OREM — The current SCERA production of Liken’s The First Christmas is unique. This production is the world stage premiere of a musical based on a somewhat popular series of religious films. In addition to that, amidst all of the holiday theater that is happening throughout Utah, it stands apart as one of the very few overtly religious pieces available this season. With a strong cast, great voices, and a beautiful design, this show is worth looking into.
Liken’s The First Christmas (music and lyrics by Aaron Edson, book by Dennis Agle, Jr.) is based off the Liken movie of the same name. I haven’t seen the film version, so I am not sure how much in this script was original and how much was adapted. It starts with a rather cartoonish and didactic narrative frame, as Mrs. Drew (Oyoyo Bonner), the middle school choir teacher, has been suspended for refusing to remove Silent Night from her “Winter Festival Concert” (NOT a Christmas concert). One student named Amelia (Ashlyn Patterson) returns home to inform her parents of the evils the school district and its mean, self-centered superintendent (Ed Eyestone) have committed. Her parents (Taylor Eliason and Andrea Jakeman) readily agree this was wrong and start lamenting the state of the Christmas season; commercialism, political correctness, and the like. The best remedy for this is to reteach 12-year-old Amelia the story of the nativity.
I am still a little unsure about how I felt about the play-within-a-play structure. I found the premise of the choir concert issue to be a little preachy and it was difficult for me to grow close to the characters because I didn’t buy into the evil school district ploy. The major issue for me was that it was presented in such a cartoonish way, kind of a mix between Veggietales and a Disney Channel show. But at the same time, the over-arching structure of the parents telling the nativity story mixed with their own embellishments led to a majority of the show’s comedic moments, and a few spectacular meta-theatrical ones. I loved the back-and-forth that occurred in the telling of the story of the four wise men (yes, four). The comedy was timed well, there was discovery from the actors, and it thrived on the collision of the two stories. It was great to watch.
The “inner” play, or that of the Nativity, was very engaging and had many characters that I was able to relate to. As mentioned before, it was a goofier take on a traditional story, and yet it was able to balance the jokes with moments of emotional connection to make for a very balanced piece. The more sentimental parts helped to keep the joking nature of the play from feeling too sacrilegious. The adept direction by Michael Carrasco also helped aid the switches between dramatic and comedic. I think my favorite switch was that of the shepherds, a group that relied quite heavily on puns and physical comedy, yet when it came time to show their spiritual side, the switch was almost seamless.
The music in the show was only so-so. I didn’t find many of Aaron Edson’s melodies to be particularly catchy or memorable, and the lyrics often seemed to be repeating a generic phrase over and over (“Follow the Star” and “A Hand to Hold”). However, though the songs themselves weren’t much to speak of, the performances from the actors and the musical direction from Martha Glissmeyer made the most of what was there. Glissmeyer’s direction seemed to help the actors to manage the multiple styles of music that were presented in the show, everything from rock, to opera, to a cappella, to carol, to ballad, and so on. Though there was a lot of variance in what type of music we were hearing, it was always presented in a quality way.
In addition to good direction, the cast was full of great vocalists. Mary and Joseph (Julie Rae Sanchez and Mark Gordon) were both extremely talented singers who each had moments of musical brilliance. Even though at times the music and lyrics weren’t quite Tony Award-winning, Sanchez’s sweet voice was a joy to listen to, and I wish that the script allowed Mary more of a voice to really round out what little was there. I also really loved Gordon’s song with Daniel Beck, who played the angel Gabriel. Beck and Gordon both had powerful voices that meshed well together and allowed for an emotionally moving take on the idea of Joseph being visited by an angel.
The two actors whose performances were a resounding success had to be Oyoyo Bonner as Mrs. Drew, and Daniel Beck as Gabriel. These two singers each had a great belt that sent shivers up my spine. Their collaboration on “Glory to God” was impressive as the two complemented each other in a rock-and-roll style hymn with a chorus of angels to back them up. However, the best song of the night had to be the shepherds’ a cappella rendition of “He’s Born.” This piece was the most emotionally connected of the evening, which was especially impressive considering most of the people singing were just saying “ooh” or “aah.” However, the expression with which shepherds sang was wonderful and their unity was impeccable.
The acting was consistent throughout the show and was, overall, fairly good. While many of the performances could be considered average, there were a few performers who really stood out in their roles. First and foremost, Ashlyn Patterson should be commended for her portrayal of Amelia, the young girl with a dilemma about Christmas songs. While the role itself had some flaws, namely some of the dialogue sounded too young for a preteen, Patterson commanded the stage with an incredible aplomb for a young actor. She seemed entirely fearless when it came to handling a role with as much stage time as hers required. I’m sure that part of that confidence came from working with Taylor Eliason and Andrea Jakeman, who played Amelia’s parents. Eliason, Jakeman, and Patterson had a great relationship on stage that seemed entirely natural; I was able to really feel a connection between them.
What the script lacked in its music and lyrics was made up for in the humor of the scenes, especially the ensemble scenes. The humor in the show was actually quite good, and it was accentuated by the rapport that the actors had with one another. The banter between the two main shepherds (Patrick Newman and Michael Dubois) was great, but mostly because of the choices in delivery made by the actors. Similarly, the scenes involving the wise men, as mentioned before, were clever and allowed for some back and forth between two great groups of actors, the wise men and the narrating family. It was fun to watch as the relationships inside each group (family or wise men) were allowed to interact with the relationships inside the other group.
The technical elements were beautiful. The sound (Kendall Bowman) was executed nearly without a hitch (there were a few slight echo effects during some songs that seemed just a little out of place). The lighting (Elizabeth Griffiths) was masterful. The play required multiple locations that were all over the stage, and a few lighting tricks (like the star, or Gabriel’s first appearance) but these were all handled with clever solutions. The costumes (Deborah Bowman and Kelsey Seaver) were all well-constructed and the designs were very fitting for the time period while still allowing for some creativity. Gabriel’s robes were particularly intriguing. But above all, the set wowed me. It was gorgeous and it transitioned seamlessly between locations due to set designer Shawn Mortensen’s appropriate use of wagons and fly rails. It is always impressive when a show with that many locations can get by with no blackouts.
So is it worth the time and money to go see this show? Overall, I would say yes. It’s fun, it’s of a fairly good quality, and it’s the right season for it. It reminds me of a less-developed version of Joseph and Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, complete with narration structure, re-imagining of a classic Bible story, and even a Donny Osmond-esque, rock star angel Gabriel. So maybe that’s your best litmus test. If you like Joseph, there’s a good chance this will be right up your alley.