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Theatre Review (Cedar City, UT): 2010 Summer Season of the Utah Shakespearean Festival

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The Utah Shakespearean Festival is experiencing another successful and, from what I saw, sold out season. The summer season consists of six plays: a musical version of Great Expectations based on the Dickens classic, a stage version of Pride and Prejudice, The 39 Steps, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, and The Merchant of Venice.

As the Festival advances towards its 50th season next year, the fare has gotten progressively more challenging and, with an eye towards productions outside the Festival, premieres of new works. Previously they produced a musical version of Lend Me a Tenor that is set to tour the provinces in Great Britain but with an English cast. This year the musical is Great Expectations, based on an adaptation by a ninth grade English teacher, Margaret Hoorneman, and assisted by Steve Lozier (book), a score by Richard Winzler, and Steve Lane’s lyrics. Great Expectations is a mighty but sprawling tale about a boy named Pip as he makes his way in the world. The book was serialized, so it has lots of detours along the way. This adaptation does a pretty good job of harnessing the story. It plot has been further clarified from the previous tryout at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles.

There are a couple of holdovers from the Los Angeles outing, including a brilliant Ellen Crawford as Miss Havisham and a nice outing by L J Benet as Young Pip. In addition to these veterans the cast now includes a notable performance by Jack Noseworthy as Pip. He has a powerful rich voice and acts the role with sensitivity. Melinda Pfundstein makes a nice Biddy, Jeff Steitzer is wonderful as the clerk Wemmick, and Max Robinson makes a formidable Magwitch.

My reservations about the work remain the same as when I first saw the piece. The music is often lovely, using Sondheim, Bernstein, and even Lloyd Webber as models, but there are no standout songs and because there are so many musical numbers the scenes don’t get to develop through dialogue, so you get the story but not a lot of complexity.

Next I saw an adaptation for the stage of Jane Austen’s masterpiece, Pride and Prejudice. It is beautifully adapted by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan. Missed is the gorgeous scenery you get in other adaptations; the background acts like its own character. Characters tend to be reduced to a single characteristic, but the cast and director have done a brilliant job of capitalizing on these singular traits. This choice does help to bring out the humor in a piece that can get a bit sentimental.

The cast is uniformly wonderful but I will single out Ellen Crawford and Jeff Seltzer as Mr. And Mrs, Bennet, Kate Cook as Jane Bennet, and a delightful Sara J. Griffin as Lydia Bennet. Then there is the Mr. Collins of newly appointed Artistic Director and long-time performer at the Festival, Brian Vaughn. His is a brilliant, let me repeat brilliant, Tartuffe-like characterization which helps make this show my favorite in the repertory. Blake Robinson has done an admirable job of directing this complicated but beloved work of art.

I next came to The 39 Steps, the farcical adaptation of Hitchcock’s famous film. The piece is hilarious silliness demanding great comic skill and split-second timing. The director Eli Simon is blessed with a comically inspired cast, with Brian Vaughn as Richard Hannay, David Ivers as Clown 1, and Aaron Galligan-Steirle as Clown 2, with a very funny Carol Linnea Johnson as Woman. The play succeeded with the audience more due to the fact that these, some of their favorite actors, were acting like fools, but also because of the execution of the busy theatrics. It lacked the kind of furious pace that the British cast has, but that may come in time as the summer goes on.

Macbeth, directed by Joseph Hanreddy, was notable for the youthfulness of the two principal characters, with a handsome Grant Goodman as Macbeth and Kymberly Mellen as his wife. Given their youth, the characters’ ambition had a touch of innocence that added to the piece and also a bursting and youthful and impatient sexuality. Goodman’s Macbeth was no pushover but a man with a conscience who literally attacked his wife when she suggested otherwise. Ms. Mellen was a more supportive wife who didn’t really know her man, and her madness seemed all the more earned.

Much Ado About Nothing, directed by B. J. Jones, was fairly straightforward but featured a truly remarkable performance by the other newly-appointed Artistic Director, David Ivers, as Benedick. Much Ado is known for its “bickering couple,” a set of characters seen in many a Shakespeare play. After awhile, bickering becomes boring and I lose interest. Not so here because Ivers plays his Benedick as angry at himself for the artificial relationship he has with Beatrice. He seems to blame himself, not her, for his predicament, but refuses to just get married to solve his obvious loneliness. This character choice really pays off in the second half of the play, when he must come to terms with the meanings of friendship, love, duty, and partnership. I really thank him for this performance.

The last but not least of the Shakespeare plays on exhibit on the magnificent Adams Theatre outdoor stage is a good production of The Merchant of Venice. Gary Neal Johnson makes a compelling Merchant who is “sad” but knows “not why.” His friend Bassanio is played by the sexy Grant Goodman (looking different from his Macbeth). Emily Trask makes a convincing Portia, handling the complexity of the role with intelligence and ease, and Tony Amendola, playing the role of Shylock, gives a memorable and often breathtaking performance. He was born to play this role and he fulfills that promise.

My qualm with the production is really with the modern emphasis on Shylock as victim. Alas, directors, and actors playing Shylock, can’t seem to get around referencing Jewish suffering throughout the ages. This tendency tends to distort the play and instead of being the play that Shakespeare wrote, we get, in an attempt to sympathize with Shylock who is unreligious as written (a secular Jew), an anti-Christian play. This production seems to take a middle ground and emphasizes Shylock’s humanity but not his victimhood. At least we didn’t get a gay Merchant, a scheming Portia, or a totally hateful society with Shylock being the only good man around.

The Festival is in a strong position as it goes into its 50th season. They have two young and exciting new Artistic directors and have embarked on a $34 million campaign to build a new theatre with a roof that can be retracted or extended as the weather demands. Their prospects are bright and I can only wish them well. The Utah Shakespearean Festival will continue until Aug. 28th in Cedar City, Utah.

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