By Brian Fryer,
Published: Friday, February 19, 2016
It could be said that the revival of Logan's historic Utah Theatre was made possible by an organ donation. Built in 1936 and originally named the Roxy, the one-screen art deco movie house sat for decades as neighboring theaters such as the Capitol and the Old Lyric received makeovers.
Then, nearly 10 years ago, Michael Ballam imagined a new future for the crumbling venue. A Logan native, celebrated opera performer and founder of the Utah Festival Opera Company (UFOC), Ballam envisioned a fully-equipped performing arts center that could house a rare Wurlitzer pipe organ he'd received from a donor.
"My family and I had been living in Israel for a year, and when we came home in 2006, I saw a 'For Sale' sign on the Utah Theatre," said Ballam. "I went to the owner and asked what was happening with the theater and he said, 'I've been waiting for you to come buy it.'"
Ballam soon met with businessman-philanthropist Larry H. Miller and his wife Gail. The Millers made the initial donation to purchase the building for the UFOC.
But the purchase was likely the simplest part of the revitalization efforts according to Jim Roberts, superintendent for Raymond Construction, who has been at work on the project from the beginning. "It was still operating as a theater. They were showing old movies, but the building was in rough shape," Roberts said.
Ballam continued raising money and working with adjacent property owners, and renovations moved along as funding permitted. Eventually the stage was expanded to the east, west and south. The neighboring building was purchased and converted, featuring a new lobby, restrooms and dressing rooms and topped with an open air café. A fly-loft was added to the building, allowing quick scenery changes and rigging for "flying" performers.
But creating a space for the showpiece Wurlitzer organ proved the greatest challenge. The familiar, multi-tiered keyboard is only a small part of the instrument. The pipes, some 16-feet tall, pneumatic drums, cymbals and chimes and the massive blower that powers them all had to reside under the stage. While digging under the theater to make space for the organ components, crews hit a groundwater aquifer.
"The ground just turned to quicksand," said Roberts. "As quick as we could scoop out dirt and water, it would just fill up again." So the work came to a halt and water was pumped out while engineers worked on a solution. Eventually a chamber for the organ was created, using rocks to stabilize the ground and concrete that could cure underwater. Upstairs in the theater, historic art deco moldings were repaired and replaced, and the walls fitted with retractable curtains to control acoustics. Ballam brought in an Italian craftsman to repaint details in the original Florentine style.
"His name is Nino DeRobertis, and he's one of the few artists left who paint in this style. He'd never been out of Italy for more than two days in his whole life, but he volunteered to come to little Logan, Utah and do this for us."
UFOC managing director Gary Griffin says he doesn't see a third performance space in a small city like Logan as too much of a good thing.
"We want to make Logan a destination for the arts. We'll have three beautiful theaters within a few hundred feet of each other," Griffin said. "We'll have a wide variety of things from movies to plays to live musical performance and operas, all in this one area of town."
Ballam says that thanks to about $11.5 million in donations over the last eight years, completion is in sight and he anticipates opening the new 330-seat Utah Theatre this spring in time for UFOC's 2016 season.
You could call him the Michelangelo of the Utah Theatre.
Italian master painter Nino de Robertis has been working on the interior of the Art Deco theater for several weeks now, nearly finished on his part of the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre's (UFOMT) renovation of the historic icon in downtown Logan.
He doesn't speak much English, but he happily greeted The Herald Journal with a smile and, "Pleased to meet you," Friday morning in the theater, located at 18 W. Center St.
Michael Ballam, the opera company's founder and de Robertis' translator, said he met de Robertis nearly 20 years ago in Italy, and they became fast friends. When de Robertis came to Utah this August to see shows put on by UFOMT, Ballam convinced him to stay a little longer and lend his talents to the Utah Theatre renovation.
By Jerry Earl Johnston,
Published: Saturday, August 15, 2015
The ovation went on and on.
Michael Ballam had just sung "The Impossible Dream" from Utah Festival Opera's "Man of La Mancha" and – true to form – he refused to break character as people clapped and whistled.
The clamor was for the song, of course, a true Broadway showstopper.
It was also for Don Quixote, the old gent who dared to run where the brave dare not go.
But it was mostly for Ballam himself, the Cache Valley kid who dreamed the impossible – a professional opera company in Logan.
Eventually the dream became merely improbable, then reality.
Ballam had been true to his quest. And the Logan audience was saluting him for it.
Some dreams can indeed seem futile. But to quote that famous Asian philosopher, Bloody Mary, "If you don't have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?"
While watching Ballam in Logan, I thought how the director of the movie version of "La Mancha," Arthur Hiller, pulled off a nifty stunt. He had Quixote sing "The Impossible Dream" in a small upper room.
As Quixote sings, the camera pulls back. The glowing window grows smaller while the grit and grind of the street grow louder until the world drowns out the light and music.
To quote that famous French philosopher, Fantine, you may "dream a dream" but the "tigers come at night with voices loud as thunder."
But dreams are both resilient and fragile. Like panes of glass, they can weather a chilly rain, but then a tiny pebble comes along and shatters them to pieces.
It's amazing dreams survive at all.
But they do.
Don Quixote and his quixotic quest have lasted 400 years.
And then there's Michael Ballam.
Sometimes the staying power of a dream is all in the staying power of the dreamer. Ballam's song the other night may have been a small moment in a small Utah city, but those in the hall heard his song. More to the point, they felt it. And they'll remember it and tell others.
Pass it along. That's how a dream remains alive.
Today, for instance, you're reading about that dream in this column. And if you're reading it, perhaps somebody else is reading it, too.
True dreams never die because the dreamers simply won't allow it.
To quote that famous American philosopher, Nettie Fowler, the great dreamers "walk on through the wind and rain" though their dreams get "tossed and blown."
And that courage convinces others to dream the dream as well.
You have only until Saturday, August 8 to attend offerings of the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre's 23rd season and founding Director Michael Ballam says so far it has been one of the most successful seasons ever for the Company.
Ballam says because the productions are done in repertory it is possible to see all of them in just two days. He says that makes it attractive for those living out of Cache Valley who spend a weekend here which greatly helps the economy.
"I suspect that after our economic impact report comes in we will see that we probably make a $15-$16 million impact to Cache Valley," says Ballam. "That doesn't mean we make that, we break even. Our job is to just break even and we have done that for 23 seasons.
"But we do have significant effect of bringing money–especially new money, that is money that is not just passed around members of the Cache Valley community–but money that comes into our economic basis here in the community."
Ballam says he is very grateful for that. He says between 70 and 80 percent of those attending the festival come from outside of Cache Valley. He would like to see more local residents come and those who do start to attend almost always continue to do so.
Congratulations to the winners of the 7th annual Michael Ballam Concorso Lirico International Opera Competition:
Marlen Nahhas – 1st Place Winner & Audience Favorite
Andrew Thomas Pardini – 2nd Place Winner / Alternate
Thank you to all of the talented artists who gave their best in the competition, and a special thanks to our audience for your support and participating in the vote!
The 1st Place Winner will be sent expense free to Alessandria, Italy to compete in the finals of the
Concorso Internazionale di Musica "Cappucilli - Patané - Respighi", where they will join contestants from around the globe for the opportunity to sing in front of European agents and operatic producers. They will also present a debut performance in Italy. Should the 1st Place Winner not be able to participate in the finals, the Alternate will go in their place.
LOGAN – For 500 years, Miguel de Cervantes' tale of Don Quixote has captivated readers. Now, half a century later, the Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre pays proper homage to the time-honored classic in their rendition of playwright Dale Wasserman, composer Mitch Leigh, and lyricist Joe Darion's Man of La Mancha.
The production takes place in Spain during the 1600's and tells the tale of Cervantes, who has been thrown into a Spanish prison. He is put on trial by the other prisoners and presents his defense in the form of a play. With the help of the prisoners–and his trusty servant–he shares the adventures of Don Quixote, a disillusioned man who, believing himself to be a knight, sets out to right all wrongs. The story explores harsh truths and how your perception can change your reality. The Utah Festival Opera cast gave a splendid performance, capturing the essence of this mythical journey. I found it not only entertaining, but also a perfect opportunity for reflection. As I saw the world through Don Quixote's eyes, I began to question your view of the world. Do I see it as it is or as it ought to be? Do I see the potential in others, or just their faults? And most importantly, do I have a quest? For, according to the good knight, whether you win or lose does not matter, only that you find your quest.
The live orchestra played beautifully, helping to create the world of Don Quixote. Each member of the cast gave an enthusiastic and convincing performance, but the leads were especially good. Michael Ballam once again proved himself a jack-of-all-trades as Cervantes the author, who transformed before the audience's eyes into the infamous Don Quixote. He also served as the narrator, moving scenes along and painting a picture of the knight's visions. Ballam gave the part not only the gusto and complexity it deserves, but he also offered the vocals to do it justice–especially during the iconic "The Impossible Dream."
Lee Daily portrayed Sancho Panza, Don Quixote's ever-faithful servant. At first I found his character a bit too high-pitched and whiny. But over time he grew on me and fully embodied the dim-witted but loyal assistant. After all, he is a "fat little bag stuffed with proverbs." Daily brought a fun side to the character and gave an endearing performance, especially during his rendition of "I Really Like Him."
Jessica Medoff played the lovely Aldanza (or Dulcinea, as she is so lovingly called by the knight). She fully embraced the emotional journey of a woman who begins to see her herself not as the lowly town wench, but as a gallant lady. Jessica's powerful voice perfectly portrayed the heart-wrenching journey.
Costume designer Misti Bradford helped create the time period with an authentic array of time-period costumes–complete with rips and tattered, dirty hems. Jack Shouse created a realistic looking prison that was versatile enough for each scene. The stage was raked (or, tilted), making it easier to see all of the action as it played out. Shouse also serves as the director, and took every opportunity to display the emotions involved in the journey. For example, after attacking a windmill, Don Quixote returns to the stage with a twisted sword and wind-blown hair, and stumbles around, bewildered for a moment–giving the audience a chance to enjoy the humor of the situation. But Shouse didn't shy away from the difficult subjects, giving harder topics proper weight and timing on stage.
Although Cervantes narrates and guides the story along, it would be helpful to brush up on the storyline before seeing the play. (I studied up during the intermission and found it much easier to follow along after.) If I had one complaint, it would be the sound; I found it difficult to hear or understand many of the actors' lines. I had to fully concentrate to follow along. Fortunately, all of the songs had projected subtitles, so I was able to keep up.
Still, this production of Man of La Mancha stands as a good reminder for each of us to choose to see more good in the world. Make the time to head up to Logan and catch this incredible show–then head out and discover your own quest.
LOGAN – How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying has become an iconic look at the 1960's workplace through the lens of musical theatre. It's satirical, stereotypical, and sexist. Instead of resisting the temptation to tone down the now-obvious social faux pas and political incorrectness, director Valerie Rachelle embraced all the charm and wit this show has to offer ("pas" and all), making it a rousing night at the theatre and a successful production for Utah Festival Opera.
The Pulitzer Prize winning play (with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and a script by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert based on a book by Shepherd Mead) follows the story of a young window washer named J. Pierrepont Finch (played by Adam Biner), who seeks to improve his career prospects by following the advice he finds in a book aptly named How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Quicker than you can say "Rosemary," his likable character shoots to the top of the business world, but not without making a few enemies and breaking a few hearts.
Biner's smooth tenor vocals were matched perfectly with the score, especially in numbers like "I Believe in You" and "The Brotherhood of Man." Biner's goofy smile and boy-next-door attitude gave me the opportunity to root for his success and have fun as he climbs the corporate ladder to make it to the top of the World Wide Wicket Company.
Leah Edwards (as Rosemary, J. Pierpont Finch's love interest) lit up the stage with her presence, and her classical, rich vocals were simply a delight to listen to. Edwards handled the role of the typical early 1960's woman who yearns only to keep her man happy, with a nice touch of sass followed with a hint of flirtation. Her characterizations worked tremendously well, especially in "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm." Her chemistry with Biner made their characters alive with a believable relationship, which was most noticeable in the lover's song, "Rosemary."
Andrea Hilbrant played Smitty–Rosemary's fellow secretary–successfully, providing more than enough energy for her performance. For example, in the songs "Been a Long Day" and "Coffee Break," Hilbrant's comical facial features and strong comedic timing played an integral part in creating the comedic world of the production. W. Lee Daily (as J. B. Biggley, the president of the company) was a highlight of the evening. Playing the "cool-headed" boss, Daily chose to imbue his character with a sort of neuroticism, a characterization that worked well. In the song "Grand Old Ivy," for example, Daily gave the audience a taste of his character's love and passion for his alma mater. When Biner tries to keep up with Daily's enthusiasm during the song, the result was a side-splitting and memorable moment of the evening.
Lastly, hats off to the set designer Fred M. Duer and the sound designer [Nathan M. Schilz] (not listed in program). Duer's set was a simple combination of flying elements, colorful LED lights, and rolling pieces, making each scene transition quick and enjoyable. The sound design, especially the mixing of the orchestra and ensemble, was exemplary. Everything was balanced, and not one singer or instrument was too much louder than the other.
In short, Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is a well directed, well acted show that was simply a joy the entire evening. From the leads, to the ensemble, to the set, to the sound, all aspects of the production came together to create its own version of success–and succeed it did.
A local theater company's renovations to the historic Utah Theatre are nearing completion, coinciding with the company's intentions to re-open the theater this fall.
The Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre (UFOMT) is currently in the process of preparing to repaint the theater's walls. Gary Griffin, UFOMT's managing director, said that a designer is building a decoration for the proscenium, and LED lights will adorn it. An organ will provide live musical accompaniment for silent movies.
In addition, a new crown molding will encircle the theater.
Griffin said that when it opens this fall, the intention is to provide the community with live productions, which the theater has never been associated with before.
In addition, the community will be entertained there by classic movies, concerts and organ recitals. The aim centers on providing the community with a classy venue that fits with the scope of downtown.
By Jay Wamsley,
Published: Monday, July 13, 2015
LOGAN – For many, the highlight of summer in Logan is the arrival of hundreds of musicians, dancers, singers and actors to tackle musical theater and high opera as presented by Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre, now in its 23rd year. This season holds four familiar offerings.
"La Boheme" is often described as the most-produced opera in history. UFOMT, however, is offering Giacomo Puccini's famed opera only six times this summer, the least of any of the four main productions this season.
Don't assume that is because it is not well-done. It is.
"La Boheme" begins with four artsy types living together in a cold upstairs apartment in Paris, all starving artists. Love begins to bubble when Mimi, a seamstress who lives next door, befriends Rodolfo, the poet/writer of the roommates. Turns out painter Marcello also has a love interest, a hot-and-cold old flame, Musetta, who injects herself into a dinner party hastily put together by the five new apartment buddies.
Opening night, in the opening scene – that of the apartment as the audience begins to know the artists – conductor Barbara Day Turner's presentation of the score almost overwhelmed the singers (Peter Scott Drackley as Rodolfo, Antoine Hodge as Colline, Quentin Oliver Lee as Schaunard and Gregory Gerbrandt as Marcello). But the four soon found their volume and projection, particularly a strong Lee, and all was well.
As Mimi (a strong performance by Catherine Spitzer) and Roldolfo begin getting acquainted and begin hinting at long-term promises of love, each solo is strong and rich and projects hopefulness. Their time together onstage is well-tied, and their sharing of stage and song is very uplifting.
Ensemble pieces are strong, busy and like eye and ear candy for patrons. The scenic design, by Jack Shouse, is a masterpiece, and even scene changes in the dim light receive applause as they are so well-staged in and of themselves.
Enter Musetta (Jamilyn Manning-White), who is the definition of high maintenance. Manning-White's Musetta is just flirty enough, and her soprano is a strength to the production. As in all operas, it seems, the piazza is a lively place with high spirits and, well, spirits, with Marcello and Musetta reuniting to no one's surprise.
Curtains drop, time passes and jealousy and troubles infect the love of Rodolfo and Mimi, not to mention Marcello and Musetta. Mimi is also afflicted with consumption and finds herself struggling for steps and breath. Puccini's score is a star in the short Act 2. Patrons might also note how Drackley's strong tenor seems perfectly matched with the voices of all those with whom he sings, particularly Mimi in the final act as he laments his situation.
Even before founding director Michael Ballam added "Musical Theatre" to the Utah Festival Opera Company's moniker, the four main stage productions over the years would usually include a familiar musical production, perhaps so patrons could leave the theater singing a familiar tune under their breath, including favorites such as "Fiddler on the Roof," "My Fair Lady" or "Oklahoma!"
This year, "Carousel" certainly fits that description, though some audience members might not be able to sing due to the lump in their throats. An emotionally strong and well-performed final act sees to that.
Richard Rodgers – he of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame – once called "Carousel" his best work and a "thank-you card to God." So, yeah, there are some strong feelings tied to this sometimes-rousing and familiar work. But know for certain that this UFOMT production does not cut corners that may have been missed with other community theater or less-than-opera-company offerings of "Carousel." The full score is bounced to life by conductor Karen Keltner, and the production is heavy on precise choreography that fills the stage.
The strength of the production seems to be in its casting, or perhaps in the actors' and singers' ability to form their voices and dynamics to the character being played. As Billy Bigelow, Wes Mason has a robust, sharp-edged voice perfect for the role. As Julie Jordan, Molly Mustonen has a soft yet solid projection, hitting the top of every note, not waving – again, perfect for her role.
Donald Groves as Enoch Snow proves to be another stroke of casting genius. His arrival to the stage and story is very well-done, and his precise diction and unwavering tenor seem to be written for the role in which he is cast. Groves and Leah Edwards share a delightful "When the Children are Asleep" in Act 1.
Even James Harrington, playing bad-guy Jigger Craigin, matches the character's persona to his voice. W. Lee Daily delights in the dual role of the Storekeeper and Dr. Seldon.
And as sure as June is bustin' out all over, dance numbers are bound to as well, this being musical theater and all. Choreographer Maggie Harrer and dance captain Katelin Ruzzamenti deserve accolades for overseeing a full stage of dancers and a variety of dance numbers.
But be prepared for that lump in the throat as the most noted of popular hits from "Carousel," "You'll Never Walk Alone," makes its way into the ensemble.
'How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying'
A couple of points of evaluation regarding the Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows musical "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying": The cast has a lot of high-energy fun, many of the characterizations are best described as "over the top," and a grain of salt will be advised for much of the '50s and '60s humor contained therein.
Adam Biner stars as J. Pierrepont Finch, a window washer who aspires to sit in the president's office chair as soon as he can manipulate and slide his way into the corporate world. Biner sometimes doesn't project quite as strongly as needed, but he makes up for it with smooth movements across the stage and easy-to-watch mannerisms. Leah Edwards is solid and satisfying as Finch's sometimes girlfriend/sometimes secretary as he moves from the mail room to junior executive to head of advertising.
Donald Groves is a pleasant surprise in the early scenes as his tenor voice solidly presents "I'm a Company Man." While the ensemble slipped here and there on opening night, a high-energy pirate number was a treat. Some solos are less than true and solid, but they are always fun.
Valerie Rachelle's choreography is tight throughout and often fills the stage. Emphasis in the show is on Phillip R. Lowe's costume design, as well as the wig and hair design by Yancey Quick.
The Martin and Lewis-esque humor hits high gear and low brow with the arrival of Hedy LaRue (Jillian Prefach) to World Wide Wickets, Finch's choice of a business to infiltrate. LaRue is the stereotypical cigarette girl that uses her "charms" to get a job, thanks to the loose affections of boss-man J.B. Biggley, played smoothly and solidly by veteran W. Lee Daily.
Besides Biner, a glue throughout the production is Frump (Kevin Nakatani), Biggley's nephew who uses every conniving angle of nepotism and fraud at his disposal to try and thwart Finch while helping himself. Nakatani is the show's epitome of "over the top" and dominates the stage when he works his evil designs.
While any message contained in "How to Succeed" lasts about as long as the last company memo – a theme noted in the show – it is fun fluff.
'Man of La Mancha'
The featured presentation of this year's UFOMT season is "Man of La Mancha," and under the baton of conductor Keltner and the stage presence of Ballam (playing Don Quixote), the famed musical drama does not disappoint.
Keltner opens "La Mancha" with a rousing prelude, well-received by an opening night audience and worthy of extended applause. The staging is complicated, with the story having another story within, as being told by Miguel de Cervantes. The stage is relatively open, but the blocking of the many characters is a challenge throughout.
Ballam has the creaky, unsteady gait of Quixote down perfectly. He is able to truly make this role his own. His solos – the noted "The Impossible Dream" being chief among them – are full of emotion and heart.
Jessica Medoff as Aldonza is the strongest presence onstage. Medoff's soprano pushes her from gutter trash to Quixote's queen. Her projection and dynamics work well with the lyrics Dale Wasserman and Joe Darion provide.
Michael Day must be singled out as having the evening's most-listenable voice. Strong and smooth, Day (playing the Padre) serves up solos well, and the quartet "We're Only Thinking of Him" is a highlight. W. Lee Daily presents a likable Sancho, Quixote's servant sidekick, and links with patrons during his singing of "I Really Like Him."
The ensemble, dominated by a strong cadre of Muleteers, is perfect throughout, highlighted by a strong-voiced Max Zander as Anselmo.
The message of "La Mancha" is not lost on this cast, nor will it be on any audience member.
LOGAN – The Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre has a history of producing some great works of theatre that draw hundreds of patrons every summer. The festival brings to the stage both a mix of classic operas and musical theatre offerings that appeal to a wide array of audiences. One such production from their 2015 season is the well loved, although only occasionally produced musical, Carousel. With a soaring orchestral score, tales of romance and death, Carousel has the elements of a great show. Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre's production of the show is beautifully done and will provide a wonderful evening of theatre for most patrons.
I'm a huge fan of most shows produced during the "Golden Age" of musical theatre: pieces of work such as South Pacific, My Fair Lady, Annie Get Your Gun, and Damn Yankees. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover Carousel, which I had not seen of before. Carousel is a classic piece of theatre that's often over looked due to the repertoire of musicals produced by the dynamic duo Rodgers and Hammerstein. The pair wrote and composed Carousel after their first piece of work, Oklahoma!, was a smashing success. Although Carousel earned far fewer accolades then its predecessor, Carousel was later referred to by Richard Rodgers as the favorite of all his musicals.
The show takes place in a little town in Maine in 1873 and revolves around the romance of carousel barker Billy Bigelow (played by Wes Mason), and Julie Jordan (played by Molly Mustonen), who works at a nearby mill. After the young couple gets married both become unemployed, which puts a strain on their relationship. After Julie tells Billy that she's pregnant, he resorts to extreme measures to get money, a decision that leads to tragedy.
I hold Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre to a high standard, and their production fit squarely within what I was expecting. Every major part of the production, whether it was costume design, vocals, stage movement and dance, or acting, were well planned and executed. Each element came seemlessly together to create a show worthy of much praise. Every lead actor seemed to have a classically trained vocal background which was almost a necessity to produce the songs from the vocally demanding score. Mustonen had a particularly beautiful and round sound that was evident throughout the show but especially highlighted in her duet with Mason during the song "If I Loved You." Every time Mason sung, his incredible vocal prowess filled the theater. He had the strength and power required of the leading man, yet not once did his strong voice feel overbearing.
Director/choreographer Maggie L. Harrer created a solidly praiseworthy ensemble. Every time a group number came I relished in hearing the cast fill the theatre with their solid and robust vocals. "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" is an example where the ensemble really shined. Sometimes directors instruct the ensemble not to sing full force, and for many productions this may be what's needed. However, for the many rousing numbers in this show I enjoyed hearing a full cast backed by an equally incredible live orchestra (conducted by Karen Keltner). Harrer (with the assistance of associate choreographer Lauren Camp) also created many visually appealing moments, including the interlude of movement by Louise Bigelow (Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan's daughter, played by Fiona Katrine) as she played on the beach. As Katrine glided across the stage, it was easy to imagine her actually playing on the shores of the sea.
Although there were many positive aspects of the show, a few areas fell flat. For example, since the piece is such a classic, I wish the Harrer had taken more risks to incorporate new inventive elements into the show, perhaps a unique piece of set or a different approach to the standard choreography–just something to set the show apart. Much of the show felt like just a really good production of Carousel that any major theatre company could have produced instead of something special and extraordinary. Set designer Karen Iverson also created a couple of set pieces that just seemed a little strange, like a "pile" of rocks that somehow seemed to be perfectly shaped for a bench, but looked rather unrealistic. Additionally, the home of Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow was designed to show perspective, but seemed too literal as the protruding front of the house felt extremely unrealistic and drew more attention to the set then needed. None of these are major issues, but rather a few poor ideas that didn't positively contribute to the show.
Overall, Carousel still had a wonderful production and is the perfect piece for the Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre's 2015 season. With incredibly trained singers, a powerful ensemble, and a plot that has just the right dose of romance and tragedy, the show will sure to be a hit among fans of the "Golden Age" of musical theatre.
Like a lot of girls, Leah Edwards had big dreams while growing up in Richmond, Virginia.
She wanted to be an elite gymnast.
And a professional ballet dancer.
And a renowned pianist.
But unlike most girls, she accomplished all of those goals before she even got out of high school.
"I actually joke about how I had three different careers by the time I was 16," Edwards says with a smile. "I actually started as a gymnast when I was really little, but it got really intense really quickly, so my mom said, 'I want you to have a childhood. Let's put you in dance.'
"Then I was dancing professionally by the time I was 9 with the Richmond Ballet. But soon I had to make a life choice about what I wanted to between piano and dancing, and I chose piano."
Edwards became so successful as a pianist that she ended up attending high school at the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. And from there, she was accepted at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.
But after two years of undergrad work in the piano program at Eastman, she was serving as an accompanist at one of the school's vocal studios when she "fell in love with this teacher, and the way that she could make anybody sing and love music."
"Even if they came in really defeated, everyone would leave her studio just excited about singing," Edwards explains. "So, I asked if I could take a lesson, and after I took one lesson she told me I should change my major immediately.
"And so I did."
The former gymnast/ballerina/pianist quickly became regarded as a talented soprano, which resulted in her relocating to New York City to attend the renowned Julliard School at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, where she would earn a master's degree in opera.
"And I have been singing ever since," Edwards notes. "And that's why I'm in Utah."
And Utah is clearly where Edwards wants to be right now. And not just because she's performing this summer in two different productions for the Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre.
By Kelsey Schwab,
Published: Saturday, June 27, 2015
Nearly 280 professional performers from Broadway, the Metropolitan Opera and other organizations around the world are spending the summer in Logan to perform at the Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre.
"They don't come for the pay; they come for the experience," said Michael Ballam, the founding general director of UFOMT, which has been an annual tradition for 23 years.
The festival will feature 136 events from July 8 to Aug. 8, including vocal and orchestral concerts, competitions, educational workshops and discussions, backstage tours and four major opera and musical theater performances.
This year's production lineup includes "Man of La Mancha," "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," "La Boheme" and Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Carousel."
"I promise if people will come to see our season, their lives will be changed for the better," Ballam said. "We're not really here to entertain. Our mission statement is about producing ennobling works. In other words, our job is to make sure you leave the theater a better person than you were when you came. We only do works that cause people to resolve to be better."
In accordance with the festival's mission, there will be hands-on opportunities in addition to the productions. One of the workshops will feature a new opera called "Rose in Flames." The librettist for the opera is Mark Medoff, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of "Children of a Lesser God."
In addition to his administrative responsibilities, Ballam will play the lead role of Don Quixote in "Man of La Mancha." He said he has played the role several times over the past 47 years.
"It has been nine years since I played him most recently, and I know a heck of a lot more about 'following your quest' than I did nine years ago," Ballam said. "I've battled a lot more windmills and giants, and I have been striving to bring a little grace into the world a lot more."
Karen Keltner, one of the conductors of the symphony for 19 years, said she also has matured from her years of experience with UFOMT.
"When I began, I was too young and too passionate about doing it to even realize there were obstacles," Keltner said. "I really had blinders on, and there were and are and still are, but you just do it, and then you look around and wake up and still fight against them sometimes, but that's why it happens. You have to want to do it more than anything."
Barbara Day Turner, another conductor and the music administrator for the festival, has been conducting symphonies since she was 19. She said she is amazed at the level of talent among the actors and musicians who will perform at the festival.
"They work hard, they're well-trained, they have great attitudes and they are fantastic onstage," Turner said. "This is a very special place because each show has a different type of orchestration. The most people we have in the pit at one time this summer is 45, which is about the maximum that fits in our pit. I've hired 70 musicians total."
According to Ballam, only 13 instruments are used in a typical Broadway production. At UFOMT, a full symphonic orchestra is used, which is becoming even more rare than it was in the past.
"We work with full orchestrations the way they were originally written, which doesn't happen anymore on Broadway because it's too expensive," Keltner said. "They do it with a few instruments and a synthesizer."
In addition to performing with a full symphony, artists will greet the audience at the conclusion of each performance. Ballam said UFOMT makes that effort because it "causes the audience to bond with the singers and the singers to bond with members of the community."
Keltner said it is the quality of the live symphony and the energy of both the performers and the audience that make every performance feel "alive."
"What's wonderful about any kind of live theater is that at any given moment we feel different," Keltner said. "Anything can happen. It's very spontaneous, and that kind of electricity carries to the audience. You know when something gets extremely quiet, everybody in that pit, in that theater, on that stage is moved. You can't equate that."
Ballam said he will be at all 136 festival events dressed in either his Don Quixote costume or his tuxedo. But no matter what he wears, he said, he wants people to come as they are and feel comfortable and welcome.
Ballam referred to himself as "the principal volunteer" of the festival and said he will continue to play that role because he sees what has been achieved as miraculous.
"Our goal is to do something noble," he said. "I think when you do something noble, which means you're more concerned about blessing others than you are about blessing yourself, you get a different kind of help and a different kind of inspiration. We have been guided."
The Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre's 23rd season will burst onto the stage July 8 to Aug. 8, at the Ellen Eccles Theatre.
More than 250 musicians, performers and crew members will come from renowned stages across the nation, including Broadway and the Met, to the historic venue in downtown Logan to present spectacular stage productions in true festival fashion.
The 2015 season includes four Mainstage Productions in repertory: "Man of La Mancha," the Cervantes classic starring Michael Ballam; Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel," a tale of love and loyalty; "How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," a fun-filled musical romp about a window washer who follows a self-help book and makes it to the top; and Puccini's beloved "La Bohème." All productions will be accompanied by a full orchestra.
Two Utah high school performers are on their way to New York City after winning Best Actress and Best Actor in the fifth annual Utah High School Musical Theater Awards in Logan on May 9.
On Friday, the winners were announced, with Abby Watts from Woods Cross High School in Salt Lake City getting a top prize for her title role as Mary Poppins and Jordan Kirkham from Northridge High School in Layton winning for his portrayal of Robbie Hart in "The Wedding Singer."
The students will represent Utah at the National High School Musical Theatre Awards in New York City in June where they will experience five days of private coaching, master classes and rehearsals with theater professionals. The week culminates June 29 at Broadway's Minskoff Theatre when they perform and compete for the prestigious Jimmy Award, which includes scholarships, opportunities for professional advancement and other prizes.
More than 200 performers from 24 high schools across Utah will perform and compete in the fifth annual
Utah High School Musical Theater Awards on Saturday, May 9th. The finalists, including ensembles and individuals, will perform in front of the live audience at 7 p.m. at the Kent Concert Hall of the Utah State University Fine Arts Center.
The evening's program will be hosted by Michael Ballam, founding director of the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre. After the performance, awards will be given for best musical, best actor and actress, best supporting actor and actress as well as best director, choreographer, ensemble and orcestra.
Awards will also be given in technical categories for best set design, costume design, lighting design and technical crew.
By James Sohre,
Published: Friday, August 8, 2014
Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre has gifted opera enthusiasts with a thrilling Barber, and I don’t mean . . . of Seville.
At a time when few companies risk devoting resources to lesser-known lyric theatre, this enterprising operation has gambled, and won, with a handsome new production of Samuel Barber's Vanessa that was characterized by first-rate musical and theatrical values.
Conductor Barbara Day Turner wielded a commanding baton that made the (slightly reduced) orchestration pulse with character and vitality. The top-notch instrumentalists, assembled from near and far, played as one and the Maestra elicited many happy revelations from the rich orchestral writing. She unleashed every bit of passion from the rhapsodic moments, and discovered a beautiful balance with the more straightforward (and sometimes witty) conversational exchanges. Moreover, the conductor was a collegial partner with the singers who were coached to a fare-thee-well. Barbara Day Turner may have just achieved the most accomplished and inspired operatic conducting I have experienced in recent memory.
Logan • Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre's 22nd season includes four ambitious, superbly produced mainstage shows, with Schönberg's and Boubil's ultra-popular "Les Misérables" topping the bill. All four productions feature some of the country's finest rising operatic talent, impressive experienced voices, eloquent acting and thoughtful direction.
Have you ever considered what an amazing act of faith it is, as a conductor, to do an upbeat and come down and expect sound to happen? We now introduce a fearless Karen Keltner, resident conductor of the San Diego Opera, who has helped to make the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre a success now for eighteen seasons.
Congratulations to the winners of the 6th annual Michael Ballam Concorso Lirico International Opera Competition:
Peter Scott Drackley – 1st Place Winner
Jon Jurgens – Alternate
Rachel Sparrow – Audience Favorite
Thank you to all of the talented artists who gave their best in the competition, and a special thanks to our audience for your support and participating in the vote!
The 1st Place Winner will be sent expense free to Alessandria, Italy to compete in the finals of the
Concorso Internazionale di Musica "Cappucilli - Patané - Respighi", where they will join contestants from around the globe for the opportunity to sing in front of European agents and operatic producers. They will also present a debut performance in Italy. Should the 1st Place Winner not be able to participate in the finals, the Alternate will go in their place.
LOGAN — Oklahoma! was the first musical that the very popular team of Rodgers and Hammerstein created together, and through the years it has been the subject of critical acclaim, awards, and accolades. Because of this, the show is one that is done by many theatre companies, communities, and high schools. The music is well known, well liked, and quite popular. The story is of two couples as they find love and plan a new life in the territory that is about to become the state of Oklahoma.
Utah Festival Opera is in their 22nd season of providing opera and theatre to audiences in Cache Valley, and those willing to travel to Logan to see a show. Oklahoma! is performed in the Ellen Eccles Theatre on Logan's Main Street in Logan, and having spent many years at Utah State University, one of the draws to review this show was to arrive in time to go to one of the many enjoyable local restaurants and shop around in some of the main street shops before curtain. Logan is a town that knows how to welcome it's visitors, so I suggest that if you decide to travel to see this or another production by UFOC, take enough time to stroll down Main Street, get a bite to eat, and head over to Gossners for cheese and milk before you go home.
The best thing about this production was the live orchestra, conducted by Karen Keltner. As the orchestra began to tune, and Keltner came to the helm, I could tell from Keltner's professionalism and orderliness that I was going to enjoy the orchestrations greatly. In each of the large numbers, such as "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," "Kansas City," and the title number, the impeccable orchestra was easily one of the best I have heard this year in Utah theatre.
The set, designed by Timothy Case, was a beautiful sight to behold. The majority of the setting is based outside of Aunt Eller's farm home, and the workmanship of the wood house, windmill, and trees in the background were intricate and impressive. There were a few scene changes, and each had the same attention to detail as Aunt Eller's home. One of my favorites was an addition of a night sky that, thanks to lighting designer Christopher Wood, gave the scene a very realistic nighttime ambiance. Finally, the costuming designed by Phillip R. Lowe was exquisite. The details on the women's dresses, the hats, and the chaps of the cowboys were appealing to me, and every detail made the entire show visually appealing.
When the opening number of "Oh, What A Beautiful Morning," sung by Curly (played by Wes Mason), began, I was reminded that this is an opera company. Therefore, the voice of the actors were a lot fuller and more operatic than any other production of Oklahoma! I have ever seen. Mason had a superb voice, and the volume of his voice easily carried throughout the whole performance hall. Mason's singing was also strong during many of the duets he sang, particularly "People Will Say We're In Love," with Leah Edwards as Laurey. Edwards, too, has a strong voice, but hers also had a charming quality that evident in all of her songs, most especially in "Many a New Day," where she also showed her strength in acting ability, as well as her voice.
A song that is usually one of my least favorite numbers, "Jud Fry is Dead," was actually exceptionally well performed in this production due to the harmonization of Mason and Kevin Nakatani, playing Jud Fry. The strong, beautiful singing caught me by surprise because the piece is such a sad and almost mean song. Nakatani was excellent in his portrayal of the lonely, confused, and frightening Jud Fry.
Other supporting characters, such as Ado Annie (played by Caitlin Beitel) and Will Parker (played by Bray Wilkins), also added to the positive aspects of the show. The number "All Er Nuthin’" was one of the most amusing of the evening, with the two actors not only using their musical abilities, but also using their skills of physical acting and comedy to great effect.
However, when it comes to acting, Vanessa Schukis as Aunt Eller stole the show. During "The Farmer and the Cowman," she moves and acts so delightfully that she singlehandedly made the song one of the most memorable of the show. Schukis is a strong comedic actress who knows how to play to her audience and cast. She also has a lovely, strong voice and is able to be the stoic character of wisdom and strength that this show needs.
Finally, the chorus members of this show deserve strong praise for their ability to bring together an excellent choral number. This, too, is perhaps indicative of the fact that the cast is part of an opera company. The famous title number, "Oklahoma!", had some of the strongest chorals I have ever heard on the musical theatre stage, and I found myself not minding the second and third reprise. In addition, the choreography (by Maggie L. Harrer, Lauren Champ, and Stefan Espinosa), added to the strength of the show, especially during "The Farmer and Cowman" and, of course, the dream ballet.
As we near county and state fair season, Oklahoma! is an excellent show to enjoy. It's also nice to be reminded of the rich heritage of musical theatre and the vision of Rogers and Hammerstein. Director Maggie L. Harrer has kept very true to the original concept of the show, and I believe audiences in 1943 were treated to a very similar production as the one I saw today.
Stefan Espinosa of the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre was talking to patrons about fight choreography on Tuesday when one of the festival artists walked in and announced he had a beef with Espinosa.
Samus Haddad said he had scheduled a time to use the Dansante rehearsal hall, and Espinosa was not supposed to be there. Things got ugly very quickly.
It started with a shove. Then the two men grappled. There were chokeholds, strangling and Espinosa even got a “head slam” on the sound equipment nearby. It looked ugly.
By Jay Wamsley,
Published: Saturday, July 19, 2014
It's easy to see which of the four offerings of the Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre season is considered the blockbuster, the one to see. Check out the schedule: "The Student Prince" is set for five showings, and "Vanessa" is scheduled for four. "Oklahoma!" will be staged eight times in the 30-day summer calendar of the UFOMT.
But "Les Miserables," perhaps the most recognizable of the four major productions, is set for 14 performances — and for good reason. Not only is "Les Miserables" a story known to a wide range of potential patrons, it also is far and away the premier presentation of this UFOMT season — and one of the top-drawer productions in the company's 22 years.
Even professional nit-pickers would have an extremely hard time finding fault with this nearly perfect "Les Miserables." It is as close to flawless in both production and performances as could be witnessed. In fact, the UFOMT company is, according to founder Michael Ballam, the first opera company in the United States to be granted permission to perform the famed musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, which is based on the time-honored novel by Victor Hugo. And that opportunity has not been wasted.
Considerable credit goes to director Valerie Rachelle and conductor Karen Keltner for their inspired and almost relentless pacing of the production. This staging of a very involved production moves quickly and actively, and passions are high in both movements and voice by all involved. The powerful opening scene is an attention-getter, and the attention of the audience is riveted to the Ellen Eccles Stage from that point on.
Keltner never lets the score rest, bouncing and urging the orchestra to put passion into their pieces. Scenes meld from one to the next so precisely and quickly that a usually clap-happy Cache Valley audience could not keep up between numbers, opting to hold their applause on opening night to reward extra-big moments, of which there were plenty. Set changes were fascinatingly efficient, and set designs were simple enough to leave much to the imaginations of audience members.
Some memorable performances include Wes Mason as Bishop Myriel, whose rich voice and perfect projection reminded Jean Valjean that his soul had been purchased. Stefan Espinosa and Vanessa Schukis are scene-stealing stars as the Thenardiers, and that couple’s performance — and leading of a busy ensemble — of the familiar "Master of the House" is very memorable. As Inspector Javert, Daniel Cilli becomes master of the low register, and his strong bass and equally strong performance end up making him, ironically, a crowd favorite.
Before the season started, Ballam noted that he had hoped and was announced to be taking on the role of Jean Valjean. However, as the 2014 season approached, he said, "We have been presented with an extraordinary opportunity to have a world-class performer step into the role … that will enthrall us all." That performer ended up being Patrick Miller, winner of a Grammy Award and a performer with the Metropolitan Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Miller was riveting and powerful and moved through the several stages of Valjean's life and dilemmas with a combination of ease and power, proving Ballam correct.
It should be noted that Tyler Olshansky as Eponine is a memorable cog in this cast. Olshansky sings with what appears to be ease, never straining to hit notes but never missing, demonstrating a voice that feels soft around the edges and that patrons could listen to for much longer than what was called for by her character's stage time.
Samuel Barber's American opera "Vanessa"" premiered in 1958 and is not as well-known to audiences as the season's other offerings. While the individual performances opening night were all quite strong, the production as a whole remained unremarkable and presented little to lift and excite the audience.
Vanessa (Beverly O'Regan Thiele) and Erika (Alice-Anne M. Light) do a good job building anticipation in early scenes as Vanessa waits for her lover to return after 20 years away. Light is especially gentle of voice and easy to listen to, never approaching harsh or shrill tones in her solos. Richard Zuch as the Doctor, a family friend, provides a welcome visit to the bass clef and charms the audience with a little dance number early in the production.
Act II provides a bit more passion and pacing for all involved and even provides a duet (there are no ensemble numbers in "Vanessa," and it seems the number of pieces with combined voices can be counted on one or two fingers). Big or memorable numbers are not part of the mix in "Vanessa."
Andrew Bidlack as Anatol is perfectly smarmy as he burns his two-ended candle. Bidlack provided a conniving edge to his character, and his voice was strong and as memorable as "Vanessa" could provide.
All involved with the well-known Rodgers and Hammerstein musical seem to be having fun and present it with ease. As Curly McLain, Wes Mason sings effortlessly and with a comfortable richness. His duet — "People Will Say We're in Love" — with Laurey Williams (Leah Edwards) is an excellent performance by both. Will Parker (played by Bray Wilkins) gets to ham it up a bit and provides the perfect introduction into the first big dance number as the second scene opens.
As traveling peddler Ali Hakim, Stefan Espinosa maintains his reputation as a scene-stealer. Espinosa leads an ensemble of men's voices expertly as the group moans about being hen-pecked husbands unable to muster up a revolution.
As Jud Fry, the dark cloud on the horizon of this little corner of the Oklahoma territory, the durable Kevin Nakatani has the brooding look and uncertain presence down perfectly.
Conductor Karen Keltner gives a light, airy touch to the familiar score all night, bouncy but not overbearing. A perfect example is her lead into a dream and dance sequence with a sextet of characters on stage. The dream sequence, presented as part of Laurey's elixir-induced haze, then goes on for an extended time — perhaps 10 minutes — and is expertly choreographed.
Other highlights included a rousing ensemble number to open the second act ("The Farmer and the Cowman"), and Espinosa again gets an opportunity to play up his several talents, including facial expressions and dancing. The finale is also a rousing ensemble number and was just what everyone in the audience wanted — a real boot-tapper.
"The Student Prince"
On opening night of the well-known operetta "The Student Prince," patrons were likely struck by two obvious things early on: First, there was a masterfully painted, almost 3-D set that was a delightful backdrop; second, it was easy to note that Andrew Bidlack (appearing as the lead, Prince Karl Franz) has the remarkable ability to complement every actor with whom he sings. All of Bidlack's duets and chorus numbers are strong because he leads them and lifts others. And all the ensembles in "The Student Prince," with or without Bidlack, are finely tuned. Costuming is noteworthy, with Kathie (Emma-Grace Dunbar) standing out in her especially highlighted dresses.
Led by conductor Barbara Day Turner, the score has a fluid, waltzlike quality that suits Turner's flowing style perfectly. While the dilemmas presented by "The Student Prince" are not always easy on the heart, the always-present score by Sigmund Romberg is very easy to listen to.
For those attending all the UFOMT productions, "The Student Prince" becomes a bit of a study in contrasts and strong character acting. Nakatani, for example, so depressing in "Oklahoma!," is a comic relief in "The Student Prince," along with sidekick Duchess Vanessa Schukis. Bidlack also here takes on the role of hero after his character showed less-than-admirable qualities in "Vanessa."
As it is supposed to, "The Student Prince" holds audiences to the final moment as all want to see resolutions to the dilemmas the plot presents.
Three of the four offerings of the Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre's 2014 season comprise an enjoyable lesson in the evolution of Broadway shows in the 20th Century.
"The Student Prince," which opened July 11, is a prime example of an operetta, a late 19th century theatrical style that blurred the lines between opera and popular music of that era. While these musical hybrids continued to be popular in America in the early 20th century, they were largely eclipsed by song-and-dance revues with little dramatic content by the 1930s.
The premiere of "Oklahoma!" in 1943 is generally considered to be the birth of the modern American musical. That production, which built on theatrical innovations first seen in Jerome Kern's "Show Boat" in the late 1920s, is renowned as Broadway's first fully successful integration of singing, dancing and acting to achieve a dramatic stage experience. The UFOMT's current production of "Oklahoma!" debuted July 10.
In the midst of a golden age of modern American musical comedy, the so-called rock opera was pioneered by impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber beginning in the 1970s. The local debut of "Les Misérables" on July 12 is living proof that these glitzy musical extravaganzas don't have to be devoid of heart and soul.
Each year around the July 24th Pioneer Day holiday the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre presents a special Pioneers and Patriots concert. Founder and general director Michael Ballam says this year the concert will pay tribute to John Philip Sousa who came to Logan to perform in 1927.
On a recent KVNU Crosstalk program, Ballam said it will be one of the most exciting evenings we've had since Sousa played on the stage of the Capitol Theatre.
"It's now the Eccles Theatre and we are recreating that night," Ballam said. "It is going to be amazing."
Ballam said that Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre will be getting some help from Utah State University to recreate the magic of that evening 87 years ago.
"Michael Bankhead, the head of the USU Music Department who has had an amazing career with the Armed Forces music, is going to be Mr. Sousa. We found the program, quite by accident."
Ballam said the program was found in some old storage bins. He said the tribute to John Philip Sousa begins Tuesday, July 22 at 7:30 p.m. in the Eccles Theatre. It will include a 42-piece band with choir, soloists and surprises.
LOGAN — Every musical theatre fan has a list of our favorite shows—the ones they can watch over and over again, and each time experience all the emotion and passion as if for the first time. On my list is Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's adaptation of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, which is why I jumped at the chance to review the Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre's production at the Ellen Eccles Theatre in Logan.
The well-known musical takes place in 1800's France and tells the tale of Jean Valjean, a prisoner who served 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread and for an escape attempt. When an act of mercy saves him from another prison term, he decides to turn his life around, breaking parole in the process. Despite his change of heart, Valjean is always on the run from Inspector Javert, who seeks to put Valjean back behind bars.
It took the Utah Festival Opera 18 years to gain the rights to perform Les Misérables, making it the first opera company in the world to present the show. The company gave a powerful, emotional performance, making the 18 years worth the wait. Each member of the cast had the vocals and presence of a regular production's lead. While all of the vocal performances were powerful, there was a disconcerting mix of opera and Broadway-style singing that left me confused as to whether this production was meant to be a musical theater production or an opera. Or maybe, as the name of the festival suggests, an eclectic blend of the two. Either way, I found the constant switching back and forth between the styles distracting.
Despite the clash of vocal styles, it's a shame there weren't more lead roles in Les Misérables, as this cast could have easily filled them all. But director Valerie Rachelle made every effort to give the talented ensemble time to shine. In some cases, lines that would normally be sung by a lead were given to other members of the cast, giving everyone a moment in the spotlight.
Leading this extremely talented cast was Patrick Miller, who gave a convincing and emotional portrayal of Jean Valjean. Although Miller slid into a few of the high notes, his overall performance was clear and controlled. His voice blended particularly well with Daniel Cilli, who played Inspector Javert. The baritone had a strong presence on stage and created an amazing rendition of "Stars." Leah Edwards (playing Cosette), and Vanessa Ballam (playing Fantine), both had lovely opera voices, while Tyler Olshansky (playing Eponine), held her ground with a strong musical theatre voice. Stefan Espinosa and Vanessas Schukis, who played Monsieur and Madame Thénardier, gave the performance just the right amount of energy and exaggerated, tipsy body language. There's not enough room here to list each member of the cast, but suffice it to say that the numbers featuring the entire cast blew me away—and nearly took the roof off the theater in the process.
Set designer Patrick Larson created a fully functional and versatile set. Each piece of the set flipped or rotated to create new scenes quickly and efficiently, such as when the barricade was assembled. I barely even noticed the transformations, as each set change was practically seamless. Costume designer Misti Bradford did a great job building the story of Les Misérables at hand by making sure each costume piece was appropriate to the time period. Uniforms, street clothing, wedding attire, and more were all integral in building the environment of the story.
Although I have seen Les Mis several times, I am more familiar with the school edition, and found the full Broadway version contained lots of surprising extras. I could have done without some of the changes, like the additional narration between scenes, which seemed to prolong the story without adding to it. But I enjoyed other additions, like the extended version of "Beggars at the Feast" and the brawl between Javert and Jean Valjean after Fantine's death.
This show really came down to personal preference. Although I prefer musical theater-style to opera-style in a musical theater production, I was still impressed with this rendition. Without question, the company gave an energetic, powerful performance to be proud of.
Michael Ballam's Utah Festival occasionally presents works not normally seen in Utah. In the past the festival has staged Giacomo Puccini's Manon Lescaut and Modest Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, both of which Utah Opera has yet to mount.
This year, it's Samuel Barber's 1958 Pulitzer Prize winning opera Vanessa, another first for the festival.
The opera, with an original libretto by Barber's partner Gian Carlo Menotti, offers a painful glimpse into the lives of Vanessa and her niece Erika as they are wooed and used by Anatol, the son of Vanessa's old lover. Barber captures the atmosphere wonderfully with his music. While it's overwhelmingly romantic, it's tinged with biting dissonances that underscore the growing tension between the two women, between Erika and Anatol and between the women and the old Baroness, Vanessa's mother. There is a brooding darkness that flows through the story that is at times quite unnerving. It's a remarkable and bold work that has unfortunately never found a permanent place in the repertoire of American opera houses.
The cast assembled for this production is stellar. Leading off is soprano Beverly O'Regan Thiele in the title role. Her portrayal is emotionally charged and finely nuanced. Vanessa is a tragic figure as she denies reality and fights so desperately to stay in the past. Thiele captured that brilliantly.
Thiele was also brilliant vocally, hitting the high notes of her demanding role with ease while still infusing her singing with a keen expressiveness. It was quite an impassioned and virtuosic presentation.
No less stunning was the mezzo-soprano Alice-Anne M. Light as Erika. She, too, captured the complexity of her role with her fabulous acting that brought conviction to her portrayal. And her singing was equally notable. Her role is no less challenging that that of Vanessa's and Light made short work of the vocal demands. Her singing was crystal pure and gorgeously lyrical.
Tenor Andrew Bidlack as Anatol held his own remarkably well. With two such powerful females voices it would be easy to get lost, but Bidlack commanded the stage when he was present and blended wonderfully in ensembles with Thiele and Light. He possesses a forceful high tenor that is perfect for this role, since Anatol is required to sing in the high register frequently.
In the role of the Doctor was the bass Richard Zuch, who sang with finely crafted expressiveness. His voice is resonant and beautifully rounded and was a wonderful contrast to the three high voices. And he showed himself an exceptional actor as well, bringing much need comic relief in his well played drunk scene in the second act.
As the stern Baroness who disapproves of Vanessa's and Erika's decisions is the mezzo-soprano Amanda Tarver. She gave a strong performance that captured perfectly the unforgiving, almost hard hearted nature of her character.
Baritone Kevin Nakatani and tenor Jon Jurgens sing the small roles of the butler and the pastor, respectively.
The stage direction, by Daniel Helfgot, was spot on; the action moved forward at a good pace. The orchestra played the difficult score marvelously under conductor Barbara Day Turner. Her tempos were well chosen and she never allowed the singers to be overpowered by the orchestra, even in the loudest passages.
This is a production that is well worth the drive to Logan to see. No one will be disappointed.
Vanessa will also be performed on July 18 and 24 at 7:30 p.m. and on Aug. 2 at 1 p.m. The opera is in repertory with Oklahoma!, The Student Prince and Les Misérables.
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