By Joel Applegate and Sarah Pendleton
The Hallelujah Chorus was born of a cacophony.
Or so the story goes. Tim Slover’s Joyful Noise, now in its last weekend at the Covey Center for the Arts in Provo, is the historically accurate telling of how George Frederic Handel’s masterwork “Messiah” came into being. All the play’s characters are drawn from real life. This play chronicles their fights with the church, the monarchy of King George II and each other.
In the hands of the very able cast and crew at the Covey Center for the Arts in Provo, Joyful Noise makes for a wonderful, informative piece of theater and music. Premiered in Dublin in 1742, “Messiah” had its legendary London premier about a year later. All the essential elements are present in Covey Center’s “black box”, the Brinton Theater, a great small three-quarter seating space enclosure that makes all the artists’ work come directly to life. All of the actors are skilled, and it was really enjoyable to hear their pure voices without the distortion of microphones. I was immediately taken by how professional the company opened up the first few scenes. The pace of the show remained good in most instances. Though there’s a lot of history to tell, I do feel the piece is a little over-long, especially the first act, which lasts an hour and a half, followed by an intermission, and then a second act lasting a little over an hour.
The spare evocative set with Handel’s handwritten scores and period playbills posted on the back wall set the mood right away along with David Hanson’s near perfect sound design. The costume design by director Agnes Broberg is one of the most beautifully realized wardrobes I’ve seen in Utah County. The costume for Mrs. Pendarves was dazzling and the detailing on the coats of Handel and King George was the best in the art. The wigs were obviously fake, but as part of the customs of the time, they were meant to look that way. Handel himself got a lot of mileage out of his by snatching his off whenever it suited him. I suppose it helps to have a cast with many ties to BYU. Just sayin’.
Scene changes were smoothly executed with their own choreography by the actors who kept the action moving with a few well-chosen period furniture pieces. I didn’t see anyone credited with the light design in the program. It worked fine for the most part, though there were a couple of moments when downstage actors were not well-lit. That said, Agnes Broberg’s direction made good use of the intimate space by having the actors engage and pull the audience members tactfully into the story using us as a church congregation and as an audience to one of Handel’s earlier operas.
Of course there is singing. Katie Mecham as Susannah Cibber and Belinda Purdam as Kitty Clive are Handel’s star performers. Mecham absolutely charms us from the beginning with her ”Blessed” solo while she cradles her out-of-wedlock baby in her arms. And when it came time for her singing audition in front of the imposing Handel, the result was truly beautiful. It was great to watch how it moved Handel, who correctly complimented her for having “no curlicues” in the voice.
Purdam’s Kitty made the most of Slover’s daring script in a performance that was direct and bold. As the lead actress at Drury Lane, she spends a lot of her time defending her turf. “Sing better damn you!” she rails from the pulpit as her guest sermon hilariously backfires on the Bishop’s destructive intentions. Her bad acting as Desdemona fails to impress Handel, but we in the audience found it really funny. Her character transforms during the course of the play and by the end she performs one of “Messiah’s” arias with a subtle and sweet voice.
Lon Keith, having performed the role before, is absolutely excellent as Handel. This is an actor who is always in the moment, and I believed every word. His quirky personality and facial expressions were always engaged with whatever he was focusing on at the time. He gives us a great portrait of Handel. In a delightful speech he roundly trashes the London arts scene citing “the mighty destruction of Shakespeare”, “the coarse buffoons” and “the bad music”. And he shows a secular bent when he declares “I’m as sick of religion put to music as I am of opera.” It is a mark of a great actor when, as I was, the audience is wondering what the character is thinking.
All the cast had great speaking voices, too, and there was never any problem hearing what was happening. Shawn Lynn as Handel’s defacto Major Domo, John Christopher Smith, turns in an excellent measured performance. There is a lot at stake in the scenes between female characters, and on a few occasions I thought they needed to watch their pacing a bit more closely, giving a better shape to the arc of the scene. When a straight razor is discovered in her bag, I’m not quite sure that Mecham convinced me that her character had really come to the point of suicide. As Mrs. Pendarves, Denise Gull did a good job energizing the action. As Handel’s librettist, Charles Jennens, Patrick Boyd did a fine job and was enjoyable to watch.
King George II (Mel Broberg) and Bishop Henry Egerton (Ben Wake) confused me at first because I heard no accents, either English or German (George was a Hanover). They clarified a little as the play progressed, but remained rather indeterminate. Nevertheless, they do good journeyman’s work, Wake completely convincing me of his piety, coupled with his underlying cunning, and Broberg employing a droll attitude and sense of irony. It worked very well in this actor’s favor, such as when he mutters the line, “Good qualities are hard to overcome”. One of the reasons I like this play so much are the interesting bits of history lessons on the difference between the Hanover and Stewart dynasties of England. In two great lines, the King tells Handel, “It is not your little life, Handel, it is everyone’s.” ; and “Dithering is the price we pay for no tyranny”.
This is a play well worth the time to see – and certainly to hear – especially as the plot progresses and we watch as these real life characters learn, change and grow. Joyful Noise is a story full of drama, history and humor that sends you off with a great take-home message.