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Ah, Shakespeare: Randall L. Jones Theatre

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CEDAR CITY — An exuberant, pull-out-all-the-stops production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance" and two classics with a subtle blend of comedy and drama are showcased this summer in the Randall L. Jones Theatre as part of the 40th annual Utah Shakespearean Festival.

AH, WILDERNESS, 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays and 8 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays; running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes (three acts, two intermissions).

ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, 2 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays, and 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays; running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes (three acts, two intermissions).

THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE, 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays, and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays; running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (one intermission).

"AH, WILDERNESS" is the flip side of the trauma-filled life that playwright Eugene O'Neill lived. Written in 1932, seven years before he began working on his much more autobiographical (and considerably longer) "Long Day's Journey Into Night," "Ah, Wilderness" revolves around life in the Miller family in a small Connecticut town during the Fourth of July in 1906.

You almost expect a turn-of-the-century Donna Reed to sashay into the parlor, but this elegantly crafted abode, awash in detailed woodwork and floral wall coverings, is the setting for family gatherings involving Evening Globe publisher Nat Miller and his wife, Essie, and their four children: Art, the oldest, home from his first year at Yale; Richard, just dipping his toes in the turbulent waters of manhood; Mildred, a 15-year-old tease; and Tommy, an 11-year-old more concerned with setting off firecrackers than pondering life's complications.

Frequent visitors in the home are Lily Miller, Nat's sister, and Sid Davis, Essie's brother. Lily could have married Sid years before, but their relationship keeps taking a back seat to Sid's drinking and carousing.

The tender-hearted drama focuses primarily on Richard. Mom is alarmed because she found a stash of "those books" (the writings of Oscar Wilde and various subversive poets and — gasp! — "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam") in his closet. He's also been writing passionate love notes to Muriel McComber, the daughter of one of the Evening Globe's biggest advertisers.

The community's holiday party on the beach this Fourth of July provides only part of the Millers' fireworks. Richard's evening with a floozy in a cheap dive — on the rebound after a "Dear John" letter from Muriel — makes for a restless night for Mom and Dad. But things end on an optimistic note, with Richard's flustered father attempting to explain the facts of life to his not-really-wayward son.

Director James Edmonson's cast — and pacing — are flawless (boosted by K.L. Alberts' authentic period costuming, Thomas C. Umfrid's scenery and Linda Essig's lighting).

Jason Michael Spelbring personifies the troubled angst of a teenager caught up in the trauma of his "first love," and Philip Davidson and Libby George deliver moving performances as his concerned, loving parents. Leslie Brott and Joe Cronin are also perfectly cast as Lily and Sid. Others in the cast include Danforth Comins as Arthur, Laura Morache as Mildred, Denise Montgomery as Muriel, Jacquelyn Baker as Norah, the family's maid, and Melinda Pfundstein as Belle.

The play's scene changes are artistically handled. While most of the action takes place in the Millers' sitting room, there are key scenes in the back room of a dingy bar (where Belle tries unsuccessfully to entice Richard upstairs) and a sandy beach, where Richard reads poetry to Muriel. As the scenery is being changed, two of the performers form silent tableaux at the front of the stage, shifting the emphasis away from props and backdrops being moved out of the way.

Sensitivity rating: There is mild "adult" material in "Ah, Wilderness," all rather tame by today's standards.

"ARSENIC AND OLD LACE" may have a higher body count than Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," but the slayings here are much more genteel. Abby and Martha Brewster would be mortified to have their beautiful old Brooklyn home sullied by blood on the carpet.

This 1941 comedy has aged gracefully — not unlike the unique elderberry wine proffered by the sweet little Brewsters when lonely bachelors come to inquire about the room they have for rent. As their agitated nephew, Mortimer, explains to his girlfriend, "insanity runs in the Brewster family — no, it practically gallops!"

The best seats in the Randall L. Jones Theatre may be in the orchestra, on the aisle, but the busiest seat in the Randall this summer is the window seat in the Brewster house. The lid has more ups and downs than a yo-yo, as the padded, elongated bench becomes a repository for two cadavers (maybe even more) awaiting their final resting places in the basement, where "Teddy" (an uncle who believes he's Teddy Roosevelt) is busy digging trenches for the Panama Canal. They're all just the right size for the gentlemen being bumped off — charitably, of course — by Abby and Martha.

With a beautifully detailed set by Thomas C. Umfrid, superb costuming by Bill Black and effective lighting by Linda Essig, director J.R. Sullivan has whipped up a frightfully funny concoction.

Several longtime festival players are back — Brian Vaughn delivering a right-on-target Mortimer Brewster, a New York drama critic suddenly faced with the fact that his two spinster aunts are murderers; Laurie Birmingham and Leslie Brott as, respectively, Abby and Martha, whose home-brewed wine packs a fatal kick; and David Ivers as Mortimer's long-lost brother, Jonathan, who's on several "most-wanted" posters for his own string of grisly killings.

Mark Brown is also well-cast as Dr. Einstein (Herman . . . not Albert), a plastic surgeon who does facial makeovers for criminals, as are Mary Dolson as Elaine Harper, Mortimer's fiance, and Charles Metten as her father, a minister. Benjamin Paul Williams, Joel Hanson, Jeffrey Nauman and Tom Reed do well, too, as a variety of cops who drop in at opportune moments.

Long before television's Addams Family, the Brewsters staked out their own lucrative corner on mirthful mayhem. It's just as funny today as it was 60 years ago.

"THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE" is well over a century old (124, to be precise), but, like Frederic, the indentured pirate, maybe the operetta is a leap-year baby and is barely turning 31. Which might be one reason why — certainly under the guiding hands of director Russell Treyz and choreographer Darryl Yeager — it's far from old and creaky.

There are at least 10 reasons to put this on your "must-see" list this season:

1: The rare opportunity to see festival-founder Fred C. Adams as Major-General Stanley steamroll his way through his tongue-twisting signature piece, "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General."

2: The even rarer opportunity to see Adams dance with Stanley's seven beautiful wards — Mabel, Edith, Kate, Isabel, Violet, Rebecca and Rose — all elegantly costumed by Bill Black.

3: Yet another chance to see one of Adams' other "wards" from SUU and SUSC's past theater programs, Brian Vaughn, cavorting his way through the show as the sword-brandishing Pirate King.

4: To catch a glimpse of some incredible, fresh young talent —- namely Glenn Seven Allen as Frederic, a lad with a tried-and-true sense of duty and deliriously in love with Mabel (while fending off the advances of his former nursemaid, Ruth). This Northwest native has a voice that won't quit.

5: To see Laurie Birmingham, another longtime festival favorite, as Ruth, who's bound and determined to find herself a man, even if she's robbing the cradle.

6: The robust dancing and "male chorus" harmony of Vaughn's band of tender-hearted pirates.

7: The hilarious squad of less-than-efficient British police, with Guy William Molnar as their leader.

8: Thomas C. Umfrid's attention-to-detail scenery. (Keep your eyes on the body atop the chapel's crypt.)

9: Brian William Baker's classy pit orchestra (Baker also has a long association with the festival).

10: The possibility of catching a glimpse of an unexpected royal guest.


E-MAIL: ivan@desnews.com