OREM — The Thanksgiving turkey has been gobbled up and the Christmas season has officially arrived. Ushering in the season are the seemingly countless Christmas plays and musicals presented at theatres around the state. This year on the stage at the SCERA Center for the Arts, we see the return of Liken’s The First Christmas—the unapologetic retelling of the birth of Christ. Written by Dennis Agle, Jr. and adapted from the 2005 Liken film of the same name, the stage adaptation of The First Christmas premiered at the SCERA last year where it played to sold-out audiences. This year The First Christmas makes its first return to the SCERA stage and is well on its way to becoming an annual Christmas tradition in the Orem area.
Amongst the many Christmas productions this season, what sets The First Christmas apart? While many Christmas plays send you away with a warm and a fuzzy, not many are as outspokenly religious as Liken’s The First Christmas. Due to the similarities in scenic design, costuming, and staging, The First Christmas feels like a jazzed-up version of Savior of the World (produced annually at the Conference Center Theater in Salt Lake City). The similarities, however, are not a hindrance to the production. As a live nativity presentation, director Michael Carrasco sets The First Christmas apart by using comedy and shtick to close to the 2000 year gap between B.C. and A.D.
The play begins in the home of Grandma Rebecca as she busies herself in preparation for the arrival of her son Scott, his wife Joanna, and their daughter Amelia. After hugs and kisses, the family sits down to read from the Bible and to retell the Nativity story. It’s important to mention that this production is really a play within a play that jumps back and forth between Grandma’s home and the many locations of the Nativity story. Through the play, the family adds their own embellishments (e.g., the shepherds form their own boy-band) to their favorite part of the Nativity, and they occasionally jump into the nativity and fill roles. This format essentially presents two stories for audiences to follow, the Nativity story and the story of Grandma Rebecca and her family.
While it is clear that Rebecca’s family share a special bond, this family relationship feels somewhat forced. As a result the scenes focusing on the family occasionally fall somewhat flat. Pat Barnett Carr’s Grandma Rebecca is a believable matriarch, both warm and caring—as any person’s Grandmother might be—but Dave Burton and Rebekah Osmond, in their roles as Scott and Joanna respectively, lack chemistry as husband and wife. While their relationship is full of one-liners and zingers, there seemed to be something missing, perhaps a deeper relationship for these jokes to be built on. Despite these few weaknesses, it is a joy to see this family share this special time together and an even greater joy to see them gather together for the annual verse of “Sing With the Angels” which serves as the pinnacle of this family relationship. Additionally, a particularly memorable performance is delivered by Ed Eyestone in his portrayal of Zacharias. A slight jew-“ish” accent creeps into his dialogue, reminiscent of Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof. Additionally, to complement this accent was the physicality of one of Jim Henson’s muppets. Truth be told, this unlikely combination turns out to be really quite delightful.
The music overall, music and lyrics by Aaron Edson, is enjoyable and even catchy. (I was singing “Glory to God” all the way home.) However, in songs like “A Hand to Hold” and “A Place for Him” the progression of the story seems to halt; these songs feel somewhat repetitive and even slightly didactic, despite the beautiful voices of the cast. That being said, what is particularly remarkable about this production is the overall quality of all the vocal performances. The hard work of music director Michael DuBois (who also doubles as Joseph) was evident throughout the production, and each musical number was an auditory delight.
Throughout The First Christmas, the technical elements—especially Elizabeth Griffiths‘s lighting design—contribute to the telling of the both stories. As a result of the “play within a play” format of this piece, there are many different location and even times that are visited during the story. Griffiths design took us seamlessly to each location without the use of blackout, thus contributing to the overall drive of the production.
Liken’s The First Christmas is a welcome addition to the slew of Christmas plays around the state, and it sets itself apart as an unapologetic religious piece of theatre. It takes a story that virtually everyone knows—practically since they were little children—and spices it up. If you are looking for a something new to try this Christmas, Liken’s The First Christmas might be what you are looking for.