LOGAN — Familiarity breeds appreciation, rather than contempt, in this year’s lineup of highly recognizable musical theater and opera offerings from the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre Company.
The 2019 season from the Logan-based company includes “Newsies,” “West Side Story,” "Mary Poppins” and Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” At the nearby Utah Theatre, UFOMT is presenting two lesser-known but similarly themed biographical dramas “Master Class” and “Bravo, Caruso!”
Read on for reviews of each of this year's productions:
"NEWSIES," through Aug. 2, Ellen Eccles Theatre, 43 South Main Street, Logan (435-750-0300 or 800-262-0074 or www.utahfestival.org); running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (15 minute intermission)
Familiarity was oh-so evident with the opening night production of “Newsies.” Not many moments into the stage production, fashioned after the popular 1992 Disney movie, and audience members were reacting with well-timed “oohs” and “aahs,” laughter and guffaws, whistles and whoops of appreciation and even anticipating some of the actors’ lines with audible giggles.
As characters were introduced in the first few scenes, sometimes the New Yawk accent from the young actors got a bit thick and overdone, but an early rousing dance number let patrons know this show was here for the fun. Initially, “Newsies'" ensemble numbers felt like the actors were just shouting, but at least they were shouting in time and with excellent harmony, so there was that.
Derek DeRoo played Jack Kelly, the leader among the news boys selling “papes” for pennies, hot off the opinionated and oppressive press of Joseph Pulitzer. Kelly’s torment over his choice to either stay in the Big Apple to lead the band of newly unionized paper boys or to follow his dream future in Santa Fe was well-done and felt by the audience. DeRoo also had good stage chemistry with cub reporter Katherine Plumber (played by Molly Dobbs) as she helped him get the court of public opinion behind the pair’s cause for social justice.
On opening night, DeRoo occasionally teased a couple of notes rather than hitting them strong, but he was very watchable. Dobbs' presence, however, was sometimes overwhelmed by all the other goings-on, while Christopher Holmes, as the despicable Pulitzer, had a strong voice and carried a full presence on stage.
Watch for the beloved number “Seize the Day” in which the ensemble of boys and young men got past simply shouting loud, and became a talented chorus.
And even on a weekend of theater punctuated by almost flawless top-drawer choreography, when those newsies put on their tap shoes and pounded out “King of New York,” it was an absolutely memorable highlight — choreographers Michael Jenkinson and Abbey Campbell were the two true stars of the show. “Newsies” is likable, start to finish.
"THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO," through Aug. 2, Ellen Eccles Theatre, 43 South Main Street, Logan (435-750-0300 or 800-262-0074 or www.utahfestival.org); running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes (15 minute intermission)
Understand this about UFOMT's production of “Marriage of Figaro": Mozart wrote some pretty great music and the Nicolas Giusti-led orchestra put itself squarely in the star category with a strong performance on opening night.
The famous opera buffa tells the story of Susanna (Rose-Antoinette Bellino), soon to be married to Figaro (Brandon Hendrickson), both servants of the philandering Count Almaviva. Bellino, who showed her strong voice in her short solo in another UFOMT production, “Master Class," lost some of that projection and volume early in “Figaro,” almost getting lost at the back of the stage. Hendrickson was very likable as the title character, but also presented solo moments that were less memorable than Mozart's powerful orchestral score, as his projection was just average.
As Act II opened, Countess Almaviva (Bridgette Gan) provided a production highlight with her lamentation over her husband’s infidelity — “Grant, love, some comfort.” It was heartfelt and pointed, and labeled Gan as the one to listen to.
With a story line as farcical as a Shakespearean comedy on steroids, “The Marriage of Figaro” should have felt more fun, or at least presented the sense that the actors were having fun. With a couple of exceptions, though, characters spent most of the first half of the production on opening night with far-too-dramatic faces. They needed to have as much fun and bounce as the orchestra.
Post-intermission, the actors seemed to loosen and lighten up a bit. Hendrickson finally hit his stride — and volume — in the last act with his musing over the inconstancy of women and the fickle aspects of romantic relationships. Gan also provided a second highlight as her lamentation of ungrateful hearts took on an almost hymnlike quality.
As “Figaro” gained momentum and confusion, audience members would be wise to throw all common sense — and marital morals — out the palace’s garden window. The story paints royalty as bouncing about the palace all day planning new and unusual ways to flirt with — heck, seduce — any and all they come across. Costumes are exchanged, plots are thickened, and patrons will be forgiven if they let the many flowing robes and flowing flirtations come and go and concentrate instead on the score, and marvel, for a moment, at Mozart.
"WEST SIDE STORY," through Aug. 3, Ellen Eccles Theatre, 43 South Main Street, Logan (435-750-0300 or 800-262-0074 or www.utahfestival.org); running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes (15 minute intermission)
Dancing is the real star of this year’s UFOMT lineup — “Newsies,” “Mary Poppins” and “West Side Story” all having numerous outstanding ensemble dance numbers taking over the stage. Founding director Michael Ballam said in preproduction comments that thousands of dancers auditioned to fill out the casts of the 2019 season, which he trimmed down to about three dozen of the best.
Pasqualino Beltempo played Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, with Broderick O’Neal as Riff, and Benjamin Adams as Tony, leading the rival gang, the Jets. O’Neal and Beltempo were not pitch-perfect but Beltempo, particularly, was a strong leading actor and easy to watch and appreciate.
As Marianthi Hatzis' Anita and Emily Stys' Rosalia debated the merits of Puerto Rico compared to New York City, all of the Shark girls knock a dance number right out of a San Juan park during the hit production number “America.”
The music from “West Side Story” is very jazzy and syncopated — it’s not an easy score. But conductor Karen Keltner kept her musicians at a perfect volume and as ever-present as Bernstein might have imagined.
Enter Maria. Performed by Olivia LaBarge, Maria was clearly having fun with her new life in New York and LaBarge was having fun with her role. LaBarge has a delightful soprano, a light in her eyes and improved those with which she performed. As she met Tony — and it was love at first dance — she proved this point by making all of their duets Adams’ top performances. LaBarge’s angelic voice often saved her new-found love. She was able to present the highest of notes in her range without being shrill or sharp but, rather, effortless.
One minor negative in opening night’s “West Side Story” was the feeling that everyone was racing to get through it, and some dialogue got lost as a result. The scene with the Jets planning the rumble at Doc’s deli is an example. Rumble? Yes, the fights between the rival gangs were almost constant — it could be said someone went to a fight and dance broke out. The several fight sequences often interlaced with dance sequences, were fun to watch and expertly performed.
Watch for a meaningful presentation of “There’s a Place for Us,” with layered meaning and emotion near the production’s climax. The "Romeo and Juliet"-esque message of “West Side Story” is still a powerful one and audience members were wrapped in the emotion this production presented.
"MARY POPPINS," through Aug. 3, Ellen Eccles Theatre, 43 South Main Street, Logan (435-750-0300 or 800-262-0074 or www.utahfestival.org); running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (15 minute intermission)
Even in the opening scenes, it was apparent to audience members that this relatively new musical production was not their parents’ “Mary Poppins” — there are new musical numbers and a few new characters and plot points to deal with. At times it felt like Julie Andrews and friends gave us the bones for this musical to add more to.
The UFOMT production of “Poppins” is a grand production. The direction and flow — again by director Jenkinson — was flawless. And the interchange of sets and scenes was like a slow-moving Rubik's cube that Jenkinson handled perfectly. Set design by Dennis Hassan is a show in itself — I counted 17 scene changes before losing count.
Amanda Compton LoPresti played her Mary perhaps a bit too stiff and definitely needed to project equal to her character’s star power. The orchestra, for example, totally overpowered LoPresti as she sang of the bird lady, and her duets with Bert (Timothy Stewart) resulted in her projection being weak by comparison. But otherwise, she was practically perfect in every way, befitting her role.
Stewart as Bert was the glue to the production and his strong presence and voice are noteworthy.
Much of the musical's focus was on father George Banks (Brandon Hendrickson), who was wound tighter than Big Ben. Hendrickson has a fine baritone and his presentation was strong and always pleasant to follow. Turned out George got his standoffishness and painful parenting ideas from his childhood nanny, Miss Andrew. (“This is daddy’s nanny, which explains a lot,” it was noted.) Nanny Andrew (played perfectly by Alissa Anderson) made a big ol’ entrance, immediately taking over the stage, although Mary Poppins’ second-act entrance (and Nanny Andrew's exit) raised the bar for comings and goings on stage even further — in fact, raised it to new heights.
And, yes, there was some great dancing to go along with this familiar story and the wonderful songs you can’t get out of your head. As might be anticipated, “Step in Time” was a fantastic fill-the-stage production number, as “Mary Poppins” neared its conclusion, and even had the audience clapping in time. “Mary Poppins” will likely end up being be one of the favorite and most memorable productions to take over the Ellen Eccles stage.
"MASTER CLASS," through Aug. 1, Utah Theatre, 18 West Center Street, Logan, (435-750-0300 or 800-262-0074 or www.utahfestival.org); running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (15 minute intermission)
“Master Class," by American playwright Terrence McNally, premiered back in 1995. It presents the thoughts and memories of diva Maria Callas (played here by Suzan Hanson) as her career has ended and she nears the end of her life in the 1970s. The story is built around a master class led by Callas, as she agrees to listen to three younger singers and give them instruction.
But as she listens to the nervous pupils, Callas remembers and relives moments from her career, her personal struggles and her several failed relationships. Hanson was stunning as she let the audience feel Callas’ love for art and her sacrifices to succeed in opera.
”Master Class” had almost a reader’s theater feel to it, as there were only five characters, with Hanson dominating the dialogue and a super-simple set as a backdrop. This production truly engages the audience and provides a nudge to audience members to learn more about this famed operatic star.
"BRAVO CARUSO!," through JULY 30, Utah Theatre, 18 West Center Street, Logan, (435-750-0300 or 800-262-0074 or www.utahfestival.org); running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (15 minute intermission)
Similarly, “Bravo Caruso!” is an examination of the final days of the career of Enrico Caruso, one of the 20th century’s most noted Italian tenors. Ballam portrayed Caruso and Stefan Espinosa played Mario Fantini, his personal assistant and valet. A two-person production, “Bravo Caruso!” brought the audience into the dressing room of the Metropolitan Opera before Caruso’s final performance.
In both "Master Class" and "Bravo Caruso!" the actors hardly sang a note and both production are dialogue-heavy, but each was able to make the audience feel what the artists might have felt by examining the question: What is one willing to sacrifice for their art?
Content advisory: All productions are family-friendly, although “West Side Story” does present adult themes and some suggestive dialogue. A realistic fight scene is also present in “West Side Story.”