Arts & Culture

‘Christmas Letters’ pokes fun at stress, joys of season

Barb Schoenhofer, Ray Wills, Leslie Coates and Jen Bechter star in the world premiere of “Christmas Letters” by the Forum Theatre.
Barb Schoenhofer, Ray Wills, Leslie Coates and Jen Bechter star in the world premiere of “Christmas Letters” by the Forum Theatre. Courtesy photo

A few years ago, about this time of the season, Laura Bergquist and her frequent collaborator, Paul Cozby, were at a dinner party in New York when they heard a familiar lament.

“I got my first Christmas letter today,” the partygoer moaned. “Really makes you feel bad about yourself.”

“Literally across the table,” Bergquist recalled, “we looked at each other and went ‘ding-ding-ding.’ ”

That was the idea behind “Christmas Letters,” a musical comedy that will make its world premiere through Wichita’s Forum Theatre Company beginning next weekend. Fifteen performances are scheduled from Nov. 17 to Dec. 11 at the Wilke Center at First United Methodist Church.

A former Wichitan, Bergquist is making her debut as the composer of the score, with Cozby writing the lyrics and book.

“Christmas Letters” is a series of about 15 vignettes taking on various aspects of the holidays, from Black Friday chaos to family photos to assembling toys on Christmas Eve and, yes, the annual Christmas missives from all-too-perfect family and friends.

“The stories are just so human,” Forum artistic director Kathryn Page Hauptman said. “They’re things that just happen around the holidays and relationships.”

Four performers – Jen Bechter, Leslie Coates, Barb Schoenhofer and Ray Wills – play various roles in the vignettes. Bergquist accompanies on keyboards.

A Phoenix native who moved to Wichita with her family when she was 17, Bergquist spent her senior year at Southeast High School, then went on to Wichita State University for her bachelor’s degree and Friends University for her master’s. She has dozens of choral works to her credit, but this is her first full-length musical.

Bergquist became an in-demand conductor for musicals, including several shows off-Broadway, making her Broadway debut as a conductor last year in “Allegiance,” a musical starring Lea Salonga and “Star Trek” alumnus George Takei.

Among the audience for the show was Hauptman, there to see her longtime friend and partner in the former Stage One Theatre in Wichita conduct the orchestra.

At dinner before a show, Bergquist mentioned to Hauptman that she and Cozby were working on a Christmas musical. They agreed to workshop it last May – for a Christmas musical, mind you – in Wichita, and ended up with 120 in the audience.

“I have never been so nervous in my life. I don’t get nervous,” Bergquist recalled. “All of a sudden, I went, ‘This is my stuff out there – I’m not interpreting somebody else’s stuff this time.’ ”

The reaction was beyond either of their expectations.

“People started laughing from the beginning, even at stuff we didn’t realize was funny,” Bergquist said. “We had a Q-and-A with the audience after the performance, and we heard all their Christmas stories. It was really insightful.”

That helped plump “Christmas Letters” from 40 to 45 minutes to a full-fledged, two-act musical.

By the end of the summer, Nick Demos – a Tony Award-winning producer for the 2010 musical “Memphis” – was hired to direct.

Demos, former artistic director of Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma and producer of “Come From Away,” a musical debuting on Broadway in February, said he was a fan of the tone and spirit of “Christmas Letters.”

“It pokes fun at but also honors the spirit of Christmas all at the same time,” he said. “There’s a balance of not getting too schmaltzy or too far out there.”

Hauptman said it’s difficult for theater companies to find quality holiday musicals.

“It’s rare to find something where the writing is good, the music’s good, and there’s an aesthetic quality to it that we value,” she said. “It’s all there in this piece.”

A few days after the Wichita debut closes, Bergquist and Cozby will take a concert version, with four different performers, to New York to both thank friends and investors and showcase it for other possible companies.

“We wanted to write something to fill a niche for theaters out there. Anymore, because of the cost of producing theater, we knew it had to be a small cast and a small band,” Bergquist said. “We heard from all over the country that Christmas is a hard niche to fill.”

Hauptman calls the score a mix of show tunes, a holiday sound and Karen Carpenter-inspired pop, but “still uniquely Laura.”

Bergquist said she tried to find a mix of sentiment and humor.

“It’s about finding that balance. I think this show has found that,” she said. “That’s one of the things I found most attractive about this show – the heart is there, but it’s a fun, crazy show that people can laugh at.

“It capitalizes on that love-hate relationship that everybody has with the holidays,” Bergquist continued. “You love being around family, you love the excitement of it – but it’s such a pain trying to shop for everybody and get the food made and the arrangements for parties. There’s a continued stress and energy that goes from year to year.”

With one of her three children still living in Wichita, Bergquist said, she couldn’t think of a better place to debut her first musical.

“I’m so glad to get to bring it home,” she said.

‘Christmas Letters’

When: Nov. 17-Dec. 11; performances at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays (except Thanksgiving), 2 p.m. Sundays

Where: Wilke Center, First United Methodist Church, 330 N. Broadway

What: Forum Theatre world premiere of holiday musical comedy

Tickets: $25 for Friday-Saturday nights, $23 for Thursday nights and Sunday matinees; tickets available at forumwichita.com or 316-618-0444

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