Making a musical out of a miracle

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It takes an average of 10 years to develop a new musical before it debuts on Broadway. In Utah Valley, BYU Theatre and the SCERA Center for the Arts have joined forces for the first time to create a new musical that premieres this winter after only three years in development.

The musical is an adaptation of the beloved children’s book “The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey” by Susan Wojciechowski. The story follows Toomey, a woodcarver who has secluded himself from his community after the death of his wife and newborn son. When a young widow and her young son ask Toomey to carve a Christmas creche, he is forced to confront his pain and his past.

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The musical adaptation of the beloved book "The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey" will premiere this winter.
Wojciechowski plans to fly to Utah from New York to see the production and will be doing book signings on Dec. 7 and 8 prior to those evenings performances.

Ward Wright, the assistant technical director for the BYU Arts Production, read the book to his children for more than a decade before turning it into a musical. Ward teamed up with his brother Randall, a children’s author and illustrator, to write the production.

“This is truly a Christmas show,” Wright said. “You have shows about Christmas spirit and that, but this show is essentially about why Christ came to the Earth: to bring relief to those in grief and curing all ills.”

According to Roger Sorensen, professor at BYU and the show’s director, the mother and child change everything throughout the production. Toomey’s deceased wife and child change his life with their death, the widow and her son help restore Toomey’s life, and underneath it all are the images of Mary and the newborn Christ child. It is a story of redemption, rebirth and a change of heart — and at the heart of it is Christmas, Sorensen said.

“It’s a tender, new show,” Sorensen said. “It’s still flawed; it has has warts, like all of us. That’s what’s so great about it — it’s a living, struggling show told by living, struggling people.”

Marvin Payne, a locally famous actor, writer and musician, was brought on to assist with the writing and score, which combines bluegrass, folk music and the traditional musical theater sound.

“We don’t want to improve the book — the book is perfect,” Payne said. “We don’t want her to feel like we have hijacked her story or exploited it. We just want to put it in a different medium. Mainly we’re excited for her to see those lives lived on stage.”

Theaters around the country typically produce traditional Christmas-themed shows in the winter. The production team behind “The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey,” hopes their show will be find a place in the Christmas theater season after fine-tuning the production once its initial run is finished.

“We’re ambitious enough to imagine it could be published and produced elsewhere,” Payne said. “There is nothing ‘local’ about it; if it became a tradition that would be neat, but we just wanted to write a show and see it performed.”

Caiden Kehrer, an 11-year-old from Mapleton, has been acting since he was 3. He is taking a break from algebra homework and violin lessons to star in the new production as Thomas McDowell, son of the widow.

“It’s the most touching show I’ve ever been in,” Kehrer said.” It’s super awesome and I hope people will come see it because they will probably be changed in their hearts forever — I love this show.”

David Morgan, head of the BFA acting program at BYU, stars as Toomey. Acting opposite his wife, Annadee Morgan as widow McDowell, Morgan believes while the production has spiritual themes, it isn’t preachy.

“Even those who don’t believe in Christ can accept this story because it is about a guy who is in pain,” Morgan said. “It’s a very community oriented piece and a different take on Christmas that a lot of people haven’t seen.”

The show will run through Dec. 17, with performances Wednesday through  Saturday nights at 7:30 p.m. in the SCERA Center in Orem. Tickets are available online at scera.org, at 801-225-2569 or in the SCERA box office.

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