Laughing through tears is one of Steve Peters’ favorite things about theater.
And with his latest project, the VenuWorks founder is sharing that joy through theaters from Burnsville, Minn., and Cedar Rapids to Indianapolis and Reno, Nev., this holiday season, under the new VenuWorks Theatricals division.
“Noel the Musical,” which began with a concert in Ireland three years ago, has developed into a full-blown play bringing a serious twist to the season, but plenty of laughs, too.
Set in London, the action swirls into a collision of homelessness and entitlement, bridging the generations between a child and adults who are seeking hope amid their despair — including one dispirited man who used to spread Christmas cheer around the world.
“It starts with a pretty serious premise,” executive producer Peters, 66, of Ames, said by phone from final rehearsals in Burnsville, Minn. The show premiered there Nov. 17, and is coming to the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids on Sunday. (11/25)
“As we start our show, Santa Claus has stopped delivering gifts five years ago. He got disgusted with the consumerism and entitlement that everybody felt,” Peters said. “He felt like he was just a delivery boy. Everybody put in their orders.”
Fast-forward to Noel, a 10-year-old girl whose mother has been missing for six days. “Noel is supposed to sing the lead in the community Christmas show, which this year is being aired nationally on TV, just by the luck of the draw. Her teacher, the director Carnegie, is eager to have the costumes that Mom is supposed to make, so he’s bearing down on Noel. She’s trying to hold up appearances like nothing’s wrong. She doesn’t want anybody to know her mom missing, because she’s afraid she’ll get put into the system.
“She keeps looking for Mom, and in the course of looking for her, she’s on the street and in the park, and meets homeless people. That’s actually where Nick is working. He’s decided to work with homeless people, because he feels like he makes more of a difference doing that than he would if he was just delivering gifts.
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“It’s actually her hope and her belief in Christmas that gives him back his belief in the magic of Christmas,” Peters said.
Before it wraps up with a big happy bow, the show creates conversations deeper than a Christmas Eve snow about homelessness, entitlement and about “how we have to take care of each other,” he said. “In that is our hope and our community salvation — in how we take care of one another.
“Did I mention it’s a comedy,” he said with a laugh, “because that sounds like ‘Macbeth’ after I get done talking about it.
“It’s very, very funny. Our director is Sam Scalamoni. He’s directed ‘Elf’ on tour, and whenever Disney has a production of ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ going up, he ships off to places like Shanghai or Europe to direct them. And our choreographer, Charlie Sutton — currently dancing in ‘Kinky Boots’ on Broadway — is just a tremendous choreographer in his own right, so we have a lot of movement, a lot of fun dance.
“There’s just an awful lot of humor in all of this. It’s very engaging and kids will love it, the adults will love it,” he said. “It’s not just silly, it’s not just fluff. It’s really heartwarming, and we hope everybody sheds a tear and has a good chuckle through the course of the show.”
Peters created VenuWorks in 1996 in Ames, a company that manages venues throughout the United States, including the U.S. Cellular Center, the Paramount Theatre, the McGrath Amphitheatre and the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena in Cedar Rapids. Three years ago, he and international singer and producer Michael Londra teamed up to form VenuWorks Theatricals, to take their expertise not only to VenuWorks properties, but to also develop current interests on Broadway and London’s West End theaters.
They met the previous year through friends in Ames, where Londra, the lead singer for Riverdance, had moved when his partner took a job with the Iowa State Foundation. Peters and Londra then traveled to Ireland to see four of the “Noel” songs performed onstage.
“It was brilliant,” Peters said. “We were sold from the beginning.”
From a concert version that premiered Dec. 19, 2016, at the National Opera House in Ireland “Noel” has been turned into a full-scale production “approaching seven figures,” with a book by Eoin Colfer, best-selling Irish author of the Artemis Fowl series. Music is by Liam Bates, an award-winning composer based in Londra’s hometown of Wexford, Ireland, who has conducted with Pete Townsend, Luciano Pavarotti, Meat Loaf and Bryan Adams, as well as composed music for stage and screen.
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“We knew we had something,” Peters said. After a series of readings and revisions, the show was cast this summer with actors mostly from New York City.
“Seeing this show is magical, and I knew from the beginning that I wanted to be involved with it,” Peters said. “We think it will tour each Christmas for several years to come. We’re already taking orders and dates for next year. We hope it starts to take its place with the ‘Charlie Brown Christmas,’ ‘Elf’ and ‘A Christmas Story’ — those shows that tour each year. I think it will, because it’s got something different from all those other shows.”
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WHAT: Broadway at the Paramount: “Noel the Musical”
WHERE: Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave SE, Cedar Rapids
WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday (11/25)
TICKETS: $40 to $65, Paramount Ticket Office, (319) 366-8203 or Paramounttheatrecr.com
EXTRA: See a documentary on the making of “Noel” at Iptv.org/video/story/31669/making-noel-musical