By Will Broaddus
---- — Given Leigh Barrett’s long history with “A Christmas Carol,” it’s only fitting that she play the Ghost of Christmas Past.
The Reading actress appeared in North Shore Music Theatre’s first production of the Dickens classic in 1989 and remembers it well.
“I was so in awe of being part of the premiere,” Barrett said. “It was the first year the North Shore was enclosed as a year-round space.”
She also remembers the first person to play Scrooge, Munson Hicks, one of two actors to appear in that role before David Coffee.
“He was an extraordinary Scrooge,” Barrett said. “He had a devilish sense of humor that showed through.”
Coffee, who is playing the miserable miser for the 20th time this year, brings his own distinct charms to the role, Barrett said.
“David really captures to me a nice balance of the curmudgeon and the childlike Scrooge at the end,” she said.
Barrett has appeared in a number of shows at North Shore since 1989, including “The Sound of Music,” “Sweeney Todd” and “My Fair Lady,” but she rejoined the cast of “A Christmas Carol” only two seasons ago.
She also plays Mrs. Cratchit in the musical, a role that is usually paired with the Ghost of Christmas Past because both characters are maternal figures.
“The ghost of the past, the way I portray her, she is sort of the ghost of hope,” Barrett said. “As any mother hopes their child will learn the lesson the first time — not see anything bad and get it right the first time, so we can live happily ever after. And yet he doesn’t.”
Scrooge resists any feeling of sympathy for his fellow man, even after Barrett’s character shows him what he has gained from the love of others and how he suffered from its absence.
“He doesn’t learn there, and we go to Fezziwig’s ball, the Christmas party,” Barrett said. “We see another memory of Scrooge, another image, slightly adult, deeply in love with Belle.
“He shows glimmers of it, which I love. But he cannot hang on to it — refuses to hang on to it.”
Barrett, who grew up in Wakefield, has been singing in musicals since high school and got a bachelor’s degree in voice at Baldwin Wallace University in Ohio.
In addition to performing many times at New Repertory Theatre, Stoneham Theatre, Lyric Stage Company and other local venues, she also sings in an a cappella quartet called Where’s the Band.
In 1989, Barrett was originally cast in an ensemble role in “A Christmas Carol,” until the actress who played Meg fell off a ramp and broke her foot.
“Without having been an understudy, I had half an hour to prepare,” she said.
In another mishap in the same show, the actress who played the Ghost of Christmas Past lost her voice, and Barrett had to sing for her backstage.
A newspaper reviewer, who didn’t know the voice was Barrett’s, described it as one of the best in the show.
“Christmas Past has a lovely number when she first arrives, a very ethereal, dreamy poem, essentially,” Barrett said.
Barrett, who has won two Elliot Norton Awards and two Independent Reviewers of New England Awards, has been in eight separate productions of “A Christmas Carol.”
“They’re all very, very different,” she said. “Some were very heavy, wanting to get that point across. It’s interesting to see what grabs somebody when they do a production.”
In Dickens’ original story, he drives home the importance of caring for others in a number of scenes that rarely make it to the stage.
“Scrooge travels with the Ghost of Christmas Present to the miners, and to the coast of Ireland and the lighthouse, and the ship,” Barrett said. “It’s beautiful imagery, but if you put everything in, it would be ‘Nicholas Nickleby.’ Nobody wants that at Christmas.”
Barrett has also appeared in “Nicholas Nickleby,” another staging of a Dickens tale, which she describes as “very Dickensian, very heavy.”
“Maybe that speaks to me; I like the dark pieces,” she said. “But I like the light to shine through.”
Barrett feels the version performed at North Shore, which was adapted by former artistic director Jon Kimbell, has evolved in the two years since she has rejoined the production.
“It’s becoming more grounded, more concentrating on the storytelling and less on the spectacle magic of it,” she said. “It’s more organic, growing out of the text and story, and I think it makes it even more magical.”
Barrett feels the current group of actors in the show have developed a strong bond that translates into a powerful performance.
“This company is family; it’s almost a rep company that comes back to do ‘Christmas Carol,’” she said. “I’ve enjoyed all my productions but always had a place in my heart for this.
“I love it because, not only does it talk about the hardships of life that we all walk, but it captured the joy for me of community and family.”
If you go
What: “A Christmas Carol”
When: Through Dec. 22, evening shows Dec. 13, 14, 20, 21 and 22 at 7:30 p.m.; matinees Dec. 14, 15, 21 and 22 at 2 p.m.
Where: North Shore Music Theatre, 62 Dunham Road, Beverly
How much: Tickets from $50 to $65 at 978-232-7200 or www.nsmt.org