Unwrapping the Christmas spirit in three Utah stage packages

Stage • Spending a December weekend, Utah-style, watching family-friendly shows.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

For a child, everything in December seems to have a veil of joy over it. All you can see in the world are potential gifts, the promise of Santa and his reindeer and yummy, festive food .

As you get older, that joy seems to be replaced with a general feeling of grinchy stress: Do you have enough money to fulfill everyone's wishes? Whose house are you going to spend most time at? And why won't the weather get Christmassy already?

Since there's no quick fix, and since you can't buy holiday cheer, instead I spent the first weekend in December seeing a handful of holiday-themed shows in an unscientific experiment to see if I could harness that childlike joy.

"The Christmas Box" • Magna's Empress Theatre

This community theatre is showing its seasonal ambition in mounting a world-premiere adaptation of Richard Paul Evans' "The Christmas Box."

The musical was written by David R. Naylor, a former member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and composer and arranger of sacred and educational music. The backstory of Evans' book might be familiar to many Utahns. In the early 1990s, when Evans was working in advertising in Salt Lake City, he wrote a Christmas story for his children, which he self-published in 1993. The Christmas Box became a local bestseller, which led to its national publication in 1995, and later a television movie.

The book, and stage adaptation, tells the story of Richard and Keri Evans (David Pack and Kelli Hall), who move into an old house with their young daughter Jenna (Anna Wrigley, double cast with Madison Carpentier) to help take care of its elderly owner, MaryAnne Parkin (Janelle Hurst). Along the way the family overcomes their troubles and re-discover the meaning of Christmas.

The entire night was, in a good way, like a trip down memory lane to a forgotten time when life was simpler, as the Empress Theatre, a remodeled burlesque house, is quaint and charming, and theater staff and audience gave off a warm-hearted vibe.

The piece shows its community theater roots, as set changes were too long and unnecessarily noisy. Because the theater space is so small, with audience on three sides, it's hard for the actors not to break the fourth wall and make eye contact with the audience. Cast members should remember to retain the fourth wall so the audience could become more involved in the story without feeling like the actors were watching us.

The direction and choreography, by husband and wife team Stephen and Blair Chucay, nicely incorporated the closeness of the audiences so we didn't lose too much of the movement at key moments. The directors also steered the actors from sentimental overload; it's an intense story, but the central actors played their objectives over their emotions enough so it wasn't too much. This was particularly true of the triumvirate of central characters, Pack, Hall and Hurst.

The real gem in this show, though, is Anna Wrigley, playing Jenna Evans and sharing the role with Madison Carpentier. Good child actors are usually too aware of their performance skills. Not so with Anna; she carried the show on her ability to just seem to exist onstage. She seemed to be experiencing the action for the first time, and that helped me connect to the story.

"Off White Christmas" • Salt Lake City's Off Broadway Theatre

My festive experience continued on Saturday night with a parody of the holiday classic "White Christmas," at the Off Broadway Theatre, which presents family-friendly original parodies and Laughing Stock Improv on weekends.

The musical, written and directed by Eric R. Jensen (who also produces and designs sets, props, costumes, music and lighting), is about Ben Crosby and Ivan Dunn (Aaron Bellis and Clarence Strohn), show-biz veterans who entertain their fellow WW II soldiers with jokes and songs. They take their act to a Park City inn, along with their love interests the Christmas Sisters, in order to try to trump up business for their former general.

The time period fits Jensen's brand of humor, there's plenty of slapstick, classic, fast-flowing jokes, and the cast steps up to the plate in delivering the goods. The humor includes modern references, too, for example to Carly Rae Jepsen's summer smash "Call Me Maybe." There's a good amount of improv in the show, and Jensen is wise to cast Laughing Stock members in the lead roles. My favorite parts of were totally improvised; including one in which an audience member was invited onto the stage to create sound effects and another where two audience members contributed to a story by picking random words from books they were given. The cast members involved in these sections made it look easy to pull jokes from thin air and kept the audiences in stitches.

Improv isn't easy, as you have to listen and be truly in the moment, and Strohn, particularly, is a comedic master. I also enjoyed the pair's sidekick, Forrest Grump, played by Jason Unruh, who with Strohn carried the show. Bellis is also strong, but ends up playing the straight man to these two hams.

Serving as the show's narrators are famous close harmony group the Christmas Sisters, played by Sara Higgins, Shealyn Kwan-Smith, and Mariah Richard. All three had strong singing voices and comedic talent to land almost all of their jokes.

One of the things I admired most about this show was that anywhere you looked on the stage, there was someone doing something that would make you laugh out loud, such as the ensemble work of Erin Orr, who also serves as stage manager, and Austinn Le Jensen, who has some understated but distinct comic chops.

The show is also visually pleasing, with plenty of glitter and glam which helped set the festive tone. The theater was almost full and the demographic is young, friendly and bubbly. The audience was vocal the night we attended, and before the show started we'd all sung "Happy Birthday" twice to people in the crowd. I dare you to go and see "Off White Christmas" and not leave the theater feeling happy. The strength of this show that it's a light, laugh-filled night out that will get you into the Christmas spirit just by being pure fun.

"My Big Fat Utah Christmas" • Desert Star Playhouse

The last stop on my Christmas tour was to Desert Star, which has been producing original, family-friendly melodramas since 1989. Their annual Christmas show is always popular. It was totally sold out through last weekend and I got the last pair of tickets available for Monday's 6 p.m. show.

The playhouse has hit upon a winning formula; an audience sing-along to get things going, followed by a musical with plenty of local humor, then audience celebrations, all topped off with an olio, or themed-musical revue.

I left "My Big Fat Utah Christmas" feeling that I'd had a good time, but there was something missing in the production for me. The theater was full and theater staff and audience were friendly, though there was definitely a hurried feeling in the air, as Desert Star performs two shows nightly and four on Saturdays.

The musical tells the story of toy shop owners Dana and Mitch McLaughlin (Courtney Jensen and Bryan Hague in the Monday cast), who decide to host a Christmas reunion for Mitch's long-estranged family. There's a smorgasboard of subplots, including the shenanigans of bad guys robbers Bonnie and Clyde (Lynette Parry and Matt Kohler).

The direction, by Scott Holman, was tight and nicely staged, with plenty of funny bits going on, which included Dana piling the family's coats higher and higher for her husband Mitch to carry, as well as sequence where Dana is trying to make the family fruitcake recipe (watch her face when she tastes it) while the boys make wreaths.

Show standouts include Ashley Haslam playing the family's daughter Mathilda and Kohler as Clyde and the family's long-lost cousin Merle. Kohler has been a regular on the Desert Star stage for 11 years and it shows. He appears to ad-lib off script, always with great comic effect. His experience also showed clearly in the 15-minute olio, in a funny male dance number where his character is completely serious about what he is doing.

The show and the olio did highlight the cast's very solid musical talent, aided by music director Jill Flanagan. The set, costumes and lighting were all Christmas-themed, and were really pretty; I especially liked the lighting effect that created snowflakes falling. Leaving the theater, I did feel a little Christmassy, but not as much as the other two shows. One problem for me was I missed some of the Mormon jokes, so you might need to take a local translator.

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We three Christmas shows

"The Christmas Box"

When • Through Dec. 22; Monday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., with Saturday matinees at 2:30 p.m.

Where • The Empress Theatre, 9104 W. 2700 South, Magna

Tickets • $9-$12, at 801-347-7373 or empresstheatre.com

"Off White Christmas"

When • Through Dec. 28; Monday, Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m.

Where • The Off Broadway Theatre, 272 S. Main St., Salt Lake City

Tickets • $8-$16, at 801-355-4628 or theobt.org

"My Big Fat Utah Christmas"

When • Through Jan. 5; Monday-Saturday, 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., with Saturday matinees at 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.

Where • Desert Star Playhouse, 4861 S. State St., Murray

Tickets • $9.95-$19.95 at 801-266-2600 or desertstarplayhouse.com