Generations of us know the story of Charles Dickens "A Christmas Carol," having been raised on it in one form or another. From Alastair Sim's tour-de-force performance in the quintessential 1951 film version, to Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol (now being adapted for the NY Stage sans Magoo), Bill Murray in "Scrooged", etc... The list of remakes of Dickens tale is longer than Jacob Marley's chains!
This past weekend I went to see the perennial stage version at Bill Haney's North Shore Music Theatre (NSMT). Now in its 24th year! Once again I was blown away by the high caliber of theater that the adorable Mr. Hanney and his company have assembled. The production swept me up in the story and made me realize just how and why "A Christmas Carol" will never be dated or out of fashion, a realization that is almost bittersweet. More on that later...
Of course behind every "Bah Humbug" there had better be one hell of a great Scrooge to utter the classic epithet. For my money in the cinematic world Sir Alastir Sim will always be the definitive Ebenezer Scrooge with George C. Scott running a close second.
Clearly "if it isn't broke don't fix it" is the catch phrase at NSMT with stage veteran David Coffee, now in his 21st year playing the part of "the wicked Ol' screw." Mr. Coffee could have given Patrick Stuart a lesson or two in the art of "Scrooging."
(If you missed Mr. Stuart's lackluster TV version count yourself lucky!) Playing a role for over two decades could easily lead to a very staid and static performance, but clearly Mr. Coffee adheres to what the great actor William Gillette (who played Sherlock Holmes over thirty years) stated: "The important thing to remember about acting is the illusion of the first time." His performance is just as fresh today, and I had audience members next to me who confirmed that. Coffee brilliantly infuses all the blustery, curmudgeonly, miserly ingredients inherent to the part, and when the magical transformative moment arrives he leaves the audience:" as happy as an angel, as merry as a school-boy, as giddy as a drunken man." Bravo, Mr. Coffee!
David Coffee (Ebenezer Scrooge) and Freddie Kimmel (Jacob Marley) in A CHRISTMAS CAROL at North Shore Music Theatre from December 5 - December 21, 2014. Photo © Paul Lyden.
Also of note, Cheryl McMahon as Scrooge's saucy housekeeper, Mrs. Dilbur. McMahon shares an incredible chemistry with Mr. Coffee, and no wonder! She is celebrating her 21st year alongside him in this production. I especially enjoyed the subtle insinuation of a possible future romance between the two upon Scrooge's transformation.
Cheryl McMahon (Mrs. Dilbur) in A CHRISTMAS CAROL at North Shore Music Theatre from December 5 - December 21, 2014. Photo © Paul Lyden.
The audience upon being seated sees only an illuminated crutch against a stool on the stage. Once the show begins, the audience is taken on the journey by a handsome young man who walks with a slight limp and the aid of a cane. Yes, we are seeing the story told through eyes of a grown Up Tim Cratchit, played to gentle perfection by Tommy Labanaris.
This production had other wonderful stand out performances I would be remiss in not mentioning. Including Russell Garrett as Bob Cratchit who brings a lovely warmth and kindness of spirit necessary for Scrooge's long suffering clerk.
David Coffee (Ebenezer Scrooge) and Russell Garrett (Bob Cratchit) in A CHRISTMAS CAROL at North Shore Music Theatre from December 5 - December 21, 2014. Photo © Paul Lyden.
Another stellar performance was given by Scarlet Keene-Connole as Scrooge's young sister, Fan. This kid is going places! I had the pleasure of hearing her sing at the after party where she knocked "I'm The Greatest Star" out of the park (Lea Michelle, eat your heart out!) Mr. Hanney if you are thinking ahead a few years, maybe, "Wicked" starring Miss Connole as Elphaba! Yes?
Scarlet Keene-Connole with Huffington Post Blogger Peter Mac as Judy Garland at NSMT's Out At The North Shore after party for A Christmas Carol. Photo Credit Tess Brady
Experientially I must point out the lavish costumes as crafted by Paula Peasley-Ninesteen. From the beautiful ball gowns to Jacob Marley's decrepit corpse like couture, Peasley-Ninesteen's costumes are a Victorian etching come to life. Additional kudos to Gerard Kelly for his impeccable hair and wig design. Further, the marriage of Howard C. Jones' scenic design added to Jack Mehler's lighting design with Leon Rothenberg's sound design all combine to provide the shows surreal Dickensian quality.
Many forget that Dickens subtitled his tale "A Ghost Story" and NSMT lives up to that in spades. When the ghost of Jacob Marley flies into Scrooges bed chamber the effect is absolutely terrifying. Freddie Kimmel conjures up Marley's ghost wailing in agony, of an eternity chained in limbo, magnificently. As the ghost of Christmas Past Leigh Barrett offers a beautiful soaring Mezzo-Soprano. I was most impressed by Peter S. Adams as the ghost of Christmas Present, who dominated the stage on stilts, while belting out a carol in a luscious and rich baritone. Extremely effective as well is when Scrooge learns of his imminent death by the ghost of Christmas Future. Under a black veiled death shroud we learn (in an inspired twist) that it is actually Young Ebenezer!
Peter S. Adams (The Ghost of Christmas Present) in A CHRISTMAS CAROL at North Shore Music Theatre from December 5 - December 21, 2014. Photo © Paul Lyden.
The production flows seamlessly under the direction of its adaptor Jon Kimbell. Additionally, Kevin P. Hill (NSMT's dashing Artistic Director) collaborated to add some new touches to this year's production. Brava to both gentlemen for making it shine brighter than one of Scrooge's schillings.
The striking Resident Artistic Director Kevin P. Hill with Huffington Post Blogger Peter Mac as Judy Garland and NSMT's Owner the stunning Bill Hanney at the Out On The North Shore after party for A Christmas Carol. Photo Credit Tess Brady.
As I mentioned earlier the fact that this story still resonates is in many ways bittersweet. How many Bob Crachitts do we know? Over worked, underpaid and struggling to provide for a family. Especially those with sick children trying to make ends meet in an age where health insurance is often an unreachable goal. It is a sad commentary that in 2014 there are still "Scrooges", who have not had the benefit of visits from ghostly apparitions to knock some sense into their money bag of a brain or their icy cold hearts.
NSMT's "A Christmas Carol" has once more instilled Dickens belief in me to honor Christmas in my heart and keep it all the year, and allow the spirits of the Christmas Past, Present and Future to strive within me and not shut out the lessons that they teach.
Cliché though it may be: God bless us everyone!
John Mac as Bea Arthur with David Coffee and Huffington Post Blogger Peter Mac as Judy Garland at NSMT's Out On The North Shore after party for A Christmas Carol. Photo Credit Tess Brady.