One of the best things about my job is being able to see brand-new plays. After five or six times, even such fine works as "Mousetrap" or "The Fantasticks," start to wear a little thin. But there's a certain excitement in discovering something that explores new theatrical territory.
I always hope it will go beyond simply being entertaining. Maybe it will even be wonderful or absolutely great. It's more satisfying to lavish praise on a production than clobber it with brickbats.Following "on-the-road" trial runs in southern Utah and Las Vegas, the new Doug Stewart-William Marsden production of "A Day, A Night & A Day," premiered Saturday night in Salt Lake City - "the Mormon Broadway" for LDS Church artists, Stewart told the opening-night audience.
The show is based on LDS scripture - the first chapter of Third Nephi in the Book of Mormon. Stewart did an abreviated version several years ago as a college project, then, a year or so ago, dusted it off and expanded it with a full score by composer (and brother-in-law) Marsden.
The scripture on which Stewart's script is based is barely 21/2 pages long. But it relates one of the most dramatic incidents in ancient American history - an account of a deeply religious group of people anxiously awaiting the signs that had been predicted surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ, a time when they anticipated "a day, a night and a day" of daylight, with no darkness.
The government, however, a heirarchy fraught with dissention and wickedness, scoffs at these prophecies and issues an ultimatum: deny your faith in the Lord or die.
Stewart has taken this dramatic episode in Book of Mormon history
STAGEand fleshed it out with a play involving family vs. family, vindictive government leaders vs. faithful citizens.
Stewart's play has moments of both tender sweetness and soul-searching drama, and Marsden's score is, by and large, uplifting, powerful and rich.
But "A Day, A Night & A Day" is not flawless. We found nearly as many rough spots as there were high points as the opening-night production progressed.
Let's compare the pluses and minuses: On the "plus" side of the ledger, the leading performers were all excellent. Michael Clapier and Suzanne Decker, both probably unfamiliar to most Salt Lakers (Clapier was in "Saturday's Warrior" 16 years ago), have strong voices and were perfectly cast as spiritual leader Nephi and his wife, Esther.
Lyn Noe, who's been in several productions in the area, also turned in a fine performance as the menacing, despicable Emron. Other standouts were James Anton Dixon, Tami Lynn McCann and Jaynie Sweeten as Jared, Ashna and little Sarah. Also kudos to Curtis B. Scott as Pahor, a brash young soldier; Kent Christensen as Chief Judge Lachoneus, Doug Cobabe as Zelom and Judith Anderson Jones as Isabel.
While Stewart not only wrote the script and the lyrics (give him a big plus for these efforts), for this production he also acted as both producer and director - a definite minus. What this show seriously needed was a strong director with both the authority and the guts to say "No!" when excesses started creeping in.
Instead of focusing on Nephi and his wife, Esther, and how they cope with being confronted by the evil Emron and his henchmen, there are too many subplots. One is a sort of "Romeo and Juliet" match between Nephi's teenage daughter, Ashna, and Emron's defiant son, Jared. There is also political intrigue, with Emron playing fast and loose with the rising tension between the Christian believers and the Nazi-like soldiers. Yet a third plot involves the wavering faith of some of Nephi's followers, mainly Isabel and Zelom.
While Marsden's score is rich and very beautiful (another major "plus"), it seems that, all too often, "powerful" gets confused with "loud." The volume is frequently pumped up so high that it drowns out the voices of those on stage - and the pre-recorded choral pieces are so loud that the words are muffled beyond recognition.
This was very distracting.
There's also an aesthetic problem with Marsden's score. This is a story that calls for subtle realism but, instead, the overall effect is "Cecil B. DeMille meets Andrew Lloyd Webber." Instead of the lutes and lyres of ancient America, we get overdone orchestrations with massed violins and Ferrante & Teicher-style piano crescendos.
Marsden's score, would be more appropriate for a schmaltzy Hollywood tearjerker.
The production (at least on opening night) was also hampered by some sound and lighting snafus (one minus). In one scene, Emron was singing in the dark while the spotlight was focused elsewhere on the stage.
The Vine Street Theater itself also earns a minus. The acoustics and sightlines are dreadful and, while the former chapel may work fine for small, intimate productions, "A Day, A Night & A Day" would have more impact if it was presented on an epic scale. This was like watching "Ben-Hur" on television. The production really belongs in a larger space, such as Promised Valley Playhouse or Kingsbury Hall.
The show could also use some tightening up and fine-tuning here and there. One song in particular, "Hang On, Be Strong," seemed to be nothing more than a cutesy-pie song straight from the "My Favorite Things" mold.
We had gone into this hoping to see a landmark "Mormon musical of the '90s," but while Stewart and Marsden try hard, it's a little shy of the mark.