided in the storytelling by the dancing Pearlies (Cameron Hobbs and Parker Krug), acrobatic spirits modeled on London’ street buskers who would probably be working in Cirque du Soleil today.

Kimbell, who wrote the NSMT adaptation 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.

He was asked, as one of “the founders of the feast,” how he felt about the show rolling on and on.

Kimbell said that in 1989 NSMT was trying to cement its reputation as a year-round theater and remind audiences it was open in December. He said the theater’s various departments took the task to heart.

I did hope we could do the show for a few seasons,” said Kimbell. “29 years later, we’re still here and what a joy it has been! What director wouldn’t love to have the opportunity to return to a story time after time for another attempt at perfection? It’s been an honor.

The baton may have since been passed to Hill and Hanney, but this “Carol” remains the heavyweight champion of local holiday shows, anchored by iconic performances, sterling production values and a tradition of excellence.

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 Kelly Baker. Original hair and wig design by Gerard Kelly. At the North Shore Music Theatre through Dec. 23.

David Coffee (Ebenezer Scrooge) and Cheryl McMahon (Mrs. Dilber), both celebrating their 25th production of A CHRISTMAS CAROL at North Shore Music Theatre – Dec 7 – 23. Photo©Paul Lyden