A holiday treat: Lunch with Scrooge and Dilber
BEVERLY – Milestones are so much a part of our lives.
From birth to death, we chronicle major events, marriages, anniversaries, birthdays and other special occasions.
For actors, being part of a show that runs annually for many years can provide not only a dependable income, but an artistic home where an actor can find other roles. One of those shows is the North Shore Music Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol,” a “musical ghost story” which begins its 29th edition on Dec 5.
For the 26th time, David Coffee will play Ebenezer Scrooge and Cheryl McMahon will play his housekeeper, Mrs. Dilber, and Mrs. Fezziwig, the wife of Scrooge’s beloved employer. Both have graced the NSMT stage on many other occasions, becoming along the way two of the more cherished performers in the theater’s history.
A year ago, on the occasion of their 25th performances in “A Christmas Carol,” and as someone who had seen all of Coffee’s Scrooges at NSMT and the vast majority of McMahon’s roles, I asked if they might join me for lunch at a downtown Beverly restaurant to mark the occasion.
We were joined by Mike Ceceri, NSMT’s genial longtime marketing director, a friend of both performers and a huge fan of this particular show.
It would be no surprise if you have watched them perform that both Coffee and McMahon exude the same warmth off-stage that they do on-stage, and showed off their same great sense of humor in stories of their years in the theater, and how they found their way into this show.
Jon Kimbell, NSMT’s former artistic director who adapted the Dickens story in 1989, usually cast and rehearsed shows in New York, but McMahon recalled in that instance local actors were invited to audition. McMahon was cast and joined the show in 1989, the first year, while Coffee, whom Kimbell knew from his work in other NSMT shows co-produced with Casa Manana in Fort Worth, Texas, came aboard in 1992.
Both were very young for their roles at the time and morphed into two veteran constants who are part of the glue that makes the show work, now serving as mentors to the younger performers, welcoming newcomers into the “family.”
The duo have been singing each other’s praises for years. “He is generous of heart and spirit and funny and engaging and kind,” said McMahon about Coffee in a 2014 interview. “He’s just a great guy, and to be able to be in his company professionally or personally. A total gift.”
Back in his native Texas, TCU grad Coffee is also an in-demand, award-winning actor, still building on a career that began in 1968 at Casa Manana, but also includes the prestigious Dallas Theater Center and a passel of the best regional theaters. across the country.
McMahon is also a mainstay on other area stages, most recently in a critically-acclaimed performance that was part of SpeakEasy Stage Company’s smash-hit “Admissions.”
She took what was once a minor role as Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge’s housekeeper, and, working with Coffee, honed and improvised, finding out what worked, to finally make their scenes together a highlight of the show.
After each “Carol” performance, Coffee does a ‘victory lap” around the stage, greeting friends new and old with a hearty “Merry Christmas!. I recall going up to the stage to say hello after a performance. With a smile, he finally broke out of character. “Well, howdy there Rich,” yelled Coffee in his unmistakable Texas drawl, as mouths gaped open in surprise.
For Coffee, McMahon and Ceceri, the moments in the show when Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning and sets out to make things right are the most joyous and beautiful of all.
Ceceri knows it well. “I love the moment where Scrooge has been transformed and doesn’t really know how to be nice… and he offers Dilber the coins as a gift asking if she knows what it’s for … and she responds ‘to keep me mouth shut?’”
McMahon, in a 2014 interview with R.J. Donovan posted on Bostonirish.com. pinpointed it. “It’s a moment you might not read in the script . . . It’s a moment we’ve built into the show, David and myself. It’s based on improvisation and our knowing each other and the timing . . . It’s when Scrooge awakens on Christmas morning and takes in the fact that he’s still alive and he has a chance to make his life different and to turn a corner. The moments where he interacts with his housekeeper, Mrs. Dilbur, are very special to me. They really make the show worth doing.”
Coffee said to me in an interview that those moments are the key to the entire piece. “I’ve always believed in the play’s message about redemption. If you don’t believe it, there’s no reason for the piece to be around.”
If those scenes don’t first make you laugh and then bring a tear to your eye, run to the ER and check to make sure your level of holiday spirit isn’t dangerously low.
At one point in the luncheon, we all raised a glass to celebrate Kimbell’s vision of what has been, of Christmases Past, Present and, hopefully, the Future.
A year ago, I asked Kimbell his feelings about crafting something that has now lasted across generations and become a treasured holiday tradition.
“I did hope we could do the show for a few seasons,” he said. “29 years later (30 now), 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. “
If you want to see holiday gold, there’s no time like the present. “A Christmas Carol,” adapted by Kimbell, assisted by former colleagues David James and David Zoffoli, opens to the general public on Dec. 5 and runs through Dec. 22.
No one knows the future. We are all, in a broad sense, day to day. NSMT Owner/Producer Bill Hanney has vowed to keep the show going as long as Coffee can do it and audiences want to see it.
I’ll raise a glass to that.
For more information on “A Christmas Carol,” go to nsmt.org.