UVU’s Mother Hicks is Good, Old-fashioned American Magic

mother hicksReviewed by Stephen Gashler
A play for young audiences set in the Great Depression in a small town in Illinois, Mother Hicks (by Suzan Zeder) is the story of an abandoned girl – appropriately named Girl – in search of a home and an identity. This female answer to Huckleberry Finn wanders from place to place, from the rough crowds on the wrong side of the train tracks to the well-off and well-mannered, though she never seems to fit in. She crosses paths with Tuc, a deaf and dumb man who, like Girl, is overlooked and belittled by society. Tuc as something of a guardian ange, looks out for Girl when no one else will. Tuc is also a sign language poet.

Speaking of misfits, there’s no shortage of local gossip about the old hermit, Mother Hicks. Rumor has it that she’s a witch, responsible for virtually every mishap in town from milks cows gone dry to the deaths of young children. Girl is inspired by the way Mother Hicks commands the fear of the town, and wishing to take such power upon herself, rebelliously delves into the dark arts. But when a dangerous ritual goes awry, a wounded Girl is in trouble and Tuc, ever looking out for her, carries her to the home of none other than the elusive Mother Hicks.

Girl finds herself in an eclectic cottage full of wild animals and face-to-face with the town “witch.” Through some hard lessons, she’s forced to learn for herself about real power, real healing, and real identity.

The cast of Mother Hicks is full of rich characters. Girl (Emma Eugenia Belnap) is full of passion and a driving force for the play. It was a delight to discover the personality of Mother Hicks (McKell Petersen), who is at first shrouded in mystery but then commands the show with her matriarchal presence. McKell had me convinced that she was quite a few decades older than she is. Tuc (Matt McGill) has a sweet innocence and honesty that provide a great balance to the more domineering characters. There are many other fun and well-played characters (from the gossiping housewife to the general store clerk to the town drunk) who collectively succeed at painting an iconic Mayberry. I found myself lost in an America long-gone yet nostalgically familiar, a more innocent time when barefoot boys and girls knew that adventure was just around the corner, and witches frequented graveyards.

Suzan Zeder’s play is packed with thoughtful themes in a charming setting. I loved the exploration of an all-American brand of witchcraft that was still alive and well in the twentieth century. I loved the coming of age themes that young audiences will identify with and the tasteful treatment of harder themes like overcoming prejudice and broken relationships. Director John Newman did a great job at bringing out these ideas, giving my two young daughters and I a lot to talk about as we exited the theater.

Visually, the show isn’t lacking in eye candy. The costumes (designed by Scott Edward Twichell) all felt natural, and the set (designed by Stephen Purdy), with a sandy base, gorgeous backdrops, and eclectic yet minimalistic set pieces such as rustic wheels, barrels, and crates, added a lot to the tone of the play and never got in the way. I was especially impressed by the lighting effects (designed by Jaron Kent Hermansen and Laicey M. Giddy-Brown), clouds, and stars. The coolest scene is when Girl is practicing her witchcraft, and it looks as if she’s surrounded by rippling water on a sandy beach. I felt as I was right there with her.

UVU’s Mother Hicks is a quality student production and a great play for young audiences. It takes a little imagination to properly envision some of the actors as their characters’ ages, but such are the natural limitations of student theatre. Thankfully, kids have much better imaginations than adults, and if they’re like my kids, they’ll have a good time watching Mother Hicks. Without being too scary, it’s just heavy enough to get young (and old) minds turning. I look forward to seeing the other plays in this series (known as the Ware Trilogy) by Suzan Zeder.

Performed at the UVU Noorda Theatre

800 West University Pkwy MS 234, Orem, UT 84058

Runs January 14th – 30th
MThFS 7:30 PM
Saturdays at 2:00 PM

NOTE: ASL Interpreters are scheduled be at the following performances!!
Saturday January 16 @ 2p
Thursday January 21 @ 7:30p
Friday January 29 @ 7:30p

Tickets are $8 for students and $12 for general admission
uvu.edu/arts

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Utah Rep’s A Little Night Music is a Big Hit!

littleBy Cindy Whitehair

Send in the Clowns has been a very special song to me, for a long time so I jumped at the opportunity to see Utah Rep’s A Little Night Music to see the song in context. We were not disappointed.

A Little Night Music (music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler) was inspired by the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles on a Summer Night. It was written about a time when affairs were liaisons and people drove cars AND horse and buggies and royalty and title were en vogue—when actors and actresses trod the grand stages and grand salons of Europe with much fanfare. It is the story of three couples of star-crossed lovers and the machinations that they go through to get to where they need to be.

Utah Rep’s staging of the show is as lush as the lifestyle portrayed in the show. They installed a FULL proscenium arch stage into Sorenson Unity Center’s black box theater—a risky move given how small the space is to begin with. However, by making the space so intimate, the audience gets to see every little detail of the brilliant costumes (Nancy Susan Cannon), set design (Daniel Whiting), props and set dressing (Tim Mugridge and Madeline Ashton), lighting design (Geoffrey Gregory) and hair and wig design (Cindy Johnson) that made this show. The period touches through out every little detail (gaslights on the sides of the proscenium) showed the thought that the production team put into this show.

It is a rare thing in this valley to have live (as opposed to an orchestrated recorded track) music and Utah Rep is one of the few theatres that does live music regularly. With a music director like Anne Puzey (who was also the pianist for this show) it’s hard not to take advantage of that talent. Keyboardist Jeanne McGuire filled in the rest of the orchestra beautifully.

Director Christopher Clark did an amazing job balancing the unbelievable talent that he had to work with. You could always see the actors—even when the whole ensemble was on stage at the same time. There was no ensemble hanging in the background—every member of this cast had their moment in the spotlight. This show was cast with a great attention to detail and how the each cast member would fit into the show. The director pulled you into his vision of what this show should be.

It’s hard to know where to begin with this stellar cast. The Quintet (a quasi-Greek Chorus made up of Jim Dale, Raina Larkin Thorne, Natalie Easter, David K. Martin and Tamara Sleight) are used like the Muses of old—to tie a show together, while moving it along. A summer breeze sweeps you up into the story while moving it along. Their voices blended well together and they were cast to show off their individual vocal strengths.

The three generations of Armfeldt women – Madame (Elizabeth Hansen), Desiree (Susan Facer) and Fredrika (Bailee Johnson) are a major focus of the story. Desiree was the toast of Europe as an actress, but as she has aged, she has been relegated to playing the smaller stages of Europe. She is still clinging to “The Glamorous Life” while realizing all she has missed (her daughter Fredrika growing up.) Meanwhile, Madame (who is raising Fredrika) realizes she is not long for this mortal coil. All three actresses did phenomenal jobs letting you know everything about their character, even if they had minimal lines (Ms. Johnson.) The relationships—strained at times, doting at others felt real. Ms. Facer commanded the stage as a diva should—she was the sun that the planets (the rest of the cast) revolved around.

To say that the Egerman’s – Patriarch Fredrik (Doug Irey), son Henrik (Jon Rose) and stepmother Anne (Marissa Smith)—are a dysfunctional family is a wild understatement. Fredrik is written as almost a Shakespearian fool—married to a much younger Anne who knows nothing of marriage. Henrik was Goth, long before Goth was even a thing. They are three individuals occupying the same home but interacting with one another on the fringes. The song triad Now, Later, and Soon sums up the relationships in true Sondheim fashion.

Rounding out the cast are the Count Carl-Magnus (Matt Dobson) and Countess Charlotte (Dianna Graham) Malcolm and servants Frid (Greg Carver) in the Armfeldt household and Petra (Casey Matern) in the Egerman household. Each brings such verve to the show. The Countess and her conniving to get her husband back from the diva, the Count who realizes that he does love his wife, the lusty maidservant and the faithful manservant who steps out of his rigid shell all bring a depth to the show that is necessary.

In a show with so much talent, it is hard to pick a stand out number. Send in the Clowns is the signature song for this show with good reason (more on that shortly) but there were three other songs that (for us) were just as good, but for different reasons. Liaisons (sung by Madame Armfeldt) and The Miller’s Son (sung by Petra) were two of the most technically challenging songs in a musical full of technically challenging music (we are talking Sondheim, after all.) The third, Weekend in the Country had the whole cast singing at least six (that I could count) different parts and with different syncopations, and there was not a dropped lyric or not in the bunch. That is a hard thing to accomplish.

As I said, the signature song for this show is Send in the Clowns. This song is one my mother and I used to play together frequently when I was in high school—it is a very happy memory for me. However, the song is about regrets and loss and mourning. While the piano line had me missing my mom (who died five years ago), Ms. Facer’s emotional connection to the song is what had me in tears at the end (and now as I am writing about it.) For a song that Sondheim admitted was an afterthought, it packs an emotional punch that this seasoned actress wielded deftly.

All in all, A Little Night Music is a well-polished, entertaining, tour de force. It is everything musical theater is supposed to be and was a true joy to watch.

Utah Rep Presents A Little Night Music
Jan 15-30
Sorenson Unity Center
1383 S 900 W, Salt Lake City, Utah 84104
Tickets can be purchased online

Centerpoint Legacy Theater’s The Foreigner Should be Your New Best Friend

foreigner1By Craig and Jennifer Mustoe

Do. Not. Miss. This. Play.
The Foreigner, a hilarious comedy by Larry Shue, focuses on Brit Charlie Baker, played by Rusty Brinkhurst (on some dates—this is double cast), erstwhile science fiction proofreader, boring man and cuckold. He accompanies his friend Froggy LeSueur (played by David F. Marsden), British military explosives expert, to rural Georgia. Froggy leaves Charlie alone at a backwoods fishing lodge owned and operated by his old friend Betty Meeks (Holly Reid) while he goes off for three days on his annual bomb training of U.S. soldiers. Before he leaves, Charlie begs Froggy to find a way so that he won’t have to talk to anyone at the lodge; Charlie believes that he is terminally boring and can never hold an intelligent conversation with anyone. Froggy tells Betty that Charlie is a foreigner, and doesn’t speak a word of English. Betty takes an instant shine to him, as she has always envied the exciting life Froggy leads, traveling around the world and meeting exciting “foreigners.” Now she has one of her own.

Charlie soon encounters a series of characters at the lodge. Catherine (Kari Plott) is young and beautiful and engaged to the Rev. David Marshall Lee (BJ Whimpey.) She has a younger brother, Ellard (Richie Uminsky), who is, well, um … special. He will not receive his half of the inheritance until Catherine certifies that he is intelligent enough to handle it. David has a friend, Owen (Josh Curtis), who is as redneck as they come. He is the new (corrupt) countytax assessor with aspirations to be sheriff. These various characters hold rather private conversations right in front of Charlie, believing that he can’t understand them, and thus, won’t tell their dirty secrets and most personal thoughts and feelings. He is soon known as a great listener.

foreigner

Soon, Charlie learns of a dastardly plot to steal the lodge and get Catherine’s inheritance. He also learns that she is pregnant by the minister (didn’t we see something like this in The Scarlet Letter?). Ellard goes about teaching Charlie English and he makes re-mark-able progress. Soon Charlie can read Shakespeare like an Oxford master. In the final act the Klan shows up, and we read in another review that she had no idea that the Klan was in the show so we have stated it right here. They are not the good guys by any means, but we wanted you to know.

The set by scenic designer Scott Vandyke was brilliantly designed and quite authentic. It had the hunting-fishing lodge feel to it—complete with mounted fish, poles, nets and other fishing equipment and one set of antlers. There were antique signs all over, too, and a player piano (wait to you see what they do with THIS—was that in the script? I don’t this s–but we loved it.) Jackie Smith as property designer rounds out the set beautifully.

Sound and lighting by Jay M. Clark was spot on (did you see what I did there?). Not one mic failure. Lighting cues perfect. This production had an amazing feature that was used to its best ability—a live band, whose playing helped scene changes fly by. Music director Gary Sorenson’s players: Debbie Cannon on keyboard; Christine Warren and Katie Frandsen on violins, Spencer Hohl—brilliant guitar and banjo; Dan Smith on percussion; Emily Merrill on percussion—was ingenious with his music choices and this alone lent something to this play we’ve never seen before. Authentic downhome Bluegrass at its best.

Costumes by show director Jennie Richardson were simple and believable. Though he doesn’t have much stage time, Froggy’s military outfit was authentic. A nod to Betty’s apron-covered dress, too.

Now, for the actors—we were impressed with how completely solid this performance was. One eensy blip with one line only. Performances were sparkling and startling and smooth. But smooth isn’t what this play is about. Why? Because each actor, led by Jennie Richardson’s deft direction, were exquisitely crafted and brilliantly presented. We love Betty. We hate Owen. We adore Ellard. We feel sorry for Catherine. We giggle with Froggy. We despise the reverend. And we laugh our heads off with the amazing physical acting ability and comic timing of Rusty Bringhurst. His delivery was so perfect, it made our heads spin. We saw audience members guffaw, clap like crazy, practically begging for more.

One last comment—the staff at the Centerpoint Legacy Theater is one of the nicest group of folks we’ve ever interacted with. Kind, helpful, upbeat—total professionalism but so warm—we were very impressed.

This theater is a little out of the way for us in Spanish Fork, though it is right off the freeway. However, we recommend and if we could INSIST you get in your car and get to this show.

The Foreigner

January 11- February 6–dark Sundays 7:30 PM

$14.00-$24.50

The Centerpoint Legacy Theater

Address: 525 N 400 W, Centerville, UT 84014