|David Coffee as Ebenezer Scrooge in the North Shore Music Theatre production. (Paul Lyden)|
Mining the magic past and present
NSMT production brings Dickens’s classic to the next generation, in a reborn venue
BEVERLY — North Shore Music Theatre’s sumptuous production of “A Christmas Carol’’ is subtitled “A Musical Ghost Story,’’ which serves as an apt metaphor for the reinvigoration of the theater itself. The production marks the end of the theater’s first season under new ownership after financial woes forced its closure in 2009, and is a reminder of the glory of the theater’s past and its future potential.
Longtime artistic director Jon Kimbell returns for the 20th mounting of his lush and imaginative take on the Charles Dickens classic, which is a mix of magic, music, and old-fashioned storytelling, designed to send audiences out full of a sense of generosity as well as holiday cheer. No one knows better than Kimbell how to work the arena stage, and the story, told in flashbacks by a grown-up Tiny Tim (Ryan Bates), plays out to the audience at every possible angle. One of the most inspired touches has the orchestra scattered around and above the stage. At particular moments, a trumpet, French horn, and trombone provide musical fanfares from three different areas in the audience, and our narrator also appears to help with story transitions from various spots on stage and in the audience.
That sense of magic at every turn draws the audience into the world of 19th-century London and Dickens’s oh-so-familiar tale. Kimbell’s decision to double roles — the actor playing Mrs. Cratchit (Maureen Brennan) also plays the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Gentleman soliciting money from Scrooge (Josh Tower) also plays the Ghost of Christmas Present, and Young Scrooge (Kevin Patrick Martin) doubles as the Ghost of Christmas Future — creates a subtle but effective connection to the themes those characters represent.
While Bates’s Tiny Tim anchors the story with his narration, David Coffee, who has played Ebenezer Scrooge in 16 of the last 20 productions, delivers a charming and sympathetic miser. Coffee’s performance is decidedly low-key, smartly avoiding caricature, and managing to make even “bah-humbug’’ sound sincere. After the appearance of his old partner, Jacob Marley (Tom Staggs, in a terrific bit of flying), Coffee makes us feel Scrooge’s transformation is incremental, which turns each of the ghostly visits into effective building blocks and makes his change from bitterness to generosity on Christmas morning more believable.
Coffee gets enormous help from a wonderful ensemble, including Brennan, who is absolutely angelic as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and motherly without being treacly as Mrs. Cratchit; Tower, who is expansive as the bountiful Ghost of Christmas Present and direct without being unctuous as the Gentleman; and Cheryl McMahon, who is delightful as both Mrs. Fezziwig and Scrooge’s overwhelmed housekeeper, Mrs. Dilber.
Kimbell also does an effective job sprinkling traditional holiday carols throughout the show, from adaptations of Renaissance tunes, the Wassail and Boar’s Head Carol, to Mrs. Dilber’s “Isn’t It Grand, Boys?’’ (an old Irish drinking ditty). Conductor Mark Hartman keeps his musicians working smoothly together, despite not being crowded together in a pit.
This “Christmas Carol’’ is full of dazzling theatrical effects, but they all add to, rather than distract from Dickens’s basic story of one man (in this case, read theater) grateful for the chance to redeem himself. It’s impossible not to feel the same.
Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.