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Theater reviews: Forget Aggie ice cream, these 5 Utah Festival Opera shows are Logan's biggest draw

LOGAN — Four musicals and an opera have taken over downtown Logan this summer as Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre presents its 26th season of high-level productions through Aug. 4. It's an impressive and varied season, from the farcical high jinks of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" and Gioachino Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" to the more serious musical dramas of "The Secret Garden" and "Amazing Grace," with Sondheim's beloved "Into the Woods" thrown in for good measure.

"THE BARBER OF SEVILLE," through Aug. 3, Ellen Eccles Theatre, 43 S. Main, Logan (800-262-0074 ext. 3 or; running time: 2 hours, 44 minutes (one intermission)

"The Barber of Seville" will be at the 2018 Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre in Logan through Aug. 3.
"The Barber of Seville" will be at the 2018 Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre in Logan through Aug. 3.
Karen Almond

Rossini's beloved opera “The Barber of Seville” is, when properly staged, a solid, lively and likable opera that is, frankly, kind of hard to get wrong.

As the opener and headliner in this year's Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre season, their “The Barber of Seville” lives up to its reputation and is right on target — in fact, the production could not be more enjoyable.

On opening night, conductor Nicolas Giusti bounced his way through a particularly fine overture, the familiar opening strains exciting patrons as the house dimmed its lights. The overture alone felt like a treat but, as intended, was simply a precursor to the soon-to-be-revealed fun behind the thick curtain.

As the story unfolded the characters and their infatuations — in comic opera, somehow it's always about a girl on a balcony, or so it seems — the audience was treated to wonderful vocalists who seemed to enjoy their roles as much as they did the music. Gabriel Preisser, who plays the titular barber Figaro, wove life and joy into the character of the town barber and matchmaker with his rich, easy-to-follow baritone, while Kirk Dougherty's Count Almaviva, who in disguise is also the young student Lindoro, was spotvon with his strong tenor, stealing the show and dominating both ear and eye. He had a perpetual dimpled smile and was note perfect.

As the story reveals that Almaviva is desperate to marry Rosina — played by UFOMT newcomer Kara Cornell — we find that she is under the ever-watching thumb of Doctor Bartolo, played by Stephanos Tsirakoglou, who also wants to marry her, although more to control her than to love her. While the audience is prepared to hate the adversarial Bartolo, even he, as portrayed by Tsirakoglou, is likable, and Tsirakoglou seemed to have a lot of fun with his role. All voices in the production beautifully filled the Eccles Theatre, though Cornell's soprano occasionally got lost in the strong orchestration and vocal trios.

Watch for UFOMT veteran Kevin Nakatani as Bartolo’s friend and Rosina’s music teacher Basilio and Sarah-Nicole Carter as Berta, the governess, who both steal a few moments of their own, often as an aside to the main action.

The director of this production, Curt Olds, throws in a few somewhat updated tweaks, like 1930s-era luggage and some prop-heavy moments where actors play incessantly with umbrellas, books and music stands — moments that approach being hammy — but the overall flavor of the production is fun and optimistic.

While "Barber of Seville" is generally pretty hard to get wrong, it would be especially hard to not thoroughly enjoy this UFOMT production.

Content advisory: "The Barber of Seville" contains nothing objectionable. All romantic interactions are light and comedic.

"YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN," through Aug. 1, Utah Theatre 18 W. Center, Logan (800-262-0074 ext. 3 or; running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes (one intermission)

"You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" will be at the 2018 Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre in Logan through Aug. 1.
"You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" will be at the 2018 Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre in Logan through Aug. 1.
Paul Waldron

Full Disclosure, Part 1: I suffered through a production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” more than a decade ago and enjoyed very little of it, meaning that for this second time around, I had to work to make my mind clear and objective heading into the UFOMT's production.

While I understood why I didn’t fall in love with "Charlie Brown" a dozen years ago (flat jokes, limited layering of any meaningful content), this season’s UFOMT production is so well-done that it overwhelmed my initial low opinion of the script.

This “Charlie Brown” is light, fluffy and at times awkward, but also an easy way to spend an afternoon with no obligation beyond enjoying the play's 115 minutes in Logan's gorgeous Utah Theatre. And the production is technically on target, with lighting and production techniques that bring a solid air of professionalism.

But the real kudos go to the strong cast. To a large degree, this production succeeds on the voice, characterizations and personality of Lucy, played to the max by Mackenzie Rogers. This UFOMT newcomer steals the show — watch for “Be a Queen” — and she dominated the stage while on it, taking top billing from a slightly underwhelming, one-note Charlie, played by Joe Ogren. None of the cast, however, disappointed, as each of the actors gave enough to flesh out their characters’ personalities. Even the softer-spoken Ogren elicited audible moans of sympathy from patrons as he opened his less-than-perfect life up for examination.

Cecilia Trippiedi was also outstanding as Charlie's little sister, Sally, and her philosophies of life and solo moments onstage were precise, warm and welcomed.

There is no plot to this play — no more than would be in a three-panel cartoon —and most of the comic page jokes are as flat as a newspaper. Rather, it's the larger-scale musical numbers that are the meat and bones of the production. Sally’s presentation of “My New Philosophy” and Linus (Kevin Nakatani) lamenting about “My Blanket and Me” are highlights, and even Snoopy — played by director Stefan Espinosa — got to shine during a rousing and well-produced “Suppertime.”

Full Disclosure, Part 2: I liked "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" much better the second time around.

Content advisory: "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" could be easily enjoyed and understood by all ages, including elementary-aged children.

"INTO THE WOODS," through Aug. 3, Ellen Eccles Theatre, 43 S. Main, Logan (800-262-0074 ext. 3 or; running time: 2 hours, 57 minutes (one intermission)

"Into the Woods" will be at the 2018 Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre in Logan through Aug. 3.
"Into the Woods" will be at the 2018 Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre in Logan through Aug. 3.
Cory Weaver

With a script that calls for Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, her step-mother and two step-sisters, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, her grandmother and the wolf, as well as a mysterious man and a wicked witch all thrown together in an unusual mashup, well, "Into the Woods" has a lot going on.

The UFOMT production of this Stephen Sondheim classic definitely has plenty of action and romps along rather quickly, barely giving patrons a moment to breathe. The production, in fact, is almost too lickety-split, approaching being tiring.

With that in mind, the opening night music started to sound the same — same pacing, same dynamics, similar lyrics which made the songs almost monotone and put a damper on some of the play's fun. On the positive side, though, UFOMT's “Into the Woods” allowed for its many actors to shine and have fun with what is obviously a favorite and targeted opportunity for those who love to be onstage.

And while the actors run at rapid pace through the tale, they do so magnificently dressed by costume designer Mallory Maria Prucha and made up by makeup designer Georgianna Eberhard, as well as beautifully supported by lighting and sound engineers Chris Wood and Carl J. Whitaker.

The story of “Into the Woods,” which premiered on Broadway in 1987, revolves around the childless Baker and his wife who make a pact with a witch to retrieve several iconic pieces of fairy tale memorabilia — think Rapunzel’s hair, Riding Hood’s red cape and Jack’s white cow — so that she will remove her curse and reward them with a child. By the end, it seems everyone ends up in the nearby eerie woods at the same time.

Alissa Anderson was especially fine as the witch, while Markel Reed gave audiences a menacing Wolf and Benjamin Howard and Robert Gerold were great as the two ever-present princes, full of emotional wanderlust. Kevin Nakatani also lost himself in the role of the Mysterious Man.

Content advisory: "Into the Woods” alludes to a couple of characters' infidelity and while there are some intense moments, they are not menacing and would be appropriate for all ages.

"AMAZING GRACE: THE MUSICAL," through Aug. 4, Ellen Eccles Theatre, 43 S. Main, Logan (800-262-0074 ext. 3 or; running time: 2 hours, 29 minutes (one intermission)

"Amazing Grace" will be at the 2018 Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre in Logan through Aug. 4.
"Amazing Grace" will be at the 2018 Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre in Logan through Aug. 4.
Paul Waldron

“Amazing Grace” is based on the life of John Newton, the son of a wealthy English slave trader who eventually became one of Britain's most prominent abolitionists and lived to see Britain pass the Slave Trade Act of 1807. Following a profound spiritual conversion, Newton became a priest and penned many hymns, including the perennial favorite “Amazing Grace.”

UFOMT's production does not sanitize the horrors of 18th-century slave trade. The musical number “The Auction” and a flashback presentation showing the slaves' African heritage were moving and well-coordinated, setting the tone for the ethical uneasiness that followed throughout the rest of the production.

The play shows how Newton's (Benjamin Adams) life was torn between his dominating father Capt. Newton, played by Michael Ballam, and his love for his faithful wife Mary Catlett, played magnificently by Olivia Yokers. Adams and Yokers, to a large degree, carried the production with their strong stage presence and solid, controlled voices. The audience especially seemed to appreciate Yokers' unwavering contralto solos.

William Remmers is also noteworthy as the slave trader Maj. Gray. Tall and imposing, Remmers is excellent villain as the pompous and scheming Gray. Although sometimes pitchy, Remmers’ characterizations and movements were picture-perfect — he seemed born to the play the role. Also, don’t overlook Darren Lekeith Drone as Thomas, Newton’s manservant and friend. Drone’s bass solo at a pivotal moment in both the production and Newton’s conversion is short but carries a powerful message.

This is no small production effort, with shipwrecks, gun play and hurricanes, giving the lighting and technical crews plenty to keep them busy, and the utilitarian set design of wharfs and tall ships gave the production a strong canvas for the musical's drama.

Conductor Karen Keltner also kept this production moving as the effervescent Keltner almost bounced off her box opening night in an effort to push the score along, especially noticeable during ensemble numbers. And while the score periodically hints of the refrains of “Amazing Grace,” it wasn't until the musical’s final moments that the cast finally gave the audience the complete hymn.

It was “Amazing Grace's” final moments, though, that captured the production's real emotional triumphs. Audience members sniffled and wiped away tears during the delightful curtain call on opening night as audience members spontaneously sang along to the title song with cast members before the red curtain fell.

Content advisory: “Amazing Grace” depicts the physical abuse of slaves (handcuffs, dragging, loud threats), as well as the whipping of a main character. Guns are also fired on stage but are not overly loud.

"THE SECRET GARDEN," through Aug. 4, Ellen Eccles Theatre, 43 S. Main, Logan (800-262-0074 ext. 3 or; running time: 2 hours, 28 minutes (one intermission)

"The Secret Garden" will be at the 2018 Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre in Logan through Aug. 4.
"The Secret Garden" will be at the 2018 Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre in Logan through Aug. 4.
Cory Weaver

Adapted from Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic children’s novel, “The Secret Garden” the musical follows the tale of young Mary Lennox, who goes to live with her uncle Archibald in England after the sudden death of her parents in India. Inside and outside her uncles manor house, Mary finds suffering souls, manipulated relatives and a large, neglected garden that Archibald’s late wife Lilly once cared for.

Watching and listening to 13-year-old Claire Francis as Mary was a pleasure. Claire had a surprisingly strong voice, which remarkably never wavered. Gabriel Preisser and Emily Dyer Reed as Archibald and the late Lilly Craven are also outstanding. Reed's gentle, pleasant voice especially shone on “How Could I Ever Know” late in Act 2, a true show highlight.

The story of "The Secret Garden" is largely told through dialogue, monologue and the use of “apparitions” that serve as narration. This imaginative production is, again, a technical challenge, with lighting and smoke bringing spirits and memories back on stage to help bring the characters' their happy-ever-after resolution.

The production's music — again led by Karen Keltner — is pleasantly varied (a nice change from “Into the Woods”) and marked by a mixture of solos, duets and chorus numbers. The actors' pacing lagged just a beat or two on opening night, but thanks to strong musical talent and top-drawer technical support, this production should not be a secret any longer.

Content advisory: In "The Secret Garden," the main character loses her parents to a cholera outbreak, although it is presented in an illusionary and not graphic manner. Several characters appear as apparitions.