NSMT Delivers A Haunting ‘Christmas Carol’ (5 Stars)

Review by Claudia A. Fox Tree

A CHRISTMAS CAROL – Directed by Arianna Knapp; Adapted for the stage from the Charles Dickens novella by Jon Kimbell; Original music composed and arranged by Alby Potts and James Woodland; Scenic Design by Howard C. Jones; Costume Coordination by Paula Peasley-Ninestein; Lighting Design by Jack Mehler; Sound Design by Leon Rothenberg; Music Direction by Mark Harman; Choreography by Joe Moeller based on original choreography by John MacInnis.  Presented by the North Shore Music Theatre at 62 Dunham Rd., Beverly, MA thru 12/22.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL is a theatrical classic; clearly loved by many and part of a holiday tradition that notably spans decades for some families.  So when David Coffee made his twentieth anniversary entrance as Ebenezer Scrooge in The North Shore Music Theatre’s presentation, he received a rousing round of applause from the audience.  (Cheryl McMahon is also in her twentieth anniversary performance as Mrs. Dilbur/Mrs. Fezziwig). Even for someone like me, who does not ‘do’ Christmas, I could feel my eyes well up a little when Scrooge closed the show by asking his nephew, Fred, ‘If I were to come for dinner, would you let me?’  After all, isn’t part of many, if not every, winter celebration to reach out to family, friends, and neighbors in the spirit of togetherness?  
I know this story well, however, I”ve never seen it like this.  I know that sounds cliche, but this show is truly spectacular and magical.  From the moment I entered the theater, one which I’ve been in many times, there was a sense of mystery as filmy sheets hung over furniture, looking like spider webs, and an eerie glow permeated the semi-darkness.  “Icicles” hung from the eaves and clock faces lined the circular ceiling of this “theater in the round” show.  Big Ben was literally watching (pun intended). “Time” has a starring role in this show as a parade of ghosts mark each hour.  A skyline of shadowed building roofs containing spirals and turrets lay against the evening of blue that wrapped around the theater, transforming the stage into a medieval time travel machine.  Even the musicians, including a harpist sitting on risers above and in the pit below the stage, were in period costume.  Mr. Scrooge’s Counting Shop looked ancient and dusty with wooden flip top desks, wrought iron gates, real lighted candles, ringing metal bells on doors, coal heaters, hardcover leather-bound books strewn on shelves, and brick sidewalks harkening back to 1860 London.  There were more props than I’ve even seen in this theater.
I sat mesmerized as I traveled back in time to London. The fabulous setting with matching costumes and wigs certainly made the trip easier.  Ryan Bates is the Narrator (also 20-something Tiny Tim), and he retells a story some two decades after it was told to him.  Leigh Barrett is Mrs. Cratchit, who is married to Bob Cratchit, played by Russell Garrett, and they are parents to Tiny Tim, played by Sarah Gillespie. Mr. Scrooge employs Mr. Cratchit and doesn’t even offer a holiday bonus.  The character of Scrooge is as evil as ‘the Grinch.’ 
Though Scrooge’s partner, Jacob Marley, has been dead for seven years this Christmas Eve, his ghost appears to warn Ebenezer of a fate worse than death.  Or, should I say, he APPEARS!  Marley, played by Matt Allen, is a very scary dude and he knows how to make an entrance as he “wears the chains he forged in life” and effortlessly and believably flies around, courtesy of special effects provided by ZFX, Inc.  Lightning and strobe lights punctuate his warning that Ebenezer has a chance to escape his own fate of chains.  I’m not gonna lie, I jumped out of my seat and my heart skipped a beat, several times, at the loud popping noises throughout this show as spirits appeared and vanished.  Remember, this is a ghost story.  While there are upbeat dances and songs with carols, there is no real humor and very little to laugh about until the last scene, where I couldn’t help but smile. 
Years of practiced precision were at work in this production as fog rolled in, scenes changed, and windows and doors entered and exited through the scaffolding in the ceiling.  My favorite characters in this show were the “Pearlies.” When I saw them listed in the program, I had to go home and look them up on the Internet to find out more.  Apparently, “Pearlies” are Cockney street entertainers who performed for donations and typically wore topcoats covered with pearl buttons, hence the name. In A CHRISTMAS CAROL, they are allies to the Narrator.  Their sparkles of magic move the spirits’ and the show’s action forward.  For me, they were captivating.  Even though they do not having a speaking part, Nathaniel Braga and Joshua Keith are not just simple Pearlies, they are talented tumblers, acrobats, poltergeists, dancers, and actors. 
While the Pearlies, enthralled me and were present in almost every scene, I found myself dazzled by each ghost and holding my breath to see how he or she would be revealed.  Either standing on a moving rock, gliding above us on what must have been stilts, or handling a costume taller than the average person, each spirit was literally larger than life. Leigh Barrett played the first ghost to appear, that of Christmas Past (and Mrs. Cratchit).  She was draped in ice and had a silky voice that sounded like she was singing in a cathedral.  The second ghost of Christmas Present, played by Sheldon Henry, was announced by bugles and brass as the king of the golden feast and wore a traditional Father Christmas outfit.  I loved seeing an African American in this role.  He had a deep and resonating voice that echoed as he showed Scrooge the fate of the Cratchit family; too poor to afford what they needed.  Charles Dickens wanted to make his audience aware of the plight of the poor, and therefore imbeds the story of the crippled Tiny Tim into this classic tale.  The final ghost of Christmas Yet To Come (and Young Scrooge), played by Kevin Patrick Martin, never shows his face.  He reminded me of the Grim Reaper.  It was powerful to see this cloaked spirit lead Ebenezer on a path where tombstones grow out of the ground as they pass over.  The future holds a cemetery, if Scrooge cannot change his Grinchlike ways. 
A CHRISTMAS CAROL is part of “Americana.” It has been transformed into 11 film and 6 television adaptations from cartoon to live action, and 6 plays, musicals, and comics. There is a host of cultural knowledge gained by knowing this story of creepy visits by three ghosts who teach about the past, present, and future.  Many commonplace references to the tale are present into today’s society from being a “Scrooge,” meaning miserly and thus forgetting that the character transforms, to saying, “Bah! Humbug!” and “Bless us, everyone.”  When Charles Dickens wrote this novella during the Victorian era, some historians argue, he wanted to change the waning community church-based holiday to a self-centered festival with food, drink, dancing, games, and a festive generosity of spirit.  How do you think he did? Prepare to enter the past and be swept away by ghosts who remind us of today’s meaning of Christmas and holiday celebrations in A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Content Advisory: Contains sudden loud noises and dark images. May not be suitable for very young children. For more info, go to: http://www.nsmt.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=999