It all started on Christmas Eve.
“Like most kids, we had trouble settling down and getting asleep,” recalled filmmaker Robert Zappia, so his father began spinning a story about Santa Claus’ missing toy sack. His tale proved so popular that he continued the narrative the following night. And the next night. And the next.
Eventually, Zappia said, what began as a simple bedtime story became a holiday tradition as treasured as decorating the tree or singing Christmas carols.
Local audiences can take part in the same cherished tradition when the musical “Christmas Is Here Again” makes its world premiere in Santa Maria. Based on the 2007 animated film of the same name, the PCPA-Pacific Conservatory Theatre production runs Thursday through Dec. 24.
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A family-friendly tale in the vein of “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Christmas Is Here Again” follows a courageous orphan girl who sets out to save Christmas.
Thirty years ago, the sinister Krad (Billy Breed) stole Santa’s magical sack, seemingly ending Christmas for good.
Determined to bring back the holiday, Sophiana (Charlette Rawls) goes on a journey to retrieve the sack — joined by Santa’s former head elf, Paul Rocco (Jonathan Hooever), Dart the reindeer (Chad Patterson), Buster the fox (George Walker) and Charlee the polar bear (Erik Stein). Her quest takes her through a fantastic landscape featuring frozen mountain peaks, a cave of jewels and an underground lava flow.
“It’s a little bit of ‘(The) Wizard of Oz,’ it’s a little bit of ‘Annie,’ it’s a little bit of ‘Oliver!’ — but years before those were on the stage,” explained Brad Carroll, who wrote the musical’s book, music and lyrics with Jeremy Mann.
Director Roger DeLaurier said the show deals with themes of leadership, teamwork and believing in oneself. “It all boils down to a really sweet story,” he said.
“Christmas Is Here Again” began life as tales that Emmy Award-winning television editor Marco Zappia, told his children, Robert and Roxanne.
“Every holiday season he would tell us these stories” and perform original songs such as “Christmas Is Here Again” and “It’s Easy to Dream,” recalled Robert Zappia, who was four when the tradition began. “Every year it just grew and grew and grew.”
As an adult, Zappia shared his dad’s stories with his own kids.
Then he came up with the idea of turning those tales into an animated film.
The result was Renegade Animation’s “Christmas Is Here Again,” featuring the voices of Jay Leno, Ed Asner and Kathy Bates. Zappia wrote and directed the Annie Award-nominated movie; he even named the characters Sophiana and Paul Rocco after his daughter and son.
A year after the film’s release, Renegade Animation cofounder Ashley Postlethwaite — a former PCPA development director and classmate of DeLaurier’s — approached Carroll about adapting “Christmas Is Here Again” for the stage.
He, in turn, brought aboard DeLaurier, who was excited by the prospect of a new holiday production.
“Regional theater companies are always looking for new holiday shows,” the director said. “You can only do ‘The Sound of Music’ and ‘Annie’ so many times.”
Starting in 2010, Carroll, Mann and DeLaurier spent four years shaping the piece through a series of workshops, enlisting the help of students at PCPA and Southern Utah University.
“The first big question was ... how do we mature this and make it (a musical) for the entire family?” Carroll said, explaining that the film is geared toward ages 4 to 7. (The stage version is aimed at ages 5 and up, although matinee performances are open to 4-year-olds.)
Another challenge involved preserving the look and feel of “Christmas Is Here Again” while translating the story from two dimensions to three, Carroll said. “Certain things you can do with animation you can’t do with human beings, no matter how good the special effects (are).”
DeLaurier said the movie’s distinctive animation style, which evokes mid-century cartoons such as “Tom and Jerry,” “really sparked my imagination with what I could do on stage.”
The stage version of “Christmas Is Here Again” features projections of artwork created for the film by “Frozen” art director Mike Giaimo. Designed by Adam Flemming, the projections are used primarily as scenic backdrops or to transition between scenes.
The rest of the “Christmas Is Here Again” design team includes scenic designer DeAnne Kennedy, costume designer Marcy Froehlich, lighting designer Jennifer “Z” Zornow and sound designer Elisabeth Rebel. Callum Morris serves as musical director, and Michael Jenkinson as choreographer.
Musically, “Christmas Is Here Again” features a classic musical theater sound with a contemporary twist.
“That Golden Age Broadway tradition is kind of where I live,” Carroll said. “There’s something timeless about it as opposed to certain pop ballads you hear now.”
He and Mann reworked the eight songs that appear in the movie and added a few numbers of their own — including a Christmas carol called “Snowflakes.”
Ultimately, Carroll and DeLaurier said, they wanted to honor the origins of “Christmas Is Here Again” while introducing the story to a whole new generation of theatergoers.
“It’s a very family-friendly, really heart-warming story,” DeLaurier said. “It really spells Christmas.”
If you go
"Christmas Is Here Again"
7 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 1:30 p.m. Sunday; through Dec. 24
PCPA-Pacific Conservatory Theatre, 800 S. College Drive, Santa Maria
$29.50 to $39.50, discounts available for children, students and seniors
922-8313 or www.pcpa.org