A Christmas Carol
Holiday traditions, done the same way year after year after year, can run the risk of feeling stale. Of they can feel like coming home. "A Christmas Carol," now in its 23rd year at the North Shore Music Theatre, has avoided staleness in all this time due to two reasons: honest emotion and David Coffee.
Based on the classic Dickens novel and adapted for the stage by former NSMT artistic director John Kimball, this "Carol" features David Coffee as Ebenezer Scrooge, discovering his heart and the true spirit of the holidays with the help of, well, spirits. In spite of the skill of the rest of the cast, "A Christmas Carol" is Scrooge’s story and this production is Coffee’s show.
Coffee’s Scrooge is not just a humbug, he is aggressively, enthusiastically misanthropic and wonderfully snarky to boot, whether ranting about having to give his clerk the whole of Christmas Day off or glaring at carolers. But Coffee doesn’t settle for sullen; even when silent his slightly twitching, nearly writhing body language says that this is a man who has lived a life so piled upon with regret that he finds everything, from the physical to the spiritual, painful.
As Scrooge takes his journey through Christmases past, present and future, Coffee keeps it real, even after 19 years at the role showing honest emotion as Scrooge’s shell cracks and managing to be moving rather than maudlin as Scrooge realizes that he hasn’t missed Christmas after all and isn’t powerless and doomed to a lonely fate. Coffee’s performance is truly a holiday miracle.
NSMT’s "Carol" is further buoyed by equal parts supporting players (who equal Coffee in sincere performance), seasonal music and outright bombast. Russell Garrett as Scrooge’s clerk Bob Cratchit is a hoot in his agog reaction to Scrooge’s change of heart but is heartbreaking when mourning his son’s death in that peak at Christmas future. In a small role, Patrick Ryan as Scrooge’s nephew Fred is touchingly honest in his defense of Christmas and his acceptance of his uncle.
Local favorites George Dvorsky and Leigh Barrett, as the spirits of Christmas future and past respectively, lead some of the finest musical numbers, especially the act one finale of "The Boar’s Head Carol." Barrett does double duty as Mrs. Cratchit, singing "The Little Child," a gorgeous duet with big-voiced Ryan Bates as the Narrator. For comedic numbers, Cheryl McMahon as Scrooge’s housekeeper and Tommy Labanaris as Old Joe are a stitch in a well-executed "Isn’t It Grand Boys?," with choreographer Bill Sprague, Jr. nicely expanding John MacInnis’s original work.
The only real mis-step in the production is the tweaking of the ghost of Christmas future to be grim reaper-esque entity, in an unfortunately stiff costume that looks cartoony against the lush Edwardian duds of the rest of the cast and obscures the actor’s face within. Yes, that affords a symbolic reveal later in the scene show but also robs Coffee the ability to interact with that spirit as he had so well with Dvorsky and Barrett.
Luckily, the rest of the world that director Arianna Knapp and her cast and crew create is more real and successful. Featuring perhaps NSMT’s best set, designed by Howard C. Jones, a spare, suggestive mix of suspended clocks and shelves or see-through doors appearing from the stage floor, it’s the ensemble that makes this world come to life. Yes, there are eye-catching (and loud!) special effects that punctuate the appearance of ghostly Jacob Marley or the climactic graveyard sequence, but it’s the more human moments like the simple, swirling staging and expert vocals of "The Gloucestershire Wassail" or the way Coffee’s face nearly cracks into beaming as he wishes his clerk a merry Christmas that are the heart of this "Carol."
"A Christmas Carol" continues through Dec. 23 at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly. For more info you can go to the company’s website.