A Christmas Carol at North Shore Music Theatre is a Holiday Stage Spectacular (4.5 stars)

A Christmas Carol, adapted for the stage from the Charles Dickens novella by Jon Kimbell, assisted by David James and David Zoffoli, featuring traditional music of the season, and original music composed and arranged by Alby Potts and James Woodland, starring David Coffee, with Howard C. Jones, Original Scene Design; Paula Peasley-Ninestein, Costume Coordination and Additional Costume Design; Jack Mehler, Lighting Design; Leon Rothenberg, Sound Design; Karen Nascembeni, General Manager; Tom Amos, Associate Producer; Milton Granger, Music Direction; Kevin P. Hill, Direction and Choreography, based on an original choreography by John MacInnis, runs December 8-23, 2017 at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Massachusetts.

Staging a musical version of A Christmas Carol has been a tradition at the North Shore Music Theatre for more than 20 years, which raises the question, Why is it consistently so popular?

The answer is that it’s become a tradition for the NSMT’s community, where they come out in part to support the actors, and the us/them barrier between cast and audience dissolves into a general “we”. There’s a kind of pride and ownership that results in great feeling in the audience, for example when Scrooge first appears on stage, played by the adored David Coffee. The production is original, as are all the musicals at the NSMT and its sister venue, Theatre by the Sea in Rhode Island.

The first half of the show is a spectacular, a feast of celebration and joy. You can watch the live orchestra both above and below the stage, with trumpets and a harp. Video projection puts fireworks in the background, while invisible spirits dance acrobatics and throw confetti. Within 5 minutes I was tearing up from the beauty of the Christmas peacetime and especially actors ringing handbells on stage.

The North Shore Music Theatre’s stage is round, so there’s a good seat everywhere and the actors never have their backs to you for long. Even in difficult scenes like the gravestone in the cemetery, they somehow work it so that you can see it from all angles. The staging is sparse but all that is needed, and is set gracefully and swiftly, either descending from above, or rising from a great central pit, so that even the staging transitions become a real part of the show, as Scrooge is taken far away and then suddenly finds himself waking in bed. Great use is made of lighting to heighten the spookiness of the show, designed by Jack Mehler, most notably with Marley on the door knocker and in person.

Like every good show, A Christmas Carol starts with a bang, which then grows as the ghost of Marley (Freddie Kimmel) flies in from above. He’s wrapped in long chains whose ends are handled by the spirits, with choreography by Kevin P. Hill, based on an original choreography by John MacInnis. It’s genuinely scary and delightfully impressive how Marley and Scrooge interact, especially when Marley descends into the pit. It’s perhaps the finest visual spectacle I’ve seen at the North Shore Music Theatre, and tied directly into powerfully moving the emotional plot forward.

Dissimilarly, the songs did not move the plot forward and only a few were catchy. However, the music and entire production was generally secular and not preachy. Even Tiny Tim’s speech is short and innocuous. Thus the entire show is safe for atheists, Jewish people, and those of other faiths who have a fondness for the holidays. The cast has no people of color that I remember or see in the program book.

Women traditionally take a back seat in the play, notably to males Scrooge, Marley, Bob Cratchit, and Fred the nephew (Andy Tighe), but the production found additional roles for women in the maid and Ghost of Christmas Past. Kudos to Cheryl McMahon as Mrs. Dilber the house maid, and as Mrs. Fezziwig, who made the audience laugh with her physical antics and reactions to Scrooge, although her turn at the end seemed abrupt.

Allowing for exposition and the ebbs and flows of drama, generally speaking a show’s action and emotional power should rise towards the end. Unfortunately, Marley at the start was the ghost with the most impact. The last spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Future, was the least impressive, I am sorry to say, with a look that was ordinary and almost comical. (And generally the costuming of the show semeed uninspired.) There was a bit too much neon lighting in the ghost’s hourglass and tombstones at the end to take the threat of death too seriously. And the Ghost of Christmas Future should stand still while the action of the scene shifts to other players. Walking the long way ’round to get off stage is unnecessary and distracting. This being said, the production adds a stunning twist, a brilliant new take on the traditional story, in this part of the play.

The show overall does not have quite enough conflict to provide the tension that moves a drama, and the props from the theft would be more shocking if shown clearly in an early scene and then revealed later. But the play has great impact in places, such as David Coffee’s portrayal of Scrooge before the spirits appear — he is already a bit remiss internally, and this makes Scrooge’s one night transition more believable. There’s great comedy in places, too. Kudos to Russell Garrett (Bob Cratchit) for hilariously sneaking and fainting in one scene.

Wonderfully striking in places, but sagging at the end, and without any songs you will find yourself humming the next day, A Christmas Carol is a 4-star show but one that is so well-loved by the audience that their energy carries it to 4.5 stars. Go early and eat at the delightful buffet, which has all the comfort food one could ask for, with turkey, beef, potatoes, and gravy. A Merry Christmas, everyone!

I’m glad to give A Christmas Carol 4.5 stars.

See A Christmas Carol on the North Shore Music Theatre’s website.