The cozy Meadowlark Falls General Store is awash in golden Christmas lights, the smell of baking cookies, and several lively women discussing the upcoming cookie contest. The instantly relatable Jenny is in the running to win her dream trip to the big city, but now she’s having doubts. Jenny’s Nana and Andy, her best friend, try to motivate her to get her head in the game, when suddenly the lights dim, the front door opens, and everyone in the store, myself included, is drawn to the newcomer. A spotlight finds hunky Noel coming into the store from the cold, walking in slow motion; he must be the reason Jenny is having doubts about leaving Meadowlark Falls if she wins the cookie contest…
Welcome to Meadowlark Falls: The Very Merry Cookie Contest is a 90-minute immersive theater experience which was designed as a prequel to a future immersive production in Winter of 2020. Writer/Producer Lori Meeker (Tin Can Telephone Productions) puts her own spin on the tropes from Hallmark Christmas movies, adds a live audience, and dares them not to fall in love. The Very Merry Cookie Contest invites audiences of approximately 15 people into Meadowlark Falls to watch this heartwarming story unfold. While guests have the agency to volunteer when characters ask for help and offer small words of advice, this story is about the characters of Meadowlark Falls; you have no agency to affect the narrative and you are not a character yourself. The guests are seated for the majority of the experience, being split into smaller groups by the characters for side scenes. The Very Merry Cookie Contest is cheerful entertainment for ages 13+ (there are two instances of swearing which might be offensive to some).
Directed by Chelsea Sutton (Rogue Artists Ensemble), The Very Merry Cookie Contest sets up what has come to be the basic plot of many Hallmark Christmas movies: A likeable hometown girl is torn between her dreams of the big city and her childhood best friend, who also turns out to be her crush. Will she follow her dreams and leave him behind? Will they be able to confess their feelings? And will she even win the baking contest that will give her the means to travel to a world she’s only dreamed of? Meeker and Sutton answer these questions with joy in abundance. A feel-good story in its own right, The Very Merry Cookie Contest encourages its characters – and the audience by proxy – to follow their dreams. As the underdog in the cookie contest, our heroine Jenny has doubts – about her cookies and about her secret crush Noel – but we see through her story how important it is for her to follow through with what is in her heart. Antagonist and cookie contest front runner Whitney, however, has a different lesson to learn and impart on participants. While she definitely serves as a warning of going too far when following your dreams – she sabotages others in the process – she learns that it’s never too late to do what is right, helping create that happy ending we all hope for.
The Very Merry Cookie Contest leans into the whimsy and low-budget charm of a Hallmark movie. Throughout the evening, two Shadow Elves (stagehands) assist with lighting, costume, and stunt cues – in full view of the audience. Taking away any “movie magic,” The Very Merry Cookie Contest lets guests in on the jokes with a cheeky wink and a smile. For example, when Noel first makes his entrance, the lights dim and a Shadow Elf provides a flashlight-spotlight to draw guests’ attention to Noel as he moves in slow motion for maximum effect. Another moment had a Shadow Elf slowly miming a ceramic mug hitting several pieces of (far apart) furniture before coming to a crash on the floor – followed by the Elf pulling the two halves apart in perfect comedic timing. There is even a fantasy musical number and brief moments of puppetry (something Sutton and Rogue Artists excel in). It is moments like these that elevate The Very Merry Cookie Contest from a glossy, hands-off film event into a warm, magical, and personal experience.
The experience that Immersed attended was a workshop (which ran smoothly and enjoyably), and while we wanted to give it an initial review, there were some elements that could be improved in a future iteration. First, the format of the show could benefit from some fine tuning with a balanced – or even track-based – style so that all participants experience the full scope of character arcs. Additionally, several side scenes incorporated the use of puppetry; a guest can completely miss out on these highlights if they are not chosen for these scenes. Further, the space was long and linear, occasionally preventing audiences from observing scenes at the opposite end of the room. It is encouraged for guests to get up and walk around to hear or see better if needed – something I did multiple times – but make sure to keep out of the way of the actors. All of these suggestions have been stated to the Meadowlark team and will likely be addressed in future productions.
The perfectly cast actors of The Very Merry Cookie Contest shine with energy and life, bringing merriment to the experience. In addition to the playful Shadow Elves (JoBeth Wagner and Lara Thomas Ducey), the cast is kept to a minimal six, and features a fantastic balance of grounded and over-the-top characters. As Jenny, Carley Herlihy successfully charms and inspires the audience to rally behind her and her dreams of owning a bakery – she’s the perfect hometown girl with big dreams in her heart. As Nana, the wise “woman of a certain age,” Taylor Ashbrook warmly welcomes us into her General Store as she slides into our hearts; she deftly creates an instant connection with her guests. As Jenny’s outgoing friend Andy, Samantha Frontera projects exuberance and fun; she is a delight to watch even when she’s not the center of the action. Frontera’s facial expressions are larger-than-life and endlessly entertaining. Carene Rose Mekertichyan as rival cookie-maker Whitney amps up her spoiled-girl privilege for maximum eye rolls, and Mekertichyan is somehow still too likeable to hate; we can all identify with going to questionable lengths to get what we want. Rounding out the cast are Nicholas MacDonald as hometown beefcake Noel – his interactions with Herlihy are sweeter than the cookies that guests decorate – and Amir Levi (Wood Boy Dog Fish) steals every scene he is in as several different characters – he alternately had guests laughing and cringing. The small cast excels in working off each other, staying in character “off stage,” and incorporating the audience in their shenanigans.
While The Very Merry Cookie Contest existed as a two-night workshop in 2019, it is also just one part of a larger whole; their goal for next year is to have a Meadowlark Falls Winter Festival, with numerous events that bring this quaint hometown to life. We are eager to attend more events in this movie-come-to-life town.
The Very Merry Cookie Contest is, in a word, delightful! The stunning set decorations, warm and engaging characters, and delicious cookies all make for a wonderful night in Meadowlark Falls. The experience will only grow better with some tweaks, and already has me wanting to see more of the world Meeker has created. The delicious Very Merry Cookie Contest is a scrumptious appetizer to a magical holiday.
The Very Merry Cookie Contest has concluded it’s run. Find out more information about the world of Meadowlark Falls, Tin Can Telephone Productions, and upcoming shows on their website, Instagram, and Facebook page.