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Woodcarver overcomes grief in 'Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey'

By Blair Howell

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Dec. 3 2011 4:00 p.m. MST

Annadee Morgan is Widow McDowell, Caiden Kehrer is her son Thomas and David Morgan is Jonathon Toomey in "The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey," a coproduction of the BYU theater department and Orem's Scera Center for the Arts, through Dec. 17.

Mark A. Philbrick, BYU

Enlarge photo»

"THE CHRISTMAS MIRACLE OF JONATHAN TOOMEY," Scera Showhouse II, through Dec. 17, 801-225-2787 or scera.org

OREM — Town carpenter Jonathan Toomey, ridiculed as "gloomy Toomey" by taunting schoolchildren for his depressed demeanor, has his spirit reawakened by a persistent youngster with specific instructions on how his nativity set should be carved in "The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey."

A coproduction of the BYU theater department and Scera Center for the Arts, "Jonathan Toomey" is an original musical written by first-time scriptwriters Ward Wright and Randall Wright with musician Marvin Payne. The trio adapted the elegant story in the 1995 children's picture book of the same name, penned by Susan Wojciechowski, and shows genuine affection for the source. Theirs is a noble effort and the result is this musical with touching moments that is wonderfully staged under director Rodger Sorensen.

David Morgan leads the large cast as Toomey, a man so embittered by a loss that he believes "Christmas is a pishposh." He sees most other elements of his shuttered life just as bothersome. Morgan gives a fine performance, beginning when his days were happier in a prologue the authors have added to the original material. Toomey slowly sheds his gruffness through visits from Widow McDowell (Annadee Morgan) and her son, Thomas (Caiden Kehrer).

When Thomas and her mother moved to Hawkinsville, a small hamlet in 1860s central Ohio, a treasured set of creche figurines was lost, and Thomas has a clear vision on how Toomey should carve the replacements. "The sheep knew they were with the baby Jesus, so they were happy," he instructs. "The cow knew the baby was to be born in its barn, so it was proud."

Six wardrobed musicians beautifully perform a number of string instruments of this folk musical. They weave among the other cast members on stage as participants in the storytelling, and their contribution is significant enough to merit them being mentioned by name: Jordan Benson, Anneli Givens, Stephen Miller, Talmage Spackman and Ashley Ward, along with one of the authors, Randall Wright. Spackman and Ward also step forward as vocal soloists.

With the music, another welcome addition to the slight story is the choreography by Andrea Gunoe. She has created stirring dances for the full multi-age cast and solo works for individual performers, who are not singled out in the program.

The songs for "Jonathan Toomey" sound lovely and it's great to hear them performed live by each of the on-stage performers, under musical direction by a skilled Madison Mitchell, at this community theater production. If only the songs were more memorable and able to reveal the characters presented. While some spoken lines are incorporated directly from the author's storybook, some of the fun wordplay — Toomey "went about mumbling and grumbling, muttering and sputtering, grumping and griping," Wojciechowski has written — is lost and could have made the lyrics more lively and impactful.

This adaptation suffers the same fate as an earlier film version, which was screened at several festivals — garnering Best Film at the 2007 Salt Lake City Film Festival — and available on DVD. Wojciechowski's book is a study on the interactions of three individuals. When additional roles have been created to extend the story, they have not been vibrant characters who add insight or perspective. The authors of this musical are to be credited, however, for maintaining fidelity to the book's charm and sincerity.

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