Arts & Culture

Review: 'Noel' restores spirit of Christmas

VenuWorks finds magical new vision for holiday musical

Nick Tremmel Photography

The homeless folks in a London park hoist Noel (Jena Simmons) to the top of their tree in #x20
Nick Tremmel Photography The homeless folks in a London park hoist Noel (Jena Simmons) to the top of their tree in “Noel the Musical.” The new Christmas show from VenuWorks Theatricals wowed the crowd Sunday afternoon at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids. The show is touring the Midwest, with stops in Reno, Nev., and Modesto, Calif., through Dec. 17.

CEDAR RAPIDS — “Noel the Musical” is a most lovely addition to the Christmas landscape — filled with enchantment swirling through the snow falling on the “invisible” homeless in a London park.

VenuWorks Theatricals, which sprang from a sleigh in Ames, is debuting this new tale of hope among the hopeless, and about 900 people of all ages received this gift Sunday afternoon at the Paramount Theatre. In return, they gave the cast a well-deserved standing ovation and cheer.

This isn’t your typical holiday tale. Love, faith and hope have to break through some pretty tough barriers and hardened hearts.

Young Noel isn’t nestled all snug in her bed, with visions of sugarplums dancing in her head. She’s hitting the streets to try to find the mother who disappeared six days ago. Just 12, Noel knows if the authorities find out she’s fending for herself, she’ll end up in an orphanage for Christmas.

In a park, she finds a community of homeless men and women battling their own demons, but with room in their lives to help keep Noel safe. They insist she check in with them twice daily as she goes about her quest.

The folks in the park get a helping hand, too, from a jaded man named Nick who outwardly bah-humbugs everything about Christmas, but gives them gifts they need, like a hat that just happens to be from a game that Edgar, a war veteran in a wheelchair, saw with his father in 1969.

Making matters worse, Noel has a solo in a televised Christmas play, for which her mother is making the costumes. Except, Noel bursts into tears whenever she tries to sing it, and the costumes aren’t finished, raising drama director Carnegie’s suspicions.

This show’s happy ending goes through a dark and winding path made brighter by Liam Bates’ delightful, winsome, soul-searching musical score. This Irish composer has worked with a who’s who of singers, arranging and conducting for Pete Townsend, Luciano Pavarotti, Bon Jovi and Bryan Adams, as well as composing and directing music for movies, including “Circle of Friends,” “Don Juan De Marco” and “Leap Year.”

The captivating story and lyrics come from the pen of fellow Irishman Eoin (pronounced Owen) Colfer, best-selling author of the “Artemis Fowl” series.

Rounding out the top-flight team are director Sam Scalamoni, director of the national tours of “Elf the Musical” and “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” around the world; and Broadway choreographer and dancer Charlie Sutton.

The technical team is equally stellar, creating a world of wonder, darkness and light, with two revolving platforms magically transforming into everything from Santa’s North Pole home to Noel’s home, the park and a community theater, all bedazzled by lighting effects and on-point costumes.

With that kind of star power behind the scenes, it’s no wonder the stars shine so brightly onstage. Jena Simmons, 11, from Jupiter, Fla., is utterly charming in the title role. When Noel finally dries her tears, Simmons belts out her big solo with all the gusto you’d expect from her previous professional star turn as “Annie.”

Tess Jonas brings the right mix of fantasy and caring to Duchess, the park dwellers’ own royalty. Once a maid, a nanny and a theatrical seamstress, she now is the kindly monarch for the homeless and for Noel. Her “Fairy Story Girl” solo near the end of the show is shattering.

David Johnson as her constant companion, the wounded veteran Edgar, is a powerful presence throughout, wringing out hearts and emotions in “Invisible,” lamenting the way people ignore the homeless, and in his plea for mercy and kindness near the finale. On the verge of being too preachy — and just when I feared his speech was going to launch into a treacly audience singalong — his tearful oration veered the play onto a more logical, palatable track.

A special nod goes to Todd Berkich, whose cranky Claus is really just a dispirited “delivery boy” for whom Christmas has become a burden too painful to bear. His huge, booming voice pierces the hardest heart in the woefully wrenching solo, “This Man.” In the end, the people Nick hopes to heal in the park heal his wounded heart.


Co-executive producer Steve Peters of Ames, founder of VenuWorks and this new theatrical wing, is hoping this show will find its place among Christmas classics such as “Charlie Brown” and “Elf.” This Santa can make that happen.

l Comments: (319) 368-8508;

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.