‘Christmas Carol’ is Cheryl McMahon’s holiday specialty

In Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” miserly Ebenezer Scrooge forsakes capitalism to discover the true spirit of Christmas after crossing paths with Ghosts Past, Present, and Future.  Since it was published in 1843, the story has stood as a holiday classic, whether in print, on the screen, or on stage. 

In 1989, the North Shore Music Theatre was preparing a production of the timeless tale, adapted by the theater’s then artistic director, Jon Kimball, and his staff. 

Like most productions at North Shore, the show was scheduled to run just that one season.  However, when audiences experienced the show, filled with ghostly special effects, spectacular costumes, traditional carols, and original songs, they immediately embraced Kimball’s adaptation, such that the theater has revived the production year after year, establishing it as an honored holiday tradition. In turn, the audience has grown multi-generationally season after season. 

Cheryl McMahon auditioned for that first production and subsequently became a member of the initial cast.  So many Christmases later, she’s still a part of it all, celebrating her 21st season with the show.  Also returning once again is the production’s perennial Scrooge, David Coffee.

In a remarkable career, Cheryl has performed on virtually every stage in town.  From The Huntington to SpeakEasy Stage, New Rep and Lyric, she has played everything from Sondheim to Tennessee Williams, picking up two Independent Reviewers of New England Awards along the way.

Her Irish roots go back to her father’s family in County Clare.  Of her Dad, she says, “He was the one who was gifted with a sense of humor and innate comic timing.  And how to judge a room – Quick! . . . That’s what encompasses what my Dad brought to the table. Family stories. And keep everyone smiling.”

As an actress, Cheryl continues that legacy of telling stories and “judging the room.”  No matter where her career has taken her, North Shore’s “A Christmas Carol” holds a special place in her heart.   Here’s a condensed look at our conversation about the show.

Q. Thinking back to 1989, what do you remember about auditioning for that first production?
A. It was groundbreaking in so far as the opportunity was afforded to us – the Boston people.  Usually the shows at North Shore were completely cast in New York and rehearsed in New York and very few of us were ever invited to participate, to audition.  To have the opportunity to throw your hat in the ring and be considered was groundbreaking.  And to be cast was just, you know, miracle of miracles . . . But we never thought the show would last this long, I don’t think anybody did . . . The audiences made that happen.

Q. The story is certainly well known and loved.  What makes it special for you as an actor?
A. Dickens paints pictures for us in the novel that are indelible and speak volumes of the society at large, the British hierarchy, and the classes, et cetera.  And because of those images in the novel, we’re given a gift as actors to be able to draw those portraits to come to life on a stage as grand as North Shore’s.  And in the round!  It’s a gift.  An opportunity of a lifetime. And that’s why I continue to go back every year.

Q. Has your cast remained the same through the years?
A. Oh that’s the extra bonus. First of all, David Coffee. He is a remarkable gentleman.  Certainly audiences know his talent from coming to see the show year after year, as well as many other shows – I can’t even count how many shows David has done at North Shore. They consider him a gem and that’s the truth . . . He is generous of heart and spirit and funny and engaging and kind. He’s just a great guy, and to be able to be in his company professionally or personally. A total gift. 

Q.  You play two roles in the show: Mrs. Fezziwig and Scrooge’s housekeeper, Mrs. Dilbur.  Have those always been your roles?
A. I play all the women over 40. (Laughing) I’m only taking roles I can do now ‘til I’m 100. 

Q. This production is also special in that audiences not only keep returning, but they also bring new generations with them over time.
A. Talk about the opportunity to create a future audience for a theater.  We do 10 a.m. shows pretty much every day during the week for school groups.  And they pack the theater.  That will be our very first audience.  It’s usually the Wednesday before we have the public opening . . . The kids come from all over the place. As far away as Maine . . . I think the schools recognize that it’s a production that emphasizes the literature.

Q. Jon Kimball is returning this year to direct the production.  That has to be very special.
A. Well, Jon -- this is his baby. It was his brainstorm . . . Jon gave me such an opportunity when he cast me in 1989.  Of course he was a big mentor to trust me.  He didn’t know me, and I was a lot younger then. But I’m still playing this role.  And that’s a blessing when you’re a character person, in that you usually play “older.” Therefore you don’t lose opportunities when you get older, you gain them.

Q. Is there a moment in the show that holds special meaning to you personally.
A. Oh most definitely. It’s a moment you might not read in the script . . . It’s a moment we’ve built into the show, David and myself.  It’s based on improvisation and our knowing each other and the timing . . . It’s when Scrooge awakens on Christmas morning and takes in the fact that he’s still alive and he has a chance to make his life different and to turn a corner. The moments where he interacts with his housekeeper, Mrs. Dilbur, are very special to me.  They really make the show worth doing. 

Q. This production is not only a tradition for local audiences, it’s become your personal holiday tradition as well. 
A. I think the whole New England region is really lucky to have this production . . . Perhaps some people take it for granted because it’s been here for so many years.  But for so many people it really punctuates their holiday.  I know it does mine. 

R. J. Donovan is Editor and Publisher of onstageboston.com.
Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,”  Dec. 5-21, North Shore Music Theatre, 62 Dunham Road, Beverly.  Tickets:  nsmt.org or 978- 232-7200.