SALT LAKE CITY — In a unique intercontinental mingling of talent and faith, the Cheltenham England Stake and the South Jordan Utah Glenmoor Stake are joining forces to present "Faith the Musical" at the LDS Conference Center Little Theater.
The production opens tonight at 7:30 p.m, with additional performances scheduled Friday and Saturday and again Aug. 9-13 at 7:30 p.m. each evening. There will also be a 2 p.m. matinee Saturday.
The musical is the brainchild of David R. Markham, who, as a member of the Cheltenham Stake high council, volunteered to write a musical to commemorate the stake's 25th anniversary in 2007. Markham drew in part from "Truth Will Prevail," a previous musical he had written in 1987 — just two years after he and his family joined the LDS Church — in observance of the 150th anniversary of the church in Great Britain.
"Sometimes things can be communicated in a theatrical setting that can't be communicated any other way," said Markham, a professional musician who wrote the book, lyrics and music for this production. "The history of the church in England is rich with stories of faith and courage. The challenge we face is trying to create a real feeling of what those early Saints went through because of their faith, and the blessing of the angels who I truly believe helped them along the way."
"Faith the Musical" focuses on the real-life story of Thomas Oakey and his family, who were baptized by Mormon missionary and future LDS Church President Wilford Woodruff in 1840 at Benbow's Pond near Ledbury, England. Drawing almost exclusively from pioneer journals, the story follows the family's journey of faith from Great Britain to America, and then across America via handcart to join the body of the church in the Salt Lake Valley.
"We've taken great care to make sure the script is as historically accurate as it can possibly be," said Gresha Carmichael, Markham's daughter and production assistant. "When we did the musical in England in 2007, the script included a fictional family. But for the Salt Lake City production the church insisted that we remove the fictional family and make it real.
"Ninety percent of the dialogue is word-for-word from pioneer journals," she continued, adding that the church allowed for "a bit of license" with one of the script's romantic elements.
"It's as factual as we can make it," she said.
That same spirit of authenticity will also be heard onstage through the accents of the various actors. "No one onstage is faking an accent," Carmichael said, smiling. "The characters from England are being played by actors from England, and the American characters are being played by actors with lovely American accents. It adds to the feeling of reality, I think."
While it is true that staging "Faith the Musical" with a cast that is partly from one continent and partly from another adds delightfully to the show's authentic feeling, it is likewise true that it adds significantly to the degree of difficulty.
"I've spent a lot of time on my knees during the past four years," Markham said, referring to the four-year period between the original performances of "Faith the Musical" in England and its current Salt Lake City run.
"It was a long and careful process, with a series of what I call 'mini-miracles' all along the way. But Heavenly Father answers prayers, and here we are!"
The decision to integrate casts from the U.K and the U.S. to form one cast was born mostly of necessity. "We knew we wouldn't be able to bring our entire cast and crew over," Carmichael said. "As much as we would have loved to, we knew it would be too great of a sacrifice of time and money for many people. So we knew we would need help to successfully stage the musical here."
The connection between the Cheltenham England Stake and the South Jordan Utah Glenmoor Stake came together naturally. Martin Lock, a member of the "Faith the Musical" cast in England, had a long-standing relationship with former Glenmoor Stake President Dennis Johnson. The two men met in 1965, when Johnson was a missionary in what was then the Southwest British Mission and Lock was a non-LDS teenager obsessed with basketball.
"Dennis played on the Bristol Mormons, a team of missionaries that went on to the championship, and I was playing for the top club in Bristol," Lock recalled. "The missionaries were all so friendly and kind — I got to know many of them."
Lock eventually joined the LDS Church as a direct result of that association, and he maintained contact with Johnson through the years. So when Lock and Markham started looking for a Utah stake with which they could partner for a Utah production of "Faith the Musical," a call was made to Johnson and the intercontinental coalition began to take shape.
While Lock and Markham worked through the long and exhaustive process of securing the needed permissions for the production, the rest of the Cheltenham Stake members worked on accumulating the money they would need to make the trip. "Everyone pitched in what they could," Carmichael said. "The biggest help was that Martin was able to secure a few sponsorships for us."
They raised enough money to bring 33 people to Utah for about three weeks.
Meanwhile, here in Utah, members of the Glenmoor Stake have been working on their part of the partnership, including props, scenery, make-up and costumes. There are 50 American adults in the production, and 38 children. Many members of the English cast are being hosted by members of the Utah cast. "Friendships are being formed that will last a lifetime," said Brian Hermansen, counselor in the Glenmoor Stake presidency.
Since April rehearsals have been held on separate continents. "We tried to get together for a joint rehearsal on Skype once," Carmichael said. "But the technology proved to be too much for us in England, I'm afraid."
Even so, that rehearsal marked the beginning of an overseas bond between the two casts. "We couldn't practice, but we could see each other," Carmichael said.
"We were waving at each other — there was a lot of laughing and smiling. It was the start of a great connection between the two casts — the start of turning us into one cast."
That process has continued and intensified during the past week and a half, as the full cast has spent countless hours together, both in rehearsal and outside of rehearsal.
"This is a lot of work," Markham said, running a tired hand through his snow white hair. "But it will all be worth it if people come to the Conference Center and feel the spirit of these remarkable pioneers."Comment on this story
And that, according to Hermansen, is why the English Saints made the trip to Utah — both then and now.
"They didn't come to say, 'Look how great we are,'" he said. "They came because the Spirit told them to come. And now we want people to see the musical and feel that Spirit, and understand it."
Added Carmichael: "Our greatest desire is that all who are in the production and all who see it feel uplifted, with their testimony strengthened."
Tickets for "Faith the Musical" are available at the Conference Center Box office or online through lds.org. You can also obtain tickets by calling 801-570-0080 (locally) or toll-free 1-866-537-8457 (1-866-LDS-TIKS).