Revenge and Redemption at BYU

countofmontecristo_web_580x200By K.P. Muma

The Count of Monte Cristo is a story of revenge and redemption written by the Tony Award winning Frank Wildhorn and Jack Murphy and currently playing at BYU. It is a familiar and beloved story, which began as a novel by Alexandre Dumas and has since been made into multiple movies and adapted into several television shows. It follows the sea captain Edmund Dantes who he is wrongfully imprisoned, escapes and then seeks a perverse kind of justice against the men who imprisoned him so long ago. The most recent movie version came out in 2002 and, in the interest of full disclosure, this musical is a more an incarnation of that movie than of the novel, which changes notable things like some of the characters’ motivations and the resolution. The story calls for elements of the dramatic and spectacular and, on this level, BYU certainly doesn’t disappoint.

The set is made up of two huge towers and two equally impressive staircases that move around the stage. This allows for flexibility as the story expands from a cramped tunnel to the ocean floor to a Carnival in Rome. The other most notable technical element was the use of projections. The projections similarly help orient the audience to the setting and I thought they were most effective when doing this. The projections were also used extensively to address the themes or draw connections between scenes, and there were times when these flourishes felt over-the-top and were distracting. The other technical elements, costumes (Laura Beene), hair/makeup (Mary Beth Bosen, Celena Kurogi Peterson), lighting (Michael Krazeck), and sound (Jeff Carter), all came together to create a unique aesthetic that blended post-Napoleonic France with modern attitude. The pirate women’s costume and makeup is particularly striking.

This blend of the classic with the modern also came out in the music, which drew on musical theatre melodies and styles but added a rock-and-roll feel throughout in a way those familiar with Frank Wildhorn’s other work will recognize. All these elements combine in the closing number of Act One called “Hell to Your Doorstep” when Dantes plots his revenge. The projections become symbolic and flaming, while the lights turn to the use of spots for extra drama and Preston Yates belts out his new convictions in amoral sensibilities. Some may remember Preston Yates’s performance as the Phantom when BYU did Phantom of the Opera in 2013. Mr. Yates plays tortured baritones with a complexity and honesty that shines through the melodramatic script. Playing his opposite, the lovely and desirable Mercedes, Shae Robins exemplifies the grace necessary for the role and has a voice that flows between classical and belt easily.

cristoThe talent throughout was great but a few performers were especially eye-catching. Cameron Smith played one of the three villains, Baron Danglars, and was infinitely entertaining to watch as he swaggered around stage. Brian Clark played the wise Abbe Faria, adding an important element of humor. Maybe the most impressive is Cassie Austin who comes midway through the second act as Valentine, the innocent daughter of a corrupt prosecutor. She gets one solo, “Pretty Lies”, and even though the audience has barely been introduced to her, she manages to win us over to her side. Her portrayal makes Valentine one of the most relatable characters in the show.

Tim Threlfall, the director, makes no attempt to pretend this isn’t a melodrama, even mentioning it in the Director’s Note. While this style might not be for everyone, it is action-packed, romance-packed and filled with impressive spectacle so it has something for most. It is currently sold out but tickets are released every day and there is always the standby option. My insider at the ticket office assures me that in a venue as big as the De Jong, standby isn’t a bad option. It runs through this Saturday so act soon!

Jan. 22, 7:30 p.m. (preview performance)
Jan. 23–31, 7:30 p.m., Tuesdays – Saturdays
Saturday matinees Jan. 24 & 31, 2:00 p.m.
ASL interpreted performance Thurs., Jan. 29
DeJong Concert Hall

Tickets at:
http://ev9.evenue.net/cgi-bin/ncommerce3/SEGetEventList?groupCode=MC&linkID=byu&shopperContext&caller&appCode

Tickets are $12-28
For more information go to byuarts.com

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Utah Rep’s Bare Strips Away Stereotypes Beautifully

bare1By Coulson Bingham

Bare, written and composed by Jon Hartmere Jr. and Damon Intrabartolo was originally performed in October of 2000 at the Hudson Theatre in Los Angeles. It is about the coming-of-age senior year of five high school students at a Catholic boarding school. Knowing their stay in the insular world they’ve always known is drawing to a close, each of them question where they are in their lives and what their futures hold. The story focuses on the hidden love and relationship of two boys: the introverted, artistic Peter, and Jason, the popular jock/golden boy. The story gets up close and personal with the struggles, trials and hardships they push through to keep their relationship hidden but alive, and how their love affects their friends and the people around them.

Director Johnny Hebda cannot think of a better place than Utah to share this incredible story. In so many parts of the country these issues are in the past and in so many religions, homosexuality has been accepted as people’s views change. But here in Utah, the topic couldn’t be more current and applicable. He says, “with debates and conflicts surrounding gay marriage, from the LDS Church’s focus and stance on homosexuality, to the religious influences in the education system–it’s as if Bare was handcrafted specifically for us.”

With much of the emphasis on homosexuality, this remarkable show also addresses current topics such as depression, underage use of drugs and alcohol, teenage pregnancy, bullying and ignorance.

Hebda has known for years that this show needed to come to Utah in order to tell the story in this particular environment. As with any director, he has spent much of the past couple years on the lookout for his perfect cast and encouraged people to audition because the show is not widely known and provided the innate possibility for a difficult casting turnout. After finding his perfect cast, rehearsals began in late October in the Sugar Space Arts Warehouse in Salt Lake. By Thanksgiving, the show was blocked, choreographed and they were well on their way to a strong show. The blocking was creative and used the space to its best ability and provided some chilling moments with something as simple as a turn of the head, sending the audience into tears. There were subtle hand touches and stolen glances that were true to the characters and the unfortunate, hidden reality of the story. That being said, there were also quite a few times when the blocking felt impersonal to the audience and cut us out of the flow of the story, making it hard to experience certain scenes authentically.

Choreography by Michael Hernandez was a great combination of musical theatre with a hip hop flavor bringing the up-to-date, high school atmosphere into perspective. One of the greatest dance subtleties was directly after witnessing the teens taking drugs before going to the club. The choreography showed the drugs taking effect in their systems and the hallucinations the students were experiencing through their movement, which directly came into play later in the story so you, as an audience member, were able to reflect on the past scenes and the outcome of those situations. In such a small space, it is hard to do choreography with a large cast and not make the audience fear for the performers or make the movement seem small and clumped. At times, the choreography was far too big and moved too much to be safe, making me fear for the actors. It sometimes felt abrasive and very in-your-face, when perhaps the message would have been stronger if the actors implemented more movement instead of actual dancing.

Musical director Anne Puzey flooded the stage with strong vocal moments from the entire cast, as well as provided a large pop ensemble sound that was thrilling to hear. It was incredible to see such a small cast create a large, enjoyable, emotional sound. They were very invested in the music and in telling the story through the vocals, which are the most important part of any pop opera. Erin Royall Carlson, the vocal coach, worked quite a bit with some of the main vocalists and it was very obvious. They had powerful moments of pain and joy that were relayed deep into the audience with the intensity of their performances. However, the music was oftentimes very repetitive and sometimes bits and pieces could have been slowed down for a more emotional effect. While it was beautiful and wonderfully done, there were times, as with the choreography, that the music felt abrasive and as if it was being attacked instead of enjoyed. Many funny or beautiful moments were lost due to speed and a lack of diction from the entire ensemble as well as some lead roles.

Everything from the risers the audience sat on to the light rigging above was built and custom designed for this show with help from master carpenter, Marc Navez. The set, designed by Chase Ramsey, remained for the most of the performance, except for small mobile pieces such as lockers, benches and beds, but every piece was used in multiple ways, providing more efficiency to scene changes and an overall better flow. Amanda Ruth Wilson’s scenic arts design brilliantly portrayed a high school. Dorm room scenes were a simple bed embellished by lights, allowing the freedom to paint a personal picture, adding doors, windows, posters and whatever else to make it feel ultimately more intimate. While lights embellished some scenes, they did not make it easy to enjoy others. The lighting in the theater was very limited due to space and budget and for the most part was adequately used by lighting designer Joe Jenkins. However, there were scenes when the dark spots and shadows on the stage were distracting from the scene and some blocking moments were placed in darkness, pulling away from beautiful scenes. The lights were able to show off the costumes by Nancy Susan Cannon, and she did a great job ensuring that all the pieces were appropriate to the mood and fit the look of the story as well as today’s fashion standards. Everything from the school uniforms to clubbing outfits were well-fitting and described the attitude of each individual character, enhancing their actions.

One of Hebda’s strongest moves was bringing in Bobby Gibson to create a stunning special effect that really brought the audience right into the story. Upon walking in to the theater, one of the first things you notice in the set are flat screen televisions strategically placed with the Bare logo on them. They took the audience right into the middle of the story with photos, tweets, texts, school bulletin announcements, scene and light effects and much more. Being able to participate in the story without having to lift a finger was an interesting and incredible tactic I have never seen. It was definitely an idea that paid off for Hebda.

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The role of Peter was played by Ogden native, John Patrick McKenna. Growing up in Utah, serving an LDS Mission and attending Brigham Young University all came as a package deal to McKenna. As with most gay teenagers, his parents knew well before he did and proceeded to put him in counseling and find other avenues to cure him before it got too serious. This caused him to have a lot of issues with depression. While attending BYU as a musical theatre major, he had a very similar experience to his character, finding himself in love with someone behind closed doors because it couldn’t be a public relationship. “We had to pretend it wasn’t a thing and it…It was kind of a nightmare. Not being, you know, who we were…” he said, trailing off. The pain and emotion that he was able to vividly show in his performance came from a real place of heartache and trials. McKenna’s beautiful tenor voice left the audience awestruck from the moment he first graced the stage. He constantly left us wanting more and pulled at every emotion he possibly could. This was his first return to the stage in six years, after switching his major to music production, and it’s amazing that he was ever able to leave. The way he carried himself was custom fit to his part and that of a senior in high school. You’d never guess that this talented man was in his late twenties.

His opposite, Jason, was played remarkably by Brock Dalgleish. In my interview with him, I discovered that not only was Jason his character, but that he is his life story. Growing up in the LDS church with a 4.0 GPA and being Student Body President, he always had to live up to others’ expectations. Reflecting, he said, “I had to live a double life, and it was awful. It got to the point where I got kicked out of my house and so Jason is very close to home.” Casting Dalgleish was a very obvious choice. The very first time he enters the stage into the locker room to change his clothes, an audible gasp spreads through the audience. He IS the everything you would imagine a golden boy/jock to be. He captured that essence not only with his body but with the way he carried himself around his friends and in his private moments. His movements were graceful but masculine and very thought through. As you get into the story, his acting is so well played out that you just want to scream and cry at the fear Jason has of himself, of Peter, and of his “Best Kept Secret.” He enhances the emotion and makes every caressing movement mean more. Both of these incredibly talented actors share a number of duets with one another and each one is better than the first. The chemistry and love felt between them real, bare and so strong it seems that nothing could pull them apart.

What is the Football Captain without the most popular girl in school? We see this question brought to life by Ivy (Emilie Starr), the quick-witted, mean girl of Saint Cecillia’s Boarding School. Behind every bully is a person and inside that person is a hardship, and that is really the message Starr brings to this character. From the moment she is introduced, I saw her character laid out like a magazine. Her character development was so thorough that I really could see the thought behind every move. “I just drew the character from the text of the play and just filled in the blanks. Ivy is a little bit of all of us. Trying to be better than everybody because that’s what you want to be even though you know that you’re not,” she said, getting emotional. Along with that incredible depth to her character, her vocals were stunning. She opened up her mouth and her soul came pouring out in a river of sweet melodies and harsh pain. As the story develops, she lets down her guard as the queen and starts to reveal a layer of insecurities and the tortured pain she feels from Jason’s deceit. As a professional actress, she has had years of training it shows.

The ensemble was one of the strongest I have ever seen. They constantly had a motive and something to be doing that was true to the story and to each individual character while not upstaging the action. They had a remarkable diversity and energy. Every single actor was a different person at that school with a different story to tell and those really came across. Being able to get involved in the whole picture instead of just always focusing on one small group really enhanced the high school atmosphere.

This story is funny, emotional, relatable and 100% worth going to. As with any show, there were some rough moments, but those were limited. The heart and soul of this show is played so well it is next to impossible to walk away without tears. Hebda certainly was right when he said Utah needed this one. I strongly endorse this show and will most definitely be in the audience again. Everyone, no matter who they are, needs to learn that “if you hide from yourself or be someone else for someone else’s sake, that is the greatest mistake.”

This production of Bare has partnered with the OUTreach resource center, a non-profit collection of youth resource centers dedicated to transforming communities and saving lives through programs promoting positive outcomes for youth experiencing homelessness, family rejection, or victimization. Forty percent of homeless youth are LGBT and anyone under the age of 18 cannot stay at a normal homeless shelter past 5:00 PM. OUTreach is devoted to not just bringing kids and teens in and giving them a place to stay, but teaching them and turning them into healthy adults with jobs and degrees and actually bringing them out of homelessness for good. Fifteen percent of ticket sales will go directly to OUTreach and continuing to help Utah teens back on their feet.

Bare continues to play through January 31 at the Sugar Space Arts Warehouse 130 South 800 West, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Visit www.utahrep.org/tickets/ to purchase tickets.
Visit OUTreach at http://www.outreachresourcecenters.org/ to donate or for more info.

Due to profanity, sexual content and crude humor, I give this show an “R” rating. While I do think it could be appropriate for people over 16 it is best suited for mature audiences.

The Echo’s Twelfth Night is One Good Long Laugh

12th-4By Jennifer Mustoe

The Echo has given us several excellent Shakespeare offerings and its current offering, Twelfth Night, has much to recommend it. Directed by Eve Speer, the show has many laughs and my companions and I had a good time watching the frivolity onstage.

As you walk into the Echo’s lovely space, you will really be blown away by the gorgeous set designed by Antonio Garcia. It may be one of the loveliest sets I’ve ever seen. Really. It has a big wave and fabric on the walls like sails. Twelfth Night begins with a shipwreck. The set is covered with nautical-looking boxes and such, and with a nod at alcoholic Sir Toby, bottles all over the place.

The show begins with music and the array of musical instruments that the actors play is quite impressive: an acoustic guitar, an electric guitar, played by Archelaus Crisanto (Duke Orsino), who is also the musical director, a French horn, a cello and vocals by all actors. There are several songs and I liked the way the actors slowly entered and joined the songs. However, there were too many songs and they each seemed too long. The energy and sound were great, but since the show is 2.5 hours long, the music slowed the show down.

The show itself, as many Shakespeare plays are, is about confusion. Two characters, a brother and a sister, each think the other is dead. Viola (Sarah Butler) portrays her brother Sebastian (Carter Peterson), whom she thinks has died in a shipwreck. Viola falls in love with Duke Orsino, but he thinks she’s a boy and he is already in love with Olivia (Sophie Determan) who can’t stand Orsino. However, she is quite taken with Viola masquerading as a man.

The funniest parts of the show were when Sir Toby Belch, played winningly by Matthew Carter Speer, is onstage. He is brilliant, willing to make lots of physical choices that are hilarious. His scenes with Parker Forest Olson (Sir Andrew Aguecheek) are a delight. Lots of movement, the scenes zip by and I laughed the whole time they were onstage.

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One of my favorite choices by director Speer is she divided the role of Feste the fool between two talented actresses: Celene Anderson and Robbin Ivie. These two young women are similar in looks and build and combined with almost identical costumes (costumes by Mandee Wilcox) and amazing timing, this was one of my favorite parts of the show. The actresses sang in harmony, but it was their lines, all on top of each other and sometimes in unison that I found the most enjoyable. An excellent directorial choice and bravo to the two actresses.

Archalaus Crisanto’s Duke Orsino was impressive in that Crisanto’s voice filled the space the best, though I had no trouble hearing anyone in the cast. Crisanto is a talented actor and his singing was also a delight. The other standout is Leah Hodson who plays the unfortunate and much maligned Malvolio. Hodson is brilliant in this role. Because this version of the play is not gender specific, Hodson playing what is written as a male character makes the role even funnier.

This show is played for laughs and you will laugh a lot! I saw many moments of brilliance in this show and I don’t remember laughing this hard in a show in a very long time. It is, as I said, two and a half hours long, so be prepared for that. Though there is nothing that is overtly inappropriate for children, I would say that older teenagers and up, especially those who like Shakespeare, will enjoy this show.

Twelfth Night

The Echo Theatre, 15 N 110 East, Provo, 801-375-2181

January 15 – February 13, M, Th, F, S 7:30 PM, Matinee Jan 24, 2:30 PM

$8.00-$12.00

TheEchoTheater.com

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Come Experience the Story in PTC’s Alabama Story

alabama1By Joel Applegate

It’s a pleasure to have the chance to see another professional production at the Pioneer Theatre. For this reviewer, at least, that opportunity doesn’t come around often enough. And professional and polished is what you get in Pioneer’s latest production, Alabama Story, which opened January 9th.

If you have a love of reading and a love of justice, this is the play for you. Alabama Story had a reading at the U of U last year, and this is its world premier production. The play by Kenneth Jones is largely factual, and chronicles a little-known slice of the Civil Rights struggle that took place in Montgomery, Alabama in 1958. This play sheds light on the lovely story of an illustrated children’s book by Garth Williams, famous as the illustrator of Charlotte’s Web. His book, meant for three- to seven-year-olds, is called The Rabbits’ Wedding and featured two rabbits surrounded by their friends in a moonlit setting. The controversy stemmed from the fact that the rabbits were different colors – black and white.

Structurally, this play made a lot of sense. It would seem the playwright took a prompt from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. There is a “stage manager” type opening with Stephen D’Ambrose as Williams playing the author of the book, telling us that “somewhere between the lines is a true story.” D’Ambrose is vastly likeable as he captures the easy drawl of an archetypal Southern gentleman. He is excellent as well in several smaller roles, each clearly distinct from one another, disappearing into each one.

As the progenitor of this battle on a bookshelf, Garth Williams steadfastly maintains that his fuzzy creatures were never intended as a race allegory, but simply invented as an artistic choice to make a distinction between his characters through the use of color and texture. As the seed for Alabama Story, The Rabbits’ Wedding is written with no frills, but the playwright has exercised a beautiful use of language in many of the passages. Kenneth Jones has managed to incorporate the signs of the times in 1959 Montgomery, Alabama, when movies were the latest Bible epics; when Marilyn Monroe was at the height of her stardom. But things were different in Montgomery. Conservative attitudes linked segregationists to their other favorite cause: the Red Scare, notoriously exploited by Senator Joseph McCarthy.

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As the only African American in the play, Joshua Moore, played eloquently by Samuel Ray Gates, demonstrates why reminiscences mean quite different things to different people. The parallel story of Joshua and Lily highlight the differences in what was expected back in the day, and more importantly, why things had to change. Lily had a crush on Joshua when they were children. But Lily is white and her father caught them. Now years later, Lily looks back at her hometown and asks, “Why would anyone leave?” Joshua has a different recollection: “I saw my blood in your mother’s garden.” Joshua has come back to volunteer in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s church, but not to worship. His interest is to “improve this world, not the next.” He tells Lily, “You should know about the world beyond your world.”

As Lily, Kate Middleton has a role that is difficult to appreciate. Hers is not a particularly sympathetic character, but Middleton ably takes her from denial to understanding.  When Kate, as an adult, asks for forgiveness, it’s too late for Joshua to grant it, “but we can travel past it.”

As an English major myself, having a Librarian as the leading character is delicious. Emily Reed is played by Greta Lambert with authority and calm assurance. When the local papers attack the book under scrutiny, Reed renders their argument impotent with a simple, “No byline, no credibility.” Lambert is a great choice to elucidate the playwright’s words, delivering values cherished by scholars: Kindness, amity, respect for others, interest in the natural world; “all this is given to us by books.” Lambert is assured and letter-perfect. “Reading rescues people from the shadows of the unenlightened night.” It is refreshing to see that rare occurrence in the theater: the leading character is a mature woman.

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The modern Civil Rights struggle is now currently marking events that happened fifty years ago. Back then, Alabama’s state legislature passed laws specifically targeting Emily Reed. They also took a long time approving the library budget when in prior years it was a matter of course. But the parallels in the 21st century continue. Today we see state legislatures passing laws establishing a “state firearm,” curtailing voter rights pretending they are preventing runaway fraud, and gerrymandering districts beyond recognition – a mixture of pettiness and malice that civil rights activists must still use their resources to oppose. Fifty years since the civil rights struggle was first televised, this play is relevant.

The opposition is in the person of State Senator Higgins, played by William Perry, intimidating in both his power and paternalism. He prefers the boyish Tom Sawyer to the prescient Huck Finn. Perry’s performance was relaxed and well-matched to Lambert’s Reed. Higgins, too, is not sympathetic, but Perry lets us see why he is a hero to some, a fool to others, attempting to “maintain the strongest grasp on the past.” An older colleague tells him that The Rabbits’ Wedding has become his tar baby – a snare that holds him and Alabama up to ridicule.

Amid the misspelled epithets, the senator and librarian agree only on one thing: The future is important. For vastly different reasons as the audience shall see. The librarian calls the senator’s efforts “saber rattling” – the very term I remember from the political snark of the early 60’s.

As Thomas Franklin, Miss Reed’s assistant, Seth Andrew Bridges is her protector. In a moving scene, Bridges’ Franklin quietly reveals himself to be a warrior, protecting the protector of books. Here we learn why bravery is the uppermost value of the Civil Rights movement.

The actors in this production know how to tell a story, but director Karen Azenberg’s use of the stage, and the big set, designed by James Noone, really brought us inside. The set featured tall photographic flats that majestically open up into a beautifully detailed mid-century office. This room rolls toward the audience on a platform, where a large portion of the action takes place. Posters on the wall include book covers for Atlas Shrugged and other contemporary novels. The design deftly takes us from the library archival office to the Alabama state house and back. Added to that is Brenda Van Der Weil’s costuming which is perfectly and stylishly designed for the period.

I love how language itself is so important in this play. It was a powerful reminder to me of why I love books. Come discover the “hot, bright light of the real world” of Alabama Story.  Miss Reed says it best: “My four favorite words: Tell me a story.”

[The Rabbits’ Wedding is currently on sale for $14.95 (regularly $17.95) on Amazon. It was on the American Library Association’s list of recommended books for children in 1958.]

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January 9 – 24, 2015

7:30 pm Mon – Thurs, 8:00 pm Fri & Sat, 2:00 pm Saturday matinees

FREE parking in the Rice-Eccles Stadium parking lot, one block south of the theatre.

Tickets: $38 – $44. Rush tickets available; call the box office for details.

Pioneer Theatre Company

University of Utah Campus, 300 South 1400 East, SLC, UT 84114

801.581.6961

www.pioneertheatre.org

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