A Christmas toast: Long live Coffee, this ‘Carol’

David Coffee as Ebenezer Scrooge and the cast in “A Christmas Carol.” Photo©Paul Lyden

BEVERLY – When you’ve been performing the same role many hundreds of times over a three-decade period, it’s the little things that count.

David Coffee has long since mastered the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in the North Shore Music Theatre’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” performing it in 27 separate productions. Now it’s a matter of tweaks and a few twists and turns, keeping each performance fresh and special for that audience.

At a recent performance, a festive crowd of theater-goers welcomed back Coffee and company and celebrated the 30th anniversary production after the Covid-19 pandemic cancelled it last Christmas.

The presence of masks for theater-goers and other Covid-19 protocols couldn’t dampen spirits or the enthusiasm for the return of what has become a beloved North Shore holiday tradition.

The adaptation of the classic tale, written by former NSMT Artistic Director and Executive Producer Jon Kimbell and colleagues David James and David Zoffoli, was first presented in 1989, and has been presented every year since with three exceptions.

Cheryl McMahon performs the role of Mrs. Dilbur for the 27th time. Photo©Paul Lyden

Under the direction of Kevin P. Hill, NSMT’s artistic director who also handles the lovely choreography, this “Carol” has been tweaked but the essential elements are intact, including a cast of 27. It remains a sprightly, colorful affair with myriad special effects — yes, Jacob Marley (Alex Puette) will fly and scare the daylights out of you, young and old  — and there are pyrotechnics and vivid projections  that add immeasurably to the “musical ghost story” aspect of the adaptation.

The musical aspect can’t be underrated. The orchestra, led by music director Milton Granger, is stationed around the theater for maximum effect, and the score is a skilled blend of period songs, traditional Christmas music, and original music composed for the piece by Alby Potts and James Woodland.

Coffee’s long run in the role of Scrooge has allowed him to do all the little things to perfection: A pause  here, an added emphasis on a word, a turn of phrase here, all refining and adding to what has gone on before.

For a master class in acting, watch Coffee react to the events around him in the most powerful and poignant points in the production. One of those is when Coffee begs his younger self (Derek Luscotoff) to tell his true love Belle (Allsunn O’Malley) that he will change his ways and to not return his ring.

Marcus M. Martins as The Ghost of Christmas Present in “A Christmas Carol.” Photo©Paul Lyden

In this adaptation, Sommer Carbuccia as the narrator oversees the telling of the tale, harboring a secret you may guess.

Marcus M. Martins has two fine turns as the Ghost of Christmas Present and as one of the two gentlemen who call on Scrooge; the other is J.T. Turner, who also reprises his role as the jolly Mr. Fezziwig.

Marblehead’s Cheryl McMahon remains an integral part of the proceedings for the 27th time as Mrs. Fezziwig and, more importantly, Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge’s beleaguered housekeeper. The scenes between her and Coffee – especially after his transformation – are pure comic gold, and she is also part of the hilarious “Isn’t is Grand, Boys?” musical number with Billy Goldstein as Old Joe.

 Bronson Norris Murphy is earnest and convivial as Scrooge’s well-meaning but long-suffering nephew Fred.  

There are other longstanding cast members who have helped the production become an iconic holiday tradition with their performances. They include Russell Garrett. who captures perfectly the warmth of Bob Cratchit and who is in perfect sync with Coffee in their scenes, and golden-voiced Leigh Barrett, who was in the first NSMT production of “Carol” in 1989 and has returned many times since with her magnificent vocal instrument, this time as The Ghost of Christmas Past and Mrs. Cratchit.

Barrett’s Act II performance of the lovely ballad “The Little Child,” with lyrics by the aforementioned Kimbell, was inspired by a traditional Austrian lullaby, “Still, Still, Still.” It comes at a particularly poignant time in the production and if it doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, check your pulse.

Michael Harmon and Drew Porrett are the energetic, acrobatic Pearlies, dancing spirits modeled on London’s street buskers who are prominent throughout the piece.

The area’s young talent pool is well-represented by Emilia Tagliani as Martha Cratchit, Wade Gleeson Turner as Peter Cratchit, Isabella Carroll as Belinda Cratchit, and Quinn Murphy as Tiny Tim, and Joshua McKenna and Axel Simons as a air of rambunctious London boys.

For many years, Coffee has delighted in taking a “victory lap” around the stage after the curtain call of each performance, greeting friends old and new. This year he comes back out with a mask and does his best to stay socially distanced while greeting friends new and old, many of them who attended the show as a child or adult and are now bringing children or grandchildren.

NSMT owner Bill Hanney made restoring this show one of this first acts after buying the then-closed theater in 2010 and has said he’ll keep doing it as long as Coffee  wants to.

To slightly alter the Christmas toast the Cratchits (reluctantly) make to Mr. Scrooge, I say: “Long live David Coffee and ‘A Christmas Carol.’”

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. Music direction by Milton Granger. At the North Shore Music Theatre through Dec. 23. nsmt.org.

Russell Garrett as Bob Cratchit, Leigh Barrett as Mrs. Cratchit and the rest of the Cratchit family in “A Christmas Carol.” Photo©Paul Lyden