As it celebrates 40 years as an arts center, Arvada Center presents its first world premiere: “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” originated at the Arvada theater with music and lyrics by Arvada’s music director David Nehls and book by Kenn McLaughlin of Houston. The two have written musicals together before, but none has been performed in Nehls’ home theater. (Readers may have seen his “Trailer Park Musical” elsewhere in Denver a few years ago.)
An interesting piece on creating a musical is included in the program: “Creating a new work for musical theater is one of the most thrilling journeys in the arts,” Nehls said in a program story about the show. Both writers grew up watching the ‘60s variety shows with their families—and both were aware of turmoil in the ‘60s as well, including strong responses to the war in Vietnam, where Simon has been.
The play was first discussed in December 2012 after the two finished a show for McLaughlin’s theater in Houston. Nehls called with an idea and McLaughlin worked on it on the plane. Rod Lansberry, Arvada’s artistic director and producer, “reached out to Nehls after the past Christmas and the pair had a complete first draft by March.
“The biggest change came late in the process with a different approach to Simon’s journey through the play … dialogue shifted in places … the ending is the hardest part to get right and we’re still working through it.”
In June, a workshop was held with actors and a live audience. Lansberry said “getting live feedback led us to many insights and ideas that only helped us to solidify and improve the piece.” McLaughlin added: “We got to hear where the audience got lost and we got to hear what moved them … it’s a musical comedy with a very powerful story about a soldier and his return from Vietnam. Balancing the power of the story and making sure we honor all the voices of that story while we surround it with some joyful singing and dancing — it is a great and thrilling challenge indeed.”
It’s Dec. 14, 1969, on the set at Television City, Hollywood, California. The set is a living room where the Bright Family is to perform its annual Christmas variety show, a widely watched national performance.
Dana (Noah Racey), Louise (Megan Van De Hay) and daughter Maggie (Kim McClay) disagree about the act Maggie is to be in. Maggie has choreographed a new, more up-to-date act and mom doesn’t like it.
In the middle of rehearsal, son Simon (Jake Mendes) arrives home. He is a former teen idol, now a decorated war hero, troubled by his return to civilian life and haunted by war experiences. He doesn’t want to wear his uniform, absolutely doesn’t want any mention of his medal and can’t get enthused about performing. But he eventually does a solo number well.
There are side stories going on — perhaps too many. A pair of wimpy writers keep showing up and being rejected. The Brights’ friend Carol Marie (Sharon Kay White) is depressed about not having a man at Christmas when cowboy singer Len Ramble (Andrew John Diessner) appears with a ballad, “Christmas on Highway 13.” Maggie has befriended a young black ensemble member, who is an orphan, who remembers watching the Bright Family show with the nuns. The engaging show runner, Ruby (Sheryl McCallum) also has a story …
And then, President Nixon was in the audience until his agents thought the tap dancers sounded like gunshots and evacuated him, we are told …
This is basically an appealing show with some bright new music … the cast is talented, the choreography is sound. Perhaps a bit more sorting and smoothing is in order, but audiences will lean back and soak up the holiday cheer as it’s presented here and now. For it to go national, which we’d love to see, it probably needs some more work.
If you go
“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” runs through Dec. 23 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Blvd., Arvada. Tickets, $53-$77, 720-898-7200, arvadacenter.org.