MAGNA — Before I went out to the Empress Theatre in Magna Friday night, I was hoping to find out more about 12 Days of Christmas, their current production directed by Bryan McNabb, but a quick Google search turned up nothing. It turns out that it is an original production, written by The Empress Theatre’s artistic director, Jake M. Anderson specifically for this community theatre and this cast. As a theatre scholar with a particular interest in plays written by Utah playwrights, I was immediately intrigued, even more so when the program’s director’s notes indicated that the show had been changed half-way through the rehearsal process (the original season calendar billed A Christmas Story for the December production). Curiosity for this change aside, I was excited to see a new Christmas play, although 12 Days of Christmas has a ways to go before it becomes a staple in the holiday canon.
The premise of the show is clever and cute. It opens in the court of King Wenceslas (Nathan Unck), of “Good King Wenceslas” fame, who is busy composing verses for his love that happen to be the words to the “12 Days of Christmas” song (not historically accurate, but a good idea). On his way to deliver those verses, however, King Wenceslas happens upon three cold orphans without enough kindling for their fire to last the night. He quickly offers his verses, written on scrolls, for their fire. The narrator (Kevin F. Pope) explains that the good deed Wenceslas did and the romantic sentiments in the poem drifted through the smoke from that fire through the centuries into the heart of a little boy named Robby.
Robby (Jakob Nugter) is in the fifth grade and in love with his classmate Victoria (Madison Carpentier). They learn in class about King Wenceslas and his charitable and romantic inclinations. After school, Robby reads a note Victoria wrote him in which she tells him that she loves him and that if he were to ask her to marry him, she would say, “Yes.” Robby is thrilled with the news but doesn’t know the appropriate way to respond. When he consults another female classmate for advice, he is told that he needs to perform a grand gesture for Victoria, something that lets her know that he loves her and only her. After some thought, he decides that he is going to perform the “12 Days of Christmas” for her every day until Christmas. He gathers his friends together to figure out how this is to be done and eventually realizes that he is going to need his mom’s assistance. At first his mom, Claire (Carrie Johnson), balks at the suggestion (it would require, as she notes, “a lot of poultry”), but she warms up to the idea as she realizes Robby’s sincerity and purity of heart. In the end, she commits to helping him complete this grand gesture. The results of the first few days are a little rocky, but with a lot of help from his friends and neighbors, Robby has some success. However, the twelfth day turns out to be different from what he originally planned. In the end, Robby has succeeded in making Christmas special, not only for Victoria, but for the whole community as it gathers together in the name of love and charity for Christmas.
The idea behind 12 Days of Christmas is a good one, and the play is perfect for community theatre in that it provides good, solid parts for a large youth cast. In addition, the humorous lines and situations are plentiful. That said, the play is not without its faults. There is too much of an effort to bring current cultural references into the productions (in particular, the mixing of the contemporary with the medieval in the King Wenceslas opening was ineffective and distracting). In addition, extraneous scenes likely meant to impart additional humor and pathos are unnecessary. A scene in which Victoria’s mother tells Claire that her husband is without a job and that his depression has kept him from singing Christmas carols to Victoria needs to be deleted, and a scene in which the children act in a Nativity play could easily be cut as well. Furthermore, there are some confusing details that need to be worked out. Mr. and Mrs. Smith are supposed to be German, and have accents to support this, and, yet, their last name suggests otherwise, and the American flag the Colonel salutes in the drumming scene is puzzling (if he is a retired German army colonel, why would he salute an American flag? A swastika would be far worse, admittedly, but why not just make the Smiths British saluting a Union Jack?) Given the last minute nature of this play’s composition, it is obvious that it suffered lack of necessary revisions. This is not to say that it couldn’t be reworked for a show in the future. The skeleton of a good story is definitely there.
Script aside, 12 Days of Christmas has its moments—good and bad. The youth in the cast are committed, energetic, and enthusiastic. The Jakob Nugter, Jaxon Walk, Cameron Christensen, and Trevor Tharp as Robby, Paul, Jack, and Charlie (respectively) are a terrific team, a believable foursome of friends and partners in crime. In addition, Carrie Johnson was terrific as Robby’s mother Claire, actively communicating her motivation for helping her son in his quest. The rest of the cast was similarly focused, although there were some issues that impeded their acting that point to some misguided direction. For example, Andi Cameron as Miss Shumard, played her character with a lisp that was distracting at best and that certainly didn’t help sound issues with the show. Similarly, too many of the child actors spoke too quickly, and all wore microphones that would often blare too loudly, making their lines indistinct.
The quick pace of speech was not, unfortunately matched by the pace of the production. It’s not a long show, by any means (the first act is supposed to be 55 minutes, and the second act is supposed to be 30 minutes), but it could be tightened up. There was significant lag time in conversation between characters and the transition between scenes was often too long as well. While it is likely a direction issue, it is also likely due to the short rehearsal schedule and a lack of confidence among the child cast members. In addition, there were positive aspects of the directing. The movement on the small modified thrust stage worked very well, for example, even when all of the kids were on stage. So, too, the choreography, by Chalese Craig, was suitable for the space and number of cast members.
The design elements of the show were also satisfactory. The backdrop had a simple Christmas feel, painted with holiday flare by Devin Johnson and Jake Andersen. Place was suggested by furniture and props (coordinated by Marie Nugter), though both were sparse. (I don’t mean this as a criticism. 12 Days of Christmas is a show in which much is meant to be suggested and imagination is encouraged.) Costumes, by Amy Burton and Jake Andersen, were appropriate to the characters.
In short, 12 Days of Christmas has potential, it’s just not there yet. I do applaud the Empress Theatre for attempting such an ambitious project of staging an original production in the Christmas season with so few days of rehearsal. There is incredible dedication and passion for the theatre on little Magna’s Main Street, and that, itself, is something worth experiencing.