UTAH FESTIVAL OPERA & MUSICAL THEATRE, various productions and times, 800-262-0074 or utahfestival.org
LOGAN — As patrons of the Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre summer season settle in for four evenings of premieres, they are immediately hit with a significant contrast: “The Flying Dutchman” and “Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
One, the former in this case, is a serious, solo-dominated traditional work, with drab backgrounds and an abbreviated cast. “Joseph,” on the other hand, is a neon-colored, bouncy, memorable work, with numerous dance numbers and a cast of dozens and dozens.
“The Flying Dutchman”
“Dutchman” opens with an extended orchestration, a prelude that emphasizes a storm-like strength and cadence. Under the baton of Karen Keltner, the table is set, especially when combined with some excellent special effects to emphasize the stormy seas that open the production.
Sea captain Daland (portrayed and sung by Richard Zuch) and his helmsman (Benjamin Bongers) find themselves seeking a port of refuge, not far from home, during a severe storm. While asleep at the captain’s wheel, the steersman finds a ghostly vessel has also docked — attached to his own ship — and its captain is now aboard. Dressed in a dominant black theme and pale in color, this captain (Kristopher Irmiter), the audience learns, is in a sort of limbo, left searching for his salvation after an angel set the terms. Those terms include searching for a faithful wife while docking every seven years, the rest of time being spent sailing endlessly with his zombie-like crew.
Daland is enamored by the riches the Dutchman has accrued over the years and agrees to give his daughter in marriage to the pale stranger for a string of pearls and assorted riches. Zuch has a rich voice and the audience longed to hear more from him. Meanwhile, his daughter Senta (Elizabeth Beers Kataria) is enamored by the legend of the Flying Dutchman and has a personal quest to be the one to save him from his eternal limbo, giving him redemption. Her admirer, Erik, a local hunter (John Pickle), thinks otherwise and hopes she will someday return his love.
In the second act, surrounded by her friends, there is a well-produced buildup and anticipation for Senta’s first solo. Kataria does admirably in both this and other moments, while Pickle proves to be a glue that holds many scenes together. In fact, as Erik, Pickle is the most passionate of any of the leads and his Act 3 solo reinforces that fact.
“The Flying Dutchman” is sung in German and even that requires some patience. The slushing and clucking of the German tongue is not as familiar as the rolling of the Italian R’s, though all the leads were rich and strong in tone. The ensemble numbers are few and thankfully got stronger as the production went along. As played by Irmiter, the stranger in black was not quite tormented enough to push his character off the stage or to be felt by the audience, but that may be the sort of limbo he is in.
Sets are purposefully gray and utilitarian and the stage is usually almost empty, with only solos filling the void. As a whole, “Dutchman” is a solid, watchable experience, but with few individual moments that patrons will likely classify as memorable.
“Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat”
Just as it is supposed be, the UFOMT production of “Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat” is lively and non-stop. Based on the story from Genesis of Jacob and his sons, “Joseph” is also a bit of a valentine to several musical styles, numbers bouncing from western to ’60s disco to the Charleston. Each major shift in genres is generally accompanied by a big dance number and the stage is always full and a visual delight. “Joseph” is to watch as much as it is to listen to. Costumes are changed at the drop of several hats.
Standout numbers opening night included an ensemble number by Jacob (Jason Stearns) and the 11 remaining brothers as they lament — in French ballad style — “Those Canaan Days,” when Joseph was still in the fold. The country-western dance number by the brothers early on (“One More Angel in Heaven”) is also spot-on.
Pharaoh (Scott Reardon) almost steals the show, however, with his Elvis-inspired “Song of the King.” Reardon is basically “no-holds-barred” in his Act 2 solo.
Front and center in “Joseph,” of course is Jacob’s favorite son, played by Jonathan Hoover, and the narrator (Vanessa Ballam). All leads are miked in this show and as a result there are moments when Ballam’s voice is a bit too harsh during the narration — which is always sung and not spoken — especially when paired with Stearns’ rich bass or Hoover’s pleasant tones. Ballam is at her best when she leads the large chorus and ensemble numbers. Hoover was an excellent choice to be the star of Jacob’s eye and this production.
All the cast members are perfectly passionate about their roles. Watch for Potiphar (Alphonso Cherry) and Gad (Stefan Espinosa) as examples. “Joseph” is a production that is hard not to like. One would have to stretch to find fault and there was little to find opening night.
The third of four major productions taking the stage of the Ellen Eccles Theatre was “Otello,” described by Michael Ballam, UFOMT founder, as an opera that “raised the bar of vocal expectation.” In his front-of-the-curtain remarks before the show, Ballam also announced that a cover (an understudy, so to speak) was called upon to take the lead role, as the actor that was slated for Otello was “indisposed,” Ballam alluding to vocal problems resulting from a summer cold.
“It’s taken us 200 years to get ‘Otello’ to Logan,” Ballam announced, “and tonight you will see the debut of a talented, young performer in Curtis Bannister.”
Bannister, it must be said, never missed a beat — or a note — and was excellent in his portrayal of Otello’s torment and self-analysis as he struggles with the issues this story presents. Bannister’s presentation of Otello’s lamentation about having suspicions about his new wife was an example of his great effort and heart for the work. It was a strong debut that was notably appreciated by the audience at the concluding of the opera.
It is said that Giuseppe Verdi intended “Otello” to show off the human voice and the three lead roles are among the most demanding penned by Verdi.
Joining Bannister in lead roles were Carla Thelen Hanson as Desdemona and Jason Stearns as Iago, and both proved worthy of Verdi’s intentions. Hanson follows up her outstanding performance in last season’s “Tosca” with a memorable, flawless Desdemona. Hanson elevated her performance to a higher level with her first note. She has sterling dynamics, falling to a soft whisper that still manages to pierce the cockles of the audience members’ hearts, then powerfully rising to easily fill the entire theater. Hanson’s passion is constant, though seemingly effortless. Case in point: Desdemona’s prayer in Act 4 could not have been executed better.
Metropolitan Opera vet Stearns was also impressive and powerful of voice. In one of the final scenes of Act 3, Stearns’ Iago masterfully floats about the stage, from one pocket of players to the next, he being the conniving villain of “Otello.”
But even with such stellar performances, the true star of “Otello” might well be its score and orchestration. The orchestra is the standout of the opening scene with powerful brass and percussion, and a lively Barbara Day Turner, conductor, made certain Verdi’s score was a highlight of the production throughout the evening.
“Fiddler on the Roof”
The oft-produced and always-appreciated “Fiddler on the Roof” is the capstone of this year’s UFOMT season and, based on opening night’s sold-out crowd, will be the popular favorite. And rightly so. There is little to quibble about, with company founder Michael Ballam leading the way as Tevye, the tormented father of five girls in Eastern Europe, circa 1905.
Ballam deftly talks to himself and to God, drawing sympathy from the audience as he uses the lyrics of Sheldon Harnick to tell his family’s story, a Jewish family living day to day under Russian rule. Equally likable and a strong duet partner to Ballam was Valerie Rachelle as wife Golde. The pair’s “Sunrise, Sunset” and “Do You Love Me?” were tender and top-notch moments.
Vanessa Ballam was an excellent — if not easy and obvious — choice for Tzeitel, Tevye’s oldest daughter, and her parody of the village matchmaker in Act I was a delight. Stefan Espinosa as her suitor and husband Motel was an even more precise piece of casting. Espinosa’s look, mannerisms and voice were spot-on.
UFOMT veteran Vanessa Schukis’ portrayal of the matchmaker also dominates the stage and the rich bass of Richard Zuch, as Lazar the butcher, is not to be missed. The production also pulls out all the stops for the “Tevye’s Dream” scene. Even an unruly piece of scenery could not stop “Fiddler” from giving the appreciative audience something to laugh — and cry — about.
Jay Wamsley lives in Smithfield and covers events in and around Cache Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.