4:58 PM CST, December 7, 2011
Somewhere in the Christmas box of many families, especially Christian families, lies "The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey," a sumptuously illustrated children's book about a woodcarver who, bereft after the loss of his wife and son, turns into such a miserable and unpleasant soul that the kids in his village fictionalize his pain into monstrous doings of their own imagination.
In the story, penned by Susan Wojciechowski and illustrated by P.J. Lynch, the woodcutter (a kind of Scrooge and Grinch rolled into one) encounters a widow and her lonely son, who ask him to carve a set of wooden Nativity figures, so as to replace a lost set that was created by this sad boy's late father. He reluctantly agrees.
This shared pain, coupled, of course, with the miracle of Christmas, slowly thaws Jonathan Toomey's heart and makes for a strikingly emotional new little Christmas musical that the Provision Theater is staging for the first time on Chicago's Near West Side. (There's also a British film of this story, made in 2007 and popular with Christian audiences.) At the end of the packed performance I attended last weekend, you could tell from the mood in the audience that the piece had packed for more of an emotional punch than most people expected. That, certainly, was true for moist-eyed me.
You should know that this is broad and sentimental material (based, after all, on a Christmas picture book for kids). And director Timothy Gregory's production, which badly needs a metaphoric theatrical axis upon which it can rotate, has a clunky set, an intermittent lack of surety, and, at times, an undeniable stiffness. The singing is of mixed quality (Gregory, also credited with the dramatic adaptation, has clearly cast actors first and singers second). And the whole thing badly needs a dose of pace and subtlety in its storytelling.
But as this show goes on, you'll surely find yourself quite moved by its little clutch of lost souls (James Rank plays the title role; Lia Mortenson the widow; and Michael Saguto her 10-year-old Thomas), even if you can see the forming of a new family from miles away.
That formidable emotional wallop comes, in no small part, from Michael Mahler's gorgeous new folk-and-bluegrass score, an apt match for the rural 19th-century American setting and a remarkable melodic and poignant song-suite that puts one in mind of the "Cotton Patch Gospel." It is, all by itself, more than enough to make a trip to Roosevelt Road quite rewarding, especially for those who seek out more spiritual, family-friendly entertainment at this time of year.
Mahler's admirably honest, earnest and powerful lyrics to stirring Harry Chapin-like songs like "There's a Light in the Winter" are where this show really starts to communicate; you find yourself wishing, in fact, that the entire 75-minute piece was sung.
That said, Gregory does some fine work with the many lively kids in the show. Rank builds a warm center to his grumpy character, Mortenson has a no-nonsense rigor; and there is a sadness in Saguto's eyes that make his forlorn character's unhappiness something that you very badly want to see solved.
I hope "Jonathan Toomey" comes back after this year, when it seems to be finding its feet. This could be the kind of community-building show that families build into their holiday tradition. Even now, there is yet more evidence of young Mahler's formidable theatrical talents.
When: Through Dec. 23
Where: Provision Theater, 1001 W. Roosevelt Road
Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Tickets: $10-$30 at 866-811-4111 or provisiontheater.org
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