TAYLORSVILLE — I am constantly saying we need new material for the stage for the holiday season, so I was excited to learn earlier this year that Nashville-based song composer Derek Hinkley has mounted a new musical, The Best Thing about Christmas, which is making its world premiere here in Utah at the Mid-Valley Performing Arts Center. The story follows Dylan, also played by author Hinkley, a song writer who has moved his family to Nashville to follow his dreams, but his hopes have run thin and tragedy has left his wife working overtime and his daughter wishing for more for Christmas. Derek says that he has drawn from his own experience with this show and that he has drawn from local Utah talent to bring the show to life.
Director Dana Pearson has done an excellent job gathering Utah talent together to put together this production. Hinkley is self-admittedly a novice to the acting world, and while his acting performance is a little rough around the edges, his vocals are quite strong and the writing of the music is well put together, which is saying something coming from me, seeing as this is a country music-based musical, a genre I am not inclined to enjoy. The title song, “The Best Thing About Christmas,” sung by the entire cast with lead vocals by young daughter Sadie, played by Savannah Lawrence, is the most catchy and well remembered of the songs, and I was still humming it this morning as I prepared to write this review. Lawrence gives a strong and endearing performance as the young daughter of Dylan and his wife Keira, played by April West, who are still struggling from the loss of another daughter, Molly, played by Lulu Tani. Tani also serves as a narrator of sorts, and does well in this role, a role that serves as kind of a lynch pin to keep the storylines together and manage the expectations of the audience.
The set design, by Cara Pomeroy, a well known local designer, was my favorite part of the show. I enjoyed the musical elements splashed throughout the show and so did my musically inclined daughter, who kept pointing out things to me like the piano door in the projection and the forte signs in the curtains. Those touches showed that Pomeroy had definitely tried to connect with the subject matter and continue the storytelling through the set, which is something that can be highly valuable within theatrical production.
A secondary plotline in the story is that of father Christopher, played by Zach Wily, and daughter Mary, played by Violet Wily, who have found themselves homeless at Christmas time and encounter kindness from Sadie and her mother, and also from hotel owner Steven, played by Philip Childs. Violet Wily sings a song, “Climb,” about how she will continue to survive through her struggle, and it is a powerful representation of the human will to persevere.
Utah has been lucky over the last few years, even with the pandemic, to have many world premiere works grace our stages. I had the opportunity to have a short conversation with Hinkley, and he stated that he chose to bring his work here because it does have some religious messages in it surrounding the spirit of Christmas. There is a general Christian Christmas theme to it, not specifying any particular sect of the Christian faith, but it certainly is geared more towards a religious celebration of the holiday rather than a secular. Hinkley felt that premiering in Utah might be a good audience to try out his story, but hopes that over the years he can take his story elsewhere. The religious themes were not over the top, but audiences should be aware that they are in the story. For those who are looking for that kind of story, this show will be a beautiful way to add something to their holiday celebration.
Being a new work, there are a few things that have not been as fleshed out as they could be as the show continues to develop. There are two other children in the family, Zane played by Livai Moala and Zeke played by Michael Steab, and while they have a fun song called, “Quitter,” in the first act, their characters get only a little time on stage and feel somewhat underdeveloped. Additionally, the relationship between Dylan and Keira is going through a lot of struggles during the show, and it is written and played well for the most part, but the tension and stress is quite real. At one point my daughter leaned over and said, “I am stressed that this is leading to a divorce!” and then it was almost too quickly resolved. Seeing as the show ran two hours, I am not sure that more time would want to be added, so I am not clear how to change any of the story to fix these observed holes, but perhaps some fine tuning could be done.
Overall, in a holiday market that is oversaturated with the same four shows each season, The Best Thing About Christmas is a welcome new addition. It does play to a particular market, but within that market, it hits all the right notes to bring in the right spirit.