MAGNA — Every year, the holiday season unleashes a flurry of Christmas themed productions on the theatre scene. With only a few short weeks and with so many shows, a theatre patron has to decide which productions they will be attending and which they will leave behind. This year in Magna, Utah, The Empress Theatre has mounted a production that is entirely new to the stage. The Christmas Box is an original musical and has made its way to The Empress stage for this Christmas season, and is truly a delightful production.
The Christmas Box is a musical adaptation of the best-selling 1993 novel written by Richard Paul Evans. It centers on a young family, the Evans Family, which boards in an old mansion owned by the old and somewhat mysterious MaryAnne Parkin. The Evans’ become close with their host, and in doing so learn of her tragic and lonely past. Ultimately their friendship with MaryAnne Parkin becomes an important lesson on the importance of families.
Though The Empress Theatre’s adaptation of The Christmas Box is not at the professional level or standard of the some of the other theatres in the nearby area, it still carries with it a special spirit of community, sacrifice, and love that is apparent throughout the production. The script, written by David R. Naylor, is fairly didactic and somewhat predictable, but it still moves the story along. There are many location changes written in the script, which makes for a somewhat choppy ride during the production. Still, the script provides a strong enough foundation for the story it is telling. An impressive sixteen original songs are included in the production, also written by Naylor, and are not very memorable. However, they generally effective in forwarding the plot and exploring character.
Directors Stephen and Blair Chucay make an admirable effort to tell the story to each side of the audience seated around the thrust stage. On occasion, some actors seem to play the action to a certain side without any kind of discernable justification other than “make sure the west side can see your face.” Still, the directors use the space efficiently and make the story clear in the unique space at The Empress Theatre.
Scenic Design, by Jake Andersen and Stephen Chucay, is very simple and minimal. The unifying element throughout the piece is a large, beautiful Christmas tree that never leaves the stage. Each scene is then made up of other set pieces that make up different rooms in MaryAnne’s house and Richard Evans’s tuxedo shop. A second level is utilized for other locations like the attic of the mansion, the cemetery, and the Christmas tree lot. This second level allows for the two scenes to run simultaneously and for quick scene changes. The simplicity in design leaves some inconsistencies, though. The program lists several scenes as being locating in MaryAnne’s parlor, or MaryAnne’s study; however the design does not reflect this. Instead, almost every scene in MaryAnne’s house seems to be in a completely new location within her house. Otherwise, the unique space was used well in conveying the story.
All the actors feel well rehearsed and their performances are polished, though none were particularly noteworthy. Kelli Hall’s performance of the young mother, Keri Evans, is fairly straightforward. Hall only touches the surface of this mother who keeps busy at home with her daughter, though perhaps this is a fault of the script. Hall’s vocals, on the other hand, are the strongest in the show, which she demonstrates while singing “Oh Christmas Tree” near the end of Act I. Madison Carpentier’s performance of six-year-old Jenna Evans, is vivacious. Carpentier brings a youthful vitality in all her scenes that grounds piece as a true family experience.
Another notable performance comes from Janelle Hurst as MaryAnne Parkin, the elderly proprietress with a mysterious backstory. Hurst, though not elderly herself, brings a matronly love to her character’s interactions with young Jenna and Jenna’s young parents. Hurst’s performance, like Hall’s, was only surface-level however, despite her character’s tragic and even haunting backstory. Still, any weaknesses among the actors do not detract from the overarching theme inherent in the script.
The Christmas Box is an excellent way to get into the holiday spirit this year. It makes up for any shortcomings with a strong sense of love and community. Its message of the importance of families is poignant and extremely appropriate for this time of year. Theatre goers should consider making a short trip to Magna to visit this little gem of a Theatre. Bring the family and make a day of it!