If ever there was a year when the words “Bah Humbug” were befitting to describe our state of mind, it is 2020. Here on the North Shore, however, those two words are surprisingly endearing. We have all grown to love hearing them spoken by our favorite character actor, David Coffee, who brilliantly embodies Ebenezer Scrooge in North Shore Music Theatre’s (NSMT) annual production of A Christmas Carol.
Last December marked Coffee’s 26th year bringing life to Dickens’s iconic cold-hearted miser. He first appeared in the NSMT production in 1992 at the age of 35. For almost three decades, he has performed the role of Scrooge to well over one million theatergoers.
Throughout all those productions, his understudy has never gone on, including during a run of the show where he tore his meniscus rolling over in Scrooge’s bed during the first act. He has performed in 60 different musical productions at NSMT. So many, in fact, that most patrons assume he lives here on the North Shore.
It might surprise you to know that Coffee hails from Arlington, Texas, a suburb of Fort Worth where he was born 63 years ago this past September. A kindhearted, jovial man with a heavy southern accent, his off-stage personality is much more akin to the happy Scrooge you meet at the conclusion of A Christmas Carol.
From the moment he arrives on campus, Coffee bedazzles every inch of NSMT’s star dressing room with Christmas lights, garland, tinsel, and holly. NSMT’s wardrobe supervisor, Kat Shanahan, describes him as a “real-life Santa Claus known for giving gifts to every single cast and crew member working on the show.”
NSMT’s costume manager, Kelly Baker, says of Coffee, “When he comes down for fittings, he always stops and says hello to everyone working in the costume shop and introduces himself to any newcomers. We lovingly refer to it as ‘David Coffee Day.’ It marks the beginning of Christmas for me.”
Prior to each performance, it takes Coffee 45 minutes to transform his youthful, shiny, baby face to that of the scowling Ebenezer Scrooge. Patrons always assume he is much older than he is. “Having done the show all these years, they certainly assume that I have to be ancient. Occasionally, like when we have a 10-show week, I will have to conserve a little bit for myself and the audience takes it as ‘Isn’t it wonderful that that old man still gets up there? I cannot believe he has as much energy as he still does at his age.’ They are pulling for you.”
A favorite on-stage tradition for Coffee is the coin toss scene complete with a bet that has been ongoing since 2006. NSMT’s music contractor and lead trumpet, Jay Daly, and a few other musicians started taking bets among the cast and crew as to how many times a week the two Turkey Boys would drop the coins tossed to them through the air by Scrooge.
“You have to be prepared for anything on stage. From dropped coins, to technical issues with scenery flying in at unexpected times, too much atmospheric fog rolling in, to absent props, or actors and musicians missing their cues—in 26 years, I’ve seen it all. You just have to roll with it, so the audience doesn’t know something went wrong.”
Coffee enjoys playing to both student and public audiences alike. “The adults laugh more. They pick up on a lot of subtle things that go over the kids’ heads. What I have always loved about student audiences is that they are straightforward. With the children, when I break down and say Merry Christmas to Mrs. Dilber, you hear this ‘awwwhhhh’ and they start applauding. It’s like, how wonderful. He is finally gone. They are with me the whole way there.”
Cheryl McMahon, who has played Mrs. Dilber impeccably opposite Coffee for 26 years, says of her scene partner, “David’s portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge comes straight from his heart. He cloaks himself in the persona created by Charles Dickens with a fresh start every performance. David captures every nuance, every tick and detail that make his portrayal of Scrooge so riveting and joyful to watch.”
Coffee’s “victory lap” around the stage at the end of each show is almost as entertaining as the show itself. To see the reaction of the audience, how much they are in tune with him and care for him, everyone with something to say, wanting to touch him and visit with him is one of the most heartwarming parts of the whole experience.
“The thing that I love about the show is knowing how much it means to other people. The letters and the messages I get…and when I’m visiting around town…I swear, if you had a GoPro attached to me going around after the show, it would look like the longest scene from It’s A Wonderful Life. Audience members yell out, ‘15 years we’ve been coming! This little one here…it’s his third year!’ They should get year pins, or something because they all want to be sure that you know how long they have been coming to the show.
"On the morning of the school group performances, I yell ‘Merry Christmas’ at them and try to get them to yell back. Each section tries to top the one before and they always do. The sound from that last group almost knocks me over. It’s nice to finish up the show and really feel great at the end. I have a reclamation eight times a week—an epiphany. It’s very good for the soul to do that. It means a lot to me because you start the show as curmudgeonly Scrooge and at the end of it you feel fantastic. So many shows you do, the art goes the other way in what’s happening to you.”
NSMT’s producing artistic director, Kevin P. Hill, says, “The thing I’m going to miss the most this holiday season is not being able to work with my dear friend David on this show. I’m so looking forward to working with him again next year when we celebrate our 30th A Christmas Carol anniversary.”
Bill Hanney, NSMT’s owner/producer, is often heard passionately saying from the stage, “I can’t imagine ever doing this production without David. As long as he is able to do this role, it is his.”
When asked if he had any concerns about aging out of the role, Coffee says, “I don’t worry about it too much. I have a friend who finally quit doing the role at 82. If I can stay healthy enough to get around…that’s the main thing…and remember my lines…I can do it for a long time.”
In a year when our beloved Ebenezer Scrooge will not be shouting “Bah Humbug” at us from the stage, let us take a lesson from Dickens’s playbook on remembering A Christmas Carol’s timely message of rebirth and hope. “I will honour Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”
For more information, visit nsmt.org.