HERSHEY - Exiting the Music Box Theatre in Hersheypark one evening recently, an elderly gentleman hugged the park's director of entertainment, telling her how much he enjoyed the show he had just seen.
"He liked it so much, he said it put Christmas into his heart," said Cindy Altland, Director of Entertainment and Special Events for Hersheypark.
That show would be "A Music Box Christmas: The Littlest Tree," the newest musical production for this year's Christmas Candylane in the park.
The 34-minute show is presented nightly for several showings in the Music Box Theatre, and is free with the price of admission to Christmas Candylane.
"It's a wonderful show for the Christmas season, but it's not your typical Christmas show," Altland said. "It's a heartwarming story, all about giving and love. Through it all, that message shines through and that's what people are connecting with."
The setting for "The Littlest Tree" is Santa's Christmas tree farm, somewhere near the North Pole. Santa's elves decorate the trees and then try to find the perfect family for each of their trees.
One little elf, Carl, has a very small tree in his care, by the name of Douglas, and Carl is wondering how he can get anybody to even notice Douglas.
A friendly elf, Dawn, tries to give him pointers, telling Carl she is the "tree whisperer."
But it doesn't help that Carl gives away some of Douglas' ornaments to anyone who needs them.
The show is packed with fun songs and dancing reindeer, and of course, Santa Claus makes an appearance. The story line is indeed sweet, a nice holiday message for even the most world-weary.
"The show has been running since Candylane opened this year, and we are getting tremendous feedback from people," Altland said. "I have folks telling me they've been coming to Christmas Candylane for years and this is the best Christmas show they've ever seen."
Several of the songs are traditional numbers that many people already know, including "We Need A Little Christmas," "Blue Christmas," and "Winter Wonderland."
Transforming one holiday favorite into a disco version and upgrading "This Little Light of Mine" into a big gospel production are pleasant surprises the audience is sure to remember.
"It's a feel-good 34 minutes, and you will not regret spending that time with your family," Altland said. "It's engaging enough (for children) that parents aren't getting up and leaving in the middle of it."
The 10 actors and singers that carry the musical production keep the activity moving, so that even the smallest toddlers are enthralled by the action, bright colors and happy music.
During a recent show, the dancing reindeer drew spontaneous applause for their physical dexterity.
Actor and singer Aaron Lind in the lead role does a fine job as Carl the caring elf.
He portrays the character with an earnest innocence that children will relate to, but without being "smarmy."
Other cast members include Kayla Tomas, as Dawn, Carl's friend; Kelly Taylor Brown as Kitty; Sean Widener as Connie; Marty Craft as Chris/Santa; and dancers Alexandra Shieron, Megan McKaughin, Erica Barton, Chris Medlin and Justin Torres.
The sets and costumes of the Hersheypark production are world-class, making "The Littlest Tree" a great way to introduce children to the theatre.
With seating for 850 people, the comfortably heated Music Box Theatre has been filled to capacity nearly every evening this season, Altland said.
Preparing for and finding a Christmas musical for the park's Candylane is nearly a year-long job, Altland said. In February, a Hersheypark production team will start planning for next year's musical.
Hersheypark's entertainment department works with RWS and Associates, a production company from New York, to select a musical program that will work for the park.
The Park also partnered with RWS last year, to provide entertainment for the Hershey Lodge, as well as Christmas Candylane. Last summer, RWS created the "Dance, Dance, Dance" production for the Park, as well as "Rolling Down the River," a country music extravaganza.
When they meet later this winter to plan for next year's Candylane production, RWS will show Hersheypark several concepts, from which the entertainment department will choose a few possibilities.
"We'll settle on one; a story that we all agree will be the perfect fit for our park," Altland said. "It will have to be appropriate and good family material. They'll also present us with a song list we look at and then we'll ask things like 'are these lyrics appropriate,' because we have to make sure it's family-friendly."
The production will then write a script, select more music, and send Hershey the almost-finished product.
In turn, Hershey's entertainment group may make changes to the script, and there will be a flurry of email back and forth until the show meets everyone's approval.
Once selected, the work begins on putting the show together. RWS will bring in other partners, like a director, a vocal coach, choreographer, sound technician and more. When the script is ready, the production company will hire the performers.
"They coordinate all of the people it takes to put on a production," Altland said.
By the time fall rolls around, members of Hersheypark's entertainment department will travel to New York to see a "run-through" of the show.
"We call that a workshop, and we'll have local people (from New York), friends and family, come to see the production, too, to give us feedback," Altland said. "It's like a test-run."
Soon, it's rehearsal time and the cast and crew will put in two weeks of 10 to 12-hour days before Christmas Candylane opens.
"The cast works really hard and they'll be taught everything from the songs to how to quickly change costumes," Altland said. "They have a lot to learn in that time."
"The Littlest Tree" is directed by Lisa Stevens, who is also the choreographer.
Andrew Sotomayor is the musical director and Court Watson is responsible for scenic design. Jeff Smith is the arranger. John Kristiansen did costume design, Bradley Wehrle is the property master, Karen Spahn is the lighting director, and Katherine Roarty is the assistant choreographer.
Visit Hersheypark.com for dates and times of operation for Christmas Candylane.