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Adaptation of dePaola holiday book to tour NH

"The Night of Las Posadas" by Tomie dePaola

"The Night of Las Posadas" by Tomie dePaola

The Alchemists’ Workshop’s newest theater production is a sweet, bubbly concoction that’s worthy of the holiday season – a blend of warm tradition and zesty innovation with a dash of multiculturalism, a hint of the miraculous and rich undertones of community spirit.

To Tom Dunn, it also has the distinct taste of something that was meant to be.

Dunn, founder and director of the award-winning theater company, dreamed up the idea of adapting Tomie dePaola’s classic tale, The Night of Las Posadas, more than 20 years ago when he was running a small professional theater in Minnesota.

“I don’t remember how I got a copy of the book, but I read it to the kids, and my wife read it to the kids, and we just fell in love with it,” said Dunn, who will bring the world premiere of The Night of Las Posadas to churches (and one library) around the state beginning next Friday before ending up at Red River Theatres the week leading up to Christmas. “It became a tradition in our family.”

Dunn decided to contact dePaola about writing a theater adaptation of the book for the Minnesota Children’s Theatre, and was pleasantly surprised to get a letter back from dePaola expressing interest in the idea just a few weeks later. Not long after that, though, he was offered a job in Washington, D.C., and set the project aside.

Dunn spent several years running theaters in big cities before settling in New Hampshire, where dePaola also makes his home. A few years ago he wandered into an event at Gibson’s Bookstore and met the famous children’s book author. “To my surprise, he remembered the letter I’d written and asked if I’d ever gotten around to doing it,” Dunn said.

The two talked about the possibility of finally bringing the book to life, but dePaola warned Dunn that the rights to the book had reverted back to the publisher and that it could take years to get permission. Dunn sent a proposal anyway and was amazed to get a positive response just a few months later.

And so, The Night of Las Posadas was born. Dunn worked with local composer and lyricist Will Ogmundson, with whom he’d collaborated on several musical theater productions, to create a 45-minute musical theater piece that will be sung and acted by four professional singers. In the tradition of the tale, the audience will be called upon to help a little too.

DePaola’s book draws inspiration from the traditional Spanish Las Posadas festival, which re-enacts Joseph and Mary’s search for a place to stay in Bethlehem by staging a processional with actors walking through the streets and being turned away by devils inside. They’re finally invited in by a church or community center to sing Christmas carols and share a meal.

In the book, two teenagers who are supposed to play Joseph and Mary fail to show up for the community event, leaving festival goers at a loss. The local priest is about to cancel the event when a couple dressed as Mary and Joseph show up claiming to have gotten a phone call from Sister Angie, who plans the festival each year but is sick in bed on this snowy night. When she goes to pray at the end of the night, she is met with a surprise.

The production was shown to an audience last week, and the ending elicited a collective gasp. The musical adaptation has a few surprises of its own as well, including a series of outlandish devils - Elton John, a lawyer – and a pair of gorgeous hand-carved statues to replicate the ones in dePaola’s book.

But the music is the real heart of the show. Ogmundson is a first-rate composer and accompanist, Dunn said, and the songs are startlingly beautiful. (To hear a sample, visit alchemistsworkshop.org). The singers – Linny Kenney, Cindy Johnson, Fred Sprague and Scott Sweatt – were hand-picked by Dunn and Ogmundson, who had worked with each of them in the past or heard about them through other projects.

As great a feat as creating the production was finding funding for it in this era of dwindling arts funds, Dunn said. But here again, fate was kind. After being turned down by the State Council on the Arts and the New Hampshire Humanities Council, they were awarded significant grants by New Music USA’s MetLife Creative Connections program as well as the New England Foundation for the Arts Meet the Composer Grant, which had already been awarded to Ogmundson in the past. “They’ve just fallen in love with Will,” Dunn said.

The easy part of the process was lining up churches to host the production, Dunn said. They were all also eager to put on a post-show repast in the Las Posadas tradition. After hearing about the church tour, Red River Theatres expressed interest in hosting the production. Dates and times have not been nailed down yet, but the theater has committed to having the show the week before Christmas.

Dunn hopes the show will be as fun and meaningful to audiences as it has been to him. “It’s really been a labor of love,” he said. “It’s kind of our gift to the people of New Hampshire.”

(The Night of Las Posadas plays Nov. 30 through Dec. 15 at churches around New Hampshire. Additional shows at Red River Theatres will be announced soon. For information, visit alchemistsworkshop.org.)

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