This Utah festival reminds us why ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’ doesn’t get old
A breakdown of the 5 major productions in Utah Festival Opera’s current season
Now in its 30th season, Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre has gathered nearly 300 musicians, performers and crew members together to bring five major productions to life. Here’s a breakdown of the season, which runs through Aug. 6.
‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’
Since Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice first penned the music and lyrics of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” in the early 1970s, it has been performed literally tens of thousands of times, from Broadway and London’s West End to high school auditoriums everywhere. And why not? It is a wonderful vehicle to show off costumes, and dancing, and musical styles, and tells an easy-to-follow and recognizable story.
The Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre production of “Joseph” takes that opportunity to show off all these things, and puts them on steroids.
Costumes? They were all remarkable and eye-catching and audience members will likely be unable to keep up with the numerous costume changes accomplished by the ensemble of singers and dancers — I lost count at seven — a feat that cannot go unmentioned. And it’s not just the coat of many colors that is eye-catching. The detail of effort is remarkable.
The orchestra under the hand of James Bankhead is equally precise and gives the audience memorable and toe-tapping accompaniment. The almost-constant shifting of music styles — from ’60s go-go, to calypso, to country, to slick jazz and French ballad — gave the well-rehearsed dancers and cast the perfect excuse to share their skills.
John Tibbetts, for example, was perfect as brother Reuben wailing in western twang about “One More Angel in Heaven” while describing the loss of Joseph. All brothers, highlighted by Nathaniel Both as Simeon, were audience favorites during their parody of French lamentation during “Those Canaan Days.”
Timothy Stewart, as Joseph, commands the stage. Stewart’s projection, pitch and diction are pin-point perfect. Likewise, Michael Colman as Elvis, er, ah, as Pharaoh, exceeds expectations and seems to take delight in pushing song and staging to their much-appreciated pinnacle. As he was supposed to do, Elvis brought the house down as he described how his dreams have him, well, all shook up.
It’s unlikely that many audience members in Logan’s Ellen Eccles Theatre had not previously experienced some version of the oft-staged “Joseph.” But it is also unlikely that they had ever seen a more lively and top-drawer production.
‘Man of La Mancha’
This isn’t the first time the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre company has staged “Man of La Mancha,” but this year’s production seems to lift the audience to a lighter, higher plane. It feels and presents itself as more effortless — though it obviously is not any such thing — and overall is a more pleasant and heartwarming experience than past productions, good though they may have been.
Part of the reason for this overall lift comes from better-than-solid supporting actors and singers, rich and full ensemble numbers, and lead actors that were hand-in-glove with their characters.
“La Mancha” opens to a grand and rustic set, the dungeon where Cervantes/Don Quixote/Alonso Quijana is brought for incarceration, and there, the familiar story within a story unfolds. The festival’s founder and general director Michael Ballam has scores of “La Mancha” leads behind him, but his tender, almost soft approach to Quixote — again, effortless comes to mind — allows the message and music to surround and elevate the audience.
Audrey Babcock, playing the important Aldonza, battled her first solo a bit but soon found her stride and helped carry and lift the production. Her presence dominated the stage, as it was supposed to.
The third main lead, Stefan Espinosa as Sancho the manservant, continues the strong support and Espinosa became an audience favorite, as did Logan Wagner, as Padre. Wagner, though only a secondary character in the story line, sings with strength and fills the theater with perfect tones and emotion.
The production is well-directed — transitions from dungeon to inn were smooth and well-staged. Almost imperceptible is the near-constant presence of smoke high above the stage, adding to the dream-like feeling and lift throughout the production.
Under the baton of conductor Karen Keltner, the final song of the production was a memorable triumph.
‘The Magic Flute’
No doubt Wolfgang Mozart envisioned — and perhaps even staged — “The Magic Flute” as an epic, larger-than-life experience. The festival production of “Flute” is just that, no more obvious than the opening scene.
Conductor Nicolas Guisti was almost a show unto himself opening night as he vigorously led the orchestra through the prelude. The stage is almost mind-blowing, dominated by a much-larger-than-life serpent enveloping the stage from side to side.
The opening trio — the Three Ladies, played by Amber Romero, Tzytle Steinman and Sarah-Nicole Carter — was tight and strong and presented a great start. And Lee Gregory, as Papageno, is delightfully perfect in both voice and character as the bird-like bird catcher.
Also flawless in voice and easy to enjoy is Kara Goodrich as Pamina. Her voice glides and lifts the listener, fills the theater and patrons look forward to having her on stage. Her dynamics during moments of lamentation were outstanding. Projection comes easily and effortlessly to Goodrich, and her solos are memorable.
The stage is often filled to overflowing in “Flute” — the scene introducing the mysterious Sarastro is an example. The costumes, lighting, smoke and giant puppets — yes, puppets — fill the stage, as does the voice of Goodrich/Pamina, and that of the strong ensemble. The costume designer certainly deserves more than a nod of notice.
There were some comedic moments worked into the production through side characters, such as the guards, that felt a bid odd and had mixed results. It was also interesting to have the recurring spirits portrayed by younger boys.
But “The Magic Flute” is also full of wisdom to go along with its epic nature, and the opening night audience at the Ellen Eccles Theatre went away a little wiser.
‘She Loves Me’
With its easily recognizable story — think: “You’ve Got Mail” or “The Shop Around the Corner” — along with a small and talented cast sharing top-drawer musical numbers, “She Loves Me” just might end up being the audience favorite of this summer’s festival season.
Staged in the refurbished Utah Theatre — still a shock to see for many locals who remember its previous look and feel — “She Loves Me” showcases the talents of Vanessa Ballam, portraying Amilia Balash, and Stefan Espinosa as Georg Nowack.
The opening number highlighting all the employees of Maraczek’s Parfumerie was tight and solid and gave a promise of more good to come. After some initial introductions, both Amilia and Georg end up as employees at the shop in Budapest, unbeknownst to each other as they share love letters.
It must be said that Espinosa is the king of perfect facial expressions. His nonverbal language and facial twists shout volumes. It must also be said that all of the solos — including Espinosa’s — in this perfect matinee musical are solid. Several numbers are battling duets — that is, two refrains being sung at the same time over top of one another. Even those are so much fun, and Ballam’s high soprano is a delight to hear above the others.
Costuming is great and allows the characters to be highlighted in front of a simple set. A restaurant scene at the end of Act I lets some of the cast spill off the stage and to the front of the audience. This scene also introduces patrons to Timothy Stewart, as the waiter, who ends up being an absolute hidden gem and another highlight of the show.
Lindsey Kelstrom is also a bright light in her role as shop girl Ilona Ritter, especially in the second act with her rehearsal of her trip to the library.
Act II slows the pace down a bit, but it’s not awful, as it allows Amilia and Georg to unfold the dilemma they face. The reunion scene with Mr. Maraczek (played by venerable favorite W. Lee Daily) on Christmas Eve, did lag a bit, though, and could have been pushed a beat faster.
But right on cue, lips are kissed and surprise endings are no longer a surprise, and, sure enough, she loves him.
The audience viewing the festival production of “Carmen” is soon reminded that this opera in four acts by French composer Georges Bizet is all about the music. Bizet’s music in “Carmen” is acclaimed for its brilliance of melody, harmony, atmosphere and orchestration.
The first onstage meeting of Don Jose (Isaac Hurtado) and soon-to-be fiancé Michaela (Kara Goodrich) is a prime example. The music is emotional and presented as such by the pair, their voices being complimentary and not competing. Throughout “Carmen,” Goodrich is so easy to listen to and presents emotion-filled soprano.
As the seductress and unpredictable Carmen, Audrey Babcock is outstanding. Her demeanor, actions, attitude and voice are hand-in-glove with the ever-present music, much of it very recognizable, as Bizet’s arias have been adapted and commercialized over the decades. She sets her — albeit temporary — sights on Don Jose and thereby becomes the villianess. Hurtado is impassioned and his tenor is strong and is always given full effort. Even though his character Don Jose has emotions that run hot and cold, his solos were emotional and appreciated.
The ensemble is a strong support in “Carmen,” even though this is a production that basically centers around a main core of characters. The ensemble numbers are a perfect echo, so to speak, of much of the music and activity that surrounds them. Karen Keltner, conductor, keeps the momentum of the composition on perfect pace.
“She Loves Me” runs through Aug. 3; “Carmen” and “The Magic Flute” run through Aug. 5; and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “Man of La Mancha” run through Aug. 6. Visit utahfestival.org for more information.
Jay Wamsley lives in Cache Valley and has been viewing and reviewing theater and musical productions there for more than 25 years.