Val David Smithson's specialty is standing ovations. He gets one nearly every night he performs at the Desert Star Playhouse - and sometimes the show hasn't even started yet.
Smithson is musical director, soloist and accompanist at the popular melodrama theater, located at 4861 S. State St.In addition to accompanying the performers on stage during the shows or providing effective background music - much like the pianists who used to play for old-time silent movies - Smithson entertains the audiences with preshow sing-alongs.
It's the sing-along part of the program in which Smithson is practically guaranteed a standing ovation.
Especially when he plays what I've come to label "The B Song" - or, the old classic, "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean."
Usually attired in Gay Nineties style - vest, bow tie, white shirt and bright garter around one arm - Smithson is not content to merely lead a "follow the bouncing ball" kind of group songfest. Instead, sitting at a spinet at one side of the proscenium, he playfully coaxes the audience to alternately stand up or sit down whenever they sing a word starting with the letter "B."
There's a lot of standing up and/or sitting down (depending on if you've missed one of the B words somewhere in the lyrics), especially when it comes to the final "Bring Back my Bonnie to me."
Usually, at this point, about half the audience is still sitting (which is the position they should be in for the last "B" word) and the other half is standing - but they're all applauding.
And that's how Smithson cajoles the crowd to get a little practice in standing ovations.
Not that he doesn't earn them later in the show.
He always has a solo spot during the olios that conclude the evening, and, just before the curtain goes up, he demonstrates what particular keyboard sounds to listen for as a clue whether to hiss at the villain, oooh and aaah the sweet damsel in distress, or cheer the wonderful hero.
(The current show at Desert Star is a musical melodrama adaptation of "It's A Wonderful Life or Winging in the Holidays." Most of the scheduled performances are sold out through the holidays, but some seating is available during the first week in January. The show closes Jan. 5. Call 266-7600 for information or reservations.)
Smithson's preshow entertainment in the cabaret style theater includes such venerable favorites as "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain," "Yes Sir, That's My Baby," "I'm Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover," "Oh, Susannah" and a sort of shaggy dog (or shaggy frog?) "There's A Frog on a Log," to which Smithson adds verse upon verse, so that by the time you get to the end you're singing "There's a hair on the wart on the leg of the frog on the log in the bog," etc., etc.
From "My Bonnie Does Aerobics" to hissing and booing, audience participation is encouraged at Desert Star Playhouse, and Smithson, with his personal brand of ragtime piano, provides the musical glue that binds all of the various elements together.
He's also written several original tunes for many of the shows and, working with the directors and others, also adapts a variety of Broadway and pop tunes to the melodramas.
The piano he uses at Desert Star Playhouse is a standard spinet that has been modified to give it an old-time ricky-ticky sound.
Smithson's work has been heard around the valley for nearly 10 years, beginning as a rehearsal and performance artist for Pat Davis at Promised Valley Playhouse, staying on at PVP when Tom and Joanne Parker operated the theater, later helping with the arranging and recording of music for a number of Hale Center Theater productions.
These days, in his spare time, Smithson and former Vine Street Theater director Omar Hansen are collaborating on a new musical production entitled, "Nauvoo on the River," a drama about life and times in that thriving Mormon settlement just prior to the Saints being driven West.
Smithson was born in Salt Lake City and moved at an early age to New York City, where his father did graduate work at Columbia University. He went to elementary school and junior high in Provo, where his dad taught at Brigham Young University, then attended high school in McComb, IL., after his family moved there. (His father teaches French language and literature at Western Illinois University.)
Smithson's mother is musically inclined and Val took piano lessons in Utah and Illinois. While his studies focused on the classics and classical musical techniques, he got his first taste of musical theater when he accompanied an LDS Church production of "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown" being presented as a fund-raiser in Illinois.
"I had to carry the show and the score is not that easy in some places. It's basically piano and drums and it gave me a real sense of accomplishment," he said.
"Seeing it on stage and knowing that I helped make it work was really exciting," he added.
After high school, Smithson earned a partial scholarship to BYU. Although he got 100 percent on the entrance exam at WIU, where his father taught, he had been impressed with the Harris Fine Arts Center and always had his eyes set on going to BYU.
"Then one of my high school teachers wrote a letter to BYU - I don't know what she said - but suddenly I had a full music scholarship to attend BYU," Smithson said, noting that all too soon he learned that, for someone accustomed to a smaller school, attending the Y. is like being a minnow in the ocean.
"I had been something of a `celebrity' in high school, but that first semester alone and away from my family was really rough," he said.
He served a mission for the LDS Church in Southern California. There, too, his talent at the piano was frequently in demand, including a musical production that he and another missionary put together.
This show, he noted, had an unusual touch. Other missionaries had pitched in to volunteer, including assembling the pages of the score into a binder - at the very last minute.
"We got to the big finale and I'm playing along and my companion is turning the pages for me - and suddenly one of the pages is upside-down and the next one is out of sequence," Smithson said.
The show was supposed to be a comedy about missionary life, but playing an upside-down score (while others on stage were attempting to sing along) wasn't quite what Smithson had in mind.
"To me it was a traumatic fiasco, but everybody loved it and the mission president even wanted to take it around the mission," he said.
After his mission, Smithson switched to Western Illinois University, but after a couple of quarters there, an instructor advised him that he had probably had sufficient training in the classics. The upshot was, if his heart was really in musical theater, he might as well focus on those areas.
"So I got out of college and headed back to Utah," Smithson said. But before he came back, he became involved in "Because of Elizabeth," the Relief Society commemoration program staged in Nauvoo several years ago, helping Utahn Leon Hale and his family construct sets.
"I really got close to those guys and they encouraged me to return to Utah, where I built sets for Utah Opera Company and worked with an independent company constructing trade show exhibits for Leon Hale, who was based in Utah County," Smithson said. "I found that I had another ability for using my hands for something besides the piano."
Then, Smithson decided it was time to get back into theater, so he called Pat Davis to see about an audition.
She pulled out some music and he played it, and was hired to work on a summer production in the Bowery (the upstairs theater at Promised Valley Playhouse).
He also played for rehearsals and performances and helped construct sets for the mainstage productions.
When Tom and Joanne Parker were brought in to manage the Playhouse, Smithson stayed on, to work on such productions as "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," a musical adaptation of the film, "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." Using a high-tech Kurzweil 250 digital keyboard, Smithson wrote three original songs for the score, including the lyrics.
Other shows he's been involved with include "My Fair Lady," "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and "The Ark."
He also worked on City Rep's first theatrical concert version of "Cats" and then scored the music for Hale Center Theater's musical adaptations of three of the Hales' shows - "San Juan Outpost," "A Spring to Remember" and "Hopsville Holiday."
" `A Spring to Remember' was one of the more complicated soundtracks," he said. "We needed an orchestration sound, but the limitations of the keyboard didn't allow me to do what I wanted to do, so we had to separate various elements track by track and re-record them in the studio."
"But `Hopsville Holiday' was more fun. The music was similar to that of `The Boy Friend'," a show on which he worked for the short-lived Don Walsh Productions during a dinner-theater experiment at Hotel Utah.
Smithson also helped get the new Vine Street Theater off the ground, including assisting with construction of the stage. It was here that he met Omar Hansen, a director-writer who is currently attending BYU, and with whom he is collaborating on the new "Nauvoo" musical.
It was about this time that Michael Todd approached him about working at the new Desert Star Playhouse.