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World Premiere at Orlando Rep

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Orlando audiences will be the first to see a full production of an all-new Christmas musical as “True North” makes its world premiere here in hopes of a possible Broadway run.

In a season traditionally full of “A Christmas Carol” and “The Nutcracker” productions, “True North” stands out for its quirky premise and characters: a young boy with autism is challenged by the holiday season as he and his sister are mourning their recently deceased mother. Meanwhile, their military father has a secret mission that involves the North Pole. And everyone could enjoy a dash of Christmas magic.

The show will be presented at Orlando Repertory Theater as producers use the experience to refine the production as part of its path to Broadway.

The rep was only too happy to host “True North” for many reasons, including bringing more work to Central Florida theater professionals, said artistic director Jeffrey Revels. But it was the originality of the story that kept him from hitting the delete button when an email asking for theater information arrived in his inbox.

It’s not uncommon for creators of new works to ask for help.

“I get a lot – some are wacky,” Revels said. “But this one sounded interesting.”

And, important to Revels, it included outsized young characters. Orlando Repertory Theater specializes in theater for young audiences, called TYA, and “True North” – although aimed at all ages – featured two children who had lost their mothers, one of whom was on the spectrum of the ‘autism.

In a dressing room at the Orlando Repertory Theatre, "True North" Director Richard H. Blake, standing, shares a moment with actors Axel Rimmele and Sarah Isola, who play a brother and sister facing challenges over Christmas.

The Rep has been a local pioneer in adding sensory performance to its shows for children on the spectrum, who often have aversions to loud sounds and bright lighting. But few plays feature autistic characters.

“We talk a lot about representation,” Revels said. “But they didn’t see each other on stage.”

For “True North” creators Holly and Kelvin Reed, it was important to portray real-world aspects among the vacation escapism.

Family members have a neuromuscular disease, so husband and wife bond with the idea of ​​a child dealing with a medical condition on a daily basis. Holly Reed’s work with Ally’s Wish, a support organization for mothers with terminal illnesses, led to the idea that the children on the show may have lost their mothers.

Joel Hunt (from left), Ashley Vogt and Lizzy Allen rehearse "True North" at the Orlando Repertory Theater.

“The hard things that people deal with make them really good people,” Kelvin Reed said.

It is the first musical created by the Reeds, who live in Tyler, Texas. Holly, a professional graphic designer, wrote the story and lyrics; Kelvin, whose day job is conducting church choirs, composed the music.

“We both grew up in churches that had great music programs,” Kelvin Reed said. “They did special things at Christmas and other times of the year.

They decided to write a show after Holly started performing in community theater and “very quickly felt the urge to create,” she said. “I wanted to direct the shows I was on; I had a hard time staying in my lane.

The creation of the “True North” quickly took over their lives.

Adam Hose reviews his script during rehearsal for "True North" at the Orlando Repertory Theater.  He plays a man forced to leave his children during the holidays for a secret mission to the North Pole.

“The trophy for this goes to our three children, who had to endure the whole process,” Kelvin Reed said. “One moment they thought it was pretty cool, the next moment they were like, ‘Can we stop talking about the musical?

Perseverance was the key to the development of “True North” over six years, through readings and workshops: “I would email anyone and everyone in the Broadway industry” , said Holly Reed.

When the time came for a full production, Orlando Rep stood out for its work with young audiences.

“It was important to us,” said Holly Reed, comparing the show to a Pixar movie in the way it’s designed to appeal to adults and kids alike. When Revels said he was interested, “it went really well.”

The Reeds learned a lot about how a show goes.

“What was beautiful was all the people who came to put their creativity into it.” Holly said. “We have been very, very, very blessed.”

Among those is Richard H. Blake, a veteran of Broadway musicals including “Legally Blonde,” who is directing the production of the rep.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about family,” Blake said of the show. “And we all need a little Christmas magic in our lives.”

Like the Reeds, Blake feels a personal connection to the show’s characters.

Joel Hunt, foreground, and the festive ensemble at the Orlando Repertory Theater's Christmas Musical World Premiere

“My father was a military father. He was in the Navy and did two tours of Vietnam,” said Blake, who with his wife spends a lot of time in Orlando and performed at Walt Disney World years ago.

“It’s one of our favorite places,” said Blake, who also performed here “in his Bob Carr days” in touring Broadway shows.

Producer Sue Gilad spent four months “locked down” in Orlando during the COVID-19 pandemic. She thinks it’s the perfect time and place to introduce “True North.”

“The project is very relevant for post-COVID times where people want something kinder and sweeter,” she said. “People want to feel that sense of community that has been lost for so long.”

Gilad and his producing partner Larry Rogowsky have invested in shows such as Broadway’s “Moulin Rouge” and “Funny Girl.”

She can’t wait to hear what Orlando families will think of “True North.”

“As a producer, I’m more interested in what the audience tells me,” she said. “Did the audience change when they come out?”

Kelvin Reed hopes it does.

“You want it to entertain people, but you want people to go away moved or changed,” Kelvin said. “I think a lot of people will say, ‘Hey, this person is like me’ or ‘I identify with this person.’ I like this.”

Blake sees the message of “True North” as universal.

“We all have our own way to go and we all have different ways to get to the same places,” he said.

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For Holly Reed, it’s about empowering people to live with authenticity and empathy.

“We want people to leave the show realizing that you don’t always know what other people are dealing with,” she said. “And if you feel a certain way, it’s okay to show it. Let yourself go and believe in the moment.

Revels hopes “True North” will be a catalyst for more tracks to debut here. The rep’s partnership with TheatreWorks USA has already allowed Central Florida actors to get more work — and to shoot with that company’s productions after they’ve performed locally.

“True North” will also benefit musicians in Central Florida, as a live band will accompany each performance.

And, Revels said, he’s happy to give audiences their first taste of all-new entertainment — a theatrical Christmas present, if you will.

“If we have producers interested in a TYA-style show looking for a place to work on it,” Revels said, “we definitely want to be that place.”

  • Where: Orlando Repertory Theater, 1001 E. Princeton St. in Orlando
  • When: Until December 22
  • Cost: $17-$40
  • Information: orlandorep.com

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