Audiences can be taken to magical places as well as examine a bit of American history in this season’s offerings from the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre, now underway in Logan.
UFOMT founding director Michael Ballam explained in a previous article that “Peter Pan” was selected to open the decades-long renovated Utah Theatre because it gave the festival a chance to show off the new digs.
All the logistical elements were there in "Peter Pan" and seemed to work just fine: the dramatic raising of the chandeliers and sound-muting curtains, the almost-hidden apparatus that allowed Peter and Wendy and all the kids to fly about the stage, and perfect lighting and sound.
But the magic of “Peter Pan” needed to be amped up a bit as the show lags a bit and plods along in an unexpected pedestrian fashion.
The well-known, easy-going fantasy story was there, but the conductor’s baton had no lightning, no fairy dust, as the underpinning score seemed muted and tired.
However, the costume crew, headed by Phillip R. Lowe, deserves a quick and rousing pat on the back. The costumes and choreography were a highlight of the show. Peter, played by Adam T. Biner, was also easy and fun to watch. Biner was an excellent choice — thin, nimble and acrobatic, and he looks and acts about 14 years old.
As a group, the pirates were a pleasant part of the production, and all ensemble numbers were well done. “Hook’s Waltz” (“Who is Hook?”) may be the best number in the show.
The new spiffed-up and modern theater itself upped the ante for this, its opening production, but Peter could only fly part of the way to Neverland with a lagging direction and orchestration.
The phrase “ripped from today’s headlines” might be overused, but it certainly came to mind several times as the meaningful “Ragtime” was staged. Throughout, “Ragtime” was presented in an emotional way, elevating the material in ways that definitely reached patrons.
The first scene is an introduction of the characters — a wide-ranging spectrum of turn-of-the-century culture, including Jewish immigrants, blacks working their way into Northeast America society, rich capitalists, activists of all sorts and even Harry Houdini.
The story was set up well, and there were several strong ensemble numbers throughout to give the production some good legs, including “New Music,” which was rousing and showed off many voices in the ensemble, and “Till We Reach That Day,” which was meaningful and emotional.
As the opening scene’s final chorus number (“Success”) ends, one voice can be heard above all, that of Sarah (played by Kearstin Piper Brown), and Brown ends up being a treat throughout the production, especially during her solo “Your Daddy’s Son.”
UFOMT newcomer Ezekiel Andrew as Coalhouse Walker Jr. was also a highlight with his rich and welcoming baritone voice, which was smooth and made the listener glad to hear it.
Conductor James Bankhead made much of the Americana score, and many numbers were absolutely toe-tapping. The ever-present orchestration had a strong, varying tempo and provided several opportunities for members of the piano section to shine.
The costuming was well done. The set design was stripped down, abstract and utilitarian, and it moved on and off stage without flaw. The use of silhouettes in lighting, staging and dialogue was intriguing.
“Ragtime” is a tug at the sleeve of all Americans, showing both how far we have come but also how far we still might have to go before we can call ourselves “one.”
In most big musicals, there is one song that really has to be done right: the one that percolates through the theme, might be heard more than once and should ring in the ears and hearts of patrons after they have left the theater.
For “Show Boat,” the popular musical from Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein first staged in 1927, that song is likely “Ol’ Man River.” The slow, rolling ballad serves as a perfect window to view the passage of time throughout the production, and its initial presentation in “Show Boat” is a heartfelt examination of labor, race and economic conditions.
And lucky for this year’s UFOMT offerings, they got it right with Brandon Coleman as Joe. Coleman’s cavernous lungs and deep, rich dynamics were as soothing as, well, watching the meandering Mississippi River. Coleman was born to sing this anthem and dropped down to hit all the right notes, delighting a packed house at the Ellen Eccles Theater.
This production gets a lot of things right. Starting with the first chorus number, the cast seemed to be determined to fill patrons' ears with loud and rich ensembles. “Cotton Blossom” was a strong harbinger of quality to come.
Vanessa Schukis was on target as Parthy Ann Hawks, the show boat captain’s wife. Scott Ford was a crowd favorite managing the problems of the captain as Cap’n Andy Hawks. No one has more fun on stage than Adam T. Biner, who seems to be more marionette than man, playing Frank Shultz.
Julie LaVerne (played by Nora Graham) and Magnolia Hawks (Vanessa Ballam) showed good emotional connections and blended their voices well during “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine.” Ballam’s staging and voice were more effortless than patrons have normally seen in her several UFMOT showings over several years.
Graham leaves listeners wanting more, with a flowing and easy soprano. Her breezy dynamics and presentation were outstanding, and she is a dominating presence on stage. Graham opens the second act with “Bill,” which ends up being the emotional and technical highlight of the show.
Described preproduction as “the most resource-consumptive opera” done at the festival, Puccini’s Trilogy is three mini-operas — with death as the theme — presented in succession. Besides the resources of voice and orchestration, the resources in this UFOMT production include scenery, costuming and lighting.
How often does scenery or a scenery change get applause? It does in “Il Tabarro,” the first of the three offerings. All three one-act operas present staging that is layered and sumptuous. Under the baton of Karen Keltner, all three offer stirring and dramatic support from the orchestra. At times, the big score threatened to overpower the singing voices but stopped just short.
“Il Tabarro” presents a love triangle, with Luigi (Harold Meers) trying to persuade Giorgetta (Saudra DeAthos) to leave her seeming-emotionless husband Michele (Kenneth Overton) and steal away in the night with him.
An understanding of the plot of “Il Tabarro” might be thought of as a spoiler, but suffice to say the triangle of characters carry the production — nearly all songs are solos and the stage is most often filled with just one or two of the six main actors.
DeAthos is passionate and practiced in her solos as she laments her situation, and Overton is cold and precise, just as he is supposed to be.
“Suor Angelica” is unlike its predecessor in that many of the numbers early on are choruses and with as many as 18 performers on stage at once.
But as the name might indicate, this is an examination, really, of one person: Angelica, a nun who has been in the convent for seven years, desiring to hear from her family as she serves out what is suggested might be a penance of sorts.
DeAthos takes her second important role in the trilogy and carries the day. Her lamentations are heartfelt and the highlight of the trilogy. Patrons warmly received her efforts in back-to-back major roles carried out with technical expertise.
“Gianni Schicchi” is a farce (sung in English unlike the previous operas which are sung in Italian) that makes fun of wills and the trouble they can cause to the bereaved relatives. Here, the story carries the production rather than an individual performance, though Meers threatens to steal the show along with his lover Lauretta, Schicchi’s daughter (played by Claire Lopatka). Both have strong moments and easy-to-listen-to performances.
All three of the productions in the trilogy take patrons immediately into new worlds, and the depth of resources and talents, as promised, are richly rewarding.
Along with the American opera “Porgy and Bess,” the productions continue in repertory at the Ellen Eccles Theatre and Utah Theatre in downtown Logan until Aug. 6. Tickets and schedule information can be found at utahfestival.org or by phone at 435-750-0030.
Jay Wamsley has covered arts and sports events throughout northern Utah for more than 30 years. He can be reached at [email protected]