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National festival to include four Utah theater productions at WSU regional event

By Blair Howell

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, Feb. 3 2012 3:14 p.m. MST

OGDEN — More than 1,000 students will converge at Weber State as the university hosts the 44th regional competition of the prestigious Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.

“For university theater students, this is like basketball’s March Madness,” said Christopher Clark, a KCACTF circuit coordinator and distinguished professor in Utah Valley University’s Theatrical Arts Department. “It brings out the best in each of the students who participate, and it’s a great opportunity for them to learn more about their craft.”

“Hosting the festival is a great way for Weber State to give back to the national organization,” said Dr. Tom Priest, chair of WSU’s Department of Performing Arts. “I’ve been very impressed with the way that our students have been looking forward to attending the festival and hosting all the students who will be traveling to Weber.”

For the second consecutive year, a record-setting four productions from Utah universities have been selected to be staged at the annual festival on Feb. 7-11, along with seven shows from five western states.

More than 150 post-secondary theater departments — from Central and Southern California, Arizona, Southern Nevada, Hawaii and Utah — are eligible to participate in region 9 competitions of the Washington D.C.-based national organization. Universities invite KCACTF judges to their campuses to judge productions in order to be considered for the 11 entrants in this year’s regional festival.

The four productions in competition are “The Elephant Man,” Brigham Young University; “Eurydice,” UVU; “Xanadu,” WSU; and by special invitation, “The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey,” an original co-production of BYU and SCERA Center for the Arts. This is the first year SCERA has participated in the festival.

The shows are eligible to participate at the national festival April 16-21 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

“The Elephant Man” by Bernard Pomerance, directed by BYU's David Morgan

The life story of Joseph Merrick, who was born with severe deformities, is told in “The Elephant Man,” which won a 1979 Tony for best play. Merrick is liberated from the torturous treatment he receives in a 19th-century London freak show only to be exploited once again by his rescuers.

With the exception the actor playing Merrick, each of the actors wears a grotesque mask that disfigures all but the mouths of their faces in this production. The director devised the masks as a method to reveal the strength of character necessary to see beauty in unexpected places.

“Eurydice” by Sarah Ruhl, directed by UVU's Lisa Hagen

This ancient Greek myth of a Orpheus’ trek into the Underworld to bring his love Eurydice back from the dead is traditionally told from Orpheus’ point of view, but this tender-hearted comedy is from the viewpoint of its leading lady. Eurydice must decide to either stay in the Underworld with her father or return to earth with her husband. In “Eurydice,” the contemporary playwright reviews love, loss and the pleasures and pains of memory. The play had its New York premiere off-Broadway in 2007.

“The students who have designed this play have included incredible elements that aren’t seen in many live plays, including a body of water onstage,” said Katie Sullivan, the play’s stage manager. “We hope that all of the elements of the production help the audience see something personal in the mythic story.”

“Xanadu,” book by Douglas Carter Beane with music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar, directed by WSU's Jim Christian

“Is this that awful ’80s movie? No, we’re a hit. Read the papers!” was one of the original TV commercial taglines.

The much-maligned 1980 movie was rewritten as a stage musical to focus more on the Greek mythology plotlines and lampoons Olivia Newton-John’s popularity. “Xanadu” tells the story of one of the nine muses of ancient Greece who comes to earth to inspire the greatest of artistic achievements — a roller disco. Along the way, she falls in love and feels the desire to re-create herself. At its opening, the New York Times wrote that “Xanadu,” nominated for four 2008 Tony awards, “is simultaneously indefensible and irresistible. There’s so much silly bliss to be had.”

“I’ve never laughed so hard at a production in the 10 years that I’ve been at Weber,” said Priest.

“The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey” by Ward Wright, Randall Wright and Marvin Payne, directed by BYU's Rodger Sorensen

Adapted from the popular children’s book by Susan Wojciechowski, this musical fable centers around three lonely people — Jonathan Toomey, Widow McDowell and her young son — who gradually learn to heal their hearts after tragedy alters their lives. The youngster asks a belligerent woodcarver to re-create lost crÈche figures following his specific instructions in this folk musical.

“The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey” was created by first-time scriptwriters Ward Wright and Randall Wright, former BYU students, with musician Marvin Payne.

“This is such a tender story,” said Sorensen. “In three instances, the mother and child make all the difference. There’s Toomey’s wife and child, McDowell and her son, and Mary and the Christ child.”

The other productions to be staged at the festival are “Suddenly Last Summer” by Tennessee Williams, California Lutheran University; “The Dramatization of 365 Days” by H. Wesley Balk, adapted Bruce Goodrich, California State University, Fullerton; “God Sees Dog: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead” by Bert V. Royal, Citrus College; “The Cover of Life” by R.T. Robinson, Concordia University; “The Unseen Hand” by Sam Shepard, Los Angeles City College Theatre Academy; “Cesar and Ruben, A Musical” by Ed Begley Jr., Santa Monica College; and “The Bald Soprano” by Eugene Ionesco, Scottsdale Community College.

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