“THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO,” through Jan. 31, de Jong Concert Hall, BYU's Harris Fine Arts Center (801-422-2981 or byuarts.com)
“I will leave one more treasure to you: Learn to live and forgive” is the admonition the wrongfully imprisoned Edmond Dantes receives in “The Count of Monte Cristo.”
The English-language world premiere of the Frank Wildhorn-Jack Murphy musical is presented in an artfully directed, spectacular production by BYU’s Department of Theatre & Media Arts. It’s a monumental achievement for a university to be granted performance rights by a prominent Broadway team.
Both Wildhorn and Murphy participated directly with BYU to bring “Monte Cristo” to the de Jong Concert Hall. The close attention to the actors’ performances and staging is evident in each moment of the highly enjoyable production.
The show’s two leads, Preston Yates as Edmond and Shae Robins as his love interest, Mercedes, perform impressively. Robins has a bright soprano voice and a pleasing stage presence, notably seen in “All This Time,” one of the musical’s strongest compositions. Yates follows his success in the title role of “The Phantom of the Opera” at BYU two years ago and a triumphant turn in another U.S. musical premiere as Zorro in Hale Centre Theatre’s “Zorro the Musical” in 2012. He is a commanding, masculine actor with a vibrantly powerful voice.
Another standout is Lauren Hughes, who gives a saucy performance as the pirate leader Louisa Vampa. “Truth or Dare” is part of a thrilling scene when Edmond refuses to kill his opponent in a fight to the death aboard Louisa’s vessel.
“Monte Cristo” is Wildhorn’s most mature composition, and the score has a majestic, cinematic feel that will delight his ardent followers. It is occasionally undone by the writing. Hearing a cliché (“Revenge is a dish best served cold”), a borrowed iconic musical theater line (“Every day a little death”) and an overly declamatory phrase (“This man is dead / He is no more”) is jarring and removes the listeners from enjoying the songs.
There are too many secondary onstage characters with stories not fully presented, and “Pretty Lies,” sung by the intended bride of Mercedes’ son, is a case of “just one more song” with no clear rationale, and it’s not an entirely distinguished song.
The storytelling in this adaptation of the classic Alexandre Dumas 1844 novel is splendid in the second act with a rewarding conclusion in this tale of love, betrayal and vengeance in the post-Napoleonic era. But the setup of the story in the first act is muddled. The charges against Edmond and their significance in leading to his condemnation to lifelong imprisonment are not clear.
The BYU Symphony is nicely directed by Christian Smith, but the sound mix between the large orchestra and the multiple singers was flawed in the beginning of the first act, further frustrating the audience’s ability to enter the world of “Monte Cristo.”
The scenic design and moving set pieces by Rory Scanlon are lovely. Costume designer Lara Beene shows genuine flair. The animated projections by Daniel Fine were inventive and striking, but they were out of focus at stage right.
It’s clear the BYU faculty members — director Tim Threlfall, choreographer Nathan Balser, music director Gayle Lockwood and creative producer Jeffrey Martin, who initiated the collaboration with Wildhorn — worked seamlessly together and with the show’s creators on such a magnificent staging.