This season the Utah Shakespearean Festival (which was founded 48 years ago by the honored Fred Adams) began in the first week of July 2009. The roster of plays and the company of actors offer the playgoer a unique and thrilling theatrical experience. This Tony Award-winning theatre has long been a stepping stone for actors to go on to Broadway and beyond. This season features a wonderful array of plays and talent; it is one of the best that I have seen.
In the smaller, and beautiful, indoor Randal Jones Theatre there are three plays performing in repertory. The first is Foxfire, which was born out of the Foxfire books, a series which encouraged the exploration and the embracing of one’s family history and traditions in order to illuminate one’s own life. The play was written by Susan Cooper and Hume Cronyn and originally starred Jessica Tandy in the leading role, earning her the Drama Desk Award for Best Performance by an Actress. Well, the Festival has found an actress up for the part, the brilliant Joyce Cohen, who delivers a moving and strong performance as Annie Nations. She gets strong support from the crusty Will Zahrn as her deceased husband Hector and from John Bison, an LA favorite. in the Keith Carradine role of the son. Utah’s casting director Kathleen F. Conlin does a standup job of capturing the delicacy of the material.
The Secret Garden, a musical with a book by Marsha Norman and music by Lucy Simon, is the second offering in the Randal Jones. The musical is, of course, based on the famous novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The story is one of those gothic romances, with a lost little girl whose parents have died, a reclusive uncle who is pining away for his dead wife, a mean uncle who wants to steal the inheritance and plots to get rid of his brother, and a surviving boy (locked in a dark room no doubt). The key to the whole thing is a lost garden that at one time belonged to the deceased wife, and its renewal by the little girl Mary, along with the return home of the grieving brother Archibald, the exile of the mean brother Neville, and the recovery of Archibald’s son who had been given up as dying. The story is moving and the music evocative, with lush romantic songs, and the performances strong, especially by Summer Sloan as Mary, Katie Whetsell as the housemaid, the adorable Nikaiya DeBirk as the young boy, and Brian Vaughn as the evil uncle. My only beef with this show is the presence of all those dead figures from India whom I found distracting. I also thought that Ben Cherry as Archibald might have found more levels. Jim Christian was the director.
The third piece indoors was the hilarious Private Lives by Noel Coward. The production featured a real-life married couple, Don Burroughs and Carol Linnea Johnson, as Elyot and Amanda. It is a credit to these actors that they managed to make the characters excessively likeable, although I felt that Mr. Burroughs acted as if he were playing a clown, a good one, in a Shakespeare comedy, instead of a gentleman in Coward. He strutted about like a silly peacock. Michael Brusasco was Victor, Katie Whetsell was Sibyl, and Lillian Castillo was the French maid. The director was Joseph Hanreddy. In all fairness I must report that the audience loved this show and it may well be the Festival favorite.
The wonderful Elizabethan stage held three superior productions. First up was As You Like It directed by David Darlow, with a terrific cast headed by the lovely and talented Melinda Parrett, who gives Rosalind a variety of colors and lights up the stage with her fine performance. Other stellar performances were by Marcella Rose Sciotta as Celia, Rick Ford as Touchstone, and Festival veteran David Ivers as Jacques. Ivers took a real chance playing much of Jacques for laughs, emphasizing his vanity and his overweening sense of self as a tragic figure. But Ivers left plenty of room for introspection and intelligent observation, as in the famous “All The World’s A Stage” speech. Director Darlow has provided some original touches without distorting the play.
The second play on the outdoor stage is the history Henry V, starring a pensive, brooding Brian Vaughn as the “Ideal King.” Vaughn lets himself grow into the king as the show progresses and it is the triumphant performance of the summer. Also very good were Roderick Peebles as Captain Fluellen, providing much-needed laughs, and the delightful Emily Trask as Princess Katherine. The production, directed by Associate Artistic Director J. R. Sullivan, is a handsome one and the battles are handled well. Except for Vaughn, however, I felt the production was, although strong, also ordinary—the curse of the history play. Henry V is full of substantial characters, but young actors have trouble filling them out.
The third and last play being performed in the Adams Theatre was a wonderful, funny, well-thought-out The Comedy Of Errors. The cast is flawless and director Kirk Boyd has done the Festival proud. The production is very very funny, not Shakespeare funny, but laugh out loud funny, without ever getting too outside the world of the play. I really admired the work of Rick Ford and Matthew Henerson as the Dromios. They do some great slapstick business. Quinn Mattfeld was Antipholus of Ephesus, but it is the remarkable work by Michael Brusasco as Antipholus of Syracuse which steals the show. His timing was impeccable and his aside looks to the audience a riot.
A special mention must be made of all the designers for these shows. The sets were serviceable and beautifully designed. The costumes were absolutely gorgeous. The fabrics were lovely to look at. Bill Forester designed The Secret Garden, Foxfire, and Private Lives; all different, but all well executed. Troy Hemmerling designed all the outdoor shows and he displayed variety and true artistry. Bill Black (Henry V and Foxfire), Tim Dial (a gaudy The Comedy of Errors), Jeffrey Lieder (Costume Director responsible for bringing the shows in on time and on budget), David Kay Mickelson (As You Like It and Private Lives), and last but not least Janet L. Swenson (The Secret Garden) all deserve only the highest praise. Credit goes to all the actors, directors, technicians, designers, “Greenshow” performers and the front office staff including the Artistic Director R. Scott Phillips for making this season one of the best ever. The Utah Shakespearean Festival continues until Aug. 29.