The 2012 Utah Shakespeare Festival

This is my fourth year attending the festival and I might very well be addicted. The way that creative minds flocked to Paris in the 1920’s, I travel to Cedar City, Utah to let the artistic energy consume me. Cedar City is special in that the festival can be the focus with only beautiful landscapes playing its rival. Don’t misunderstand me – there are still adventures to be had in this Southern Utah community, but the festival does not have to compete with a major metropolis. You can hear yourself think, there isn’t much traffic, and everything you need is readily accessible. Not only is that wonderful for those attending the festival, but I am sure the actors themselves find the simple serenity the perfect setting to cultivate their craft.

At last year’s festival, it was announced that Les Miserables would be in the 2012 line up. I have been in great anticipation ever since. In a previous life, I studied music. Singing, to be exact. My voice work never went beyond the high school stage, but Eponine’s “On My Own” became one of my favorite musical pieces. Of course, the entire Les Mis songbook is impressive, all of which provide the emotional framework for the difficult times these characters face. It’s not called “Miserable” for nothing, after all. As an additional bonus, Eponine is played by familiar festival face, Barbara Jo Bednarczuk. I had the pleasure of seeing her in Bardway Baby and the Greenshow last year. She is extremely talented, easy on the eyes, and I hope to see her in many more productions. Barbara was lovely as the lovelorn Eponine. Artistic Director, Brian Vaughn, plays Inspector Javert and his wife, Melinda Pfundstein, is Fantine. This is one power couple to watch. They are festival veterans who can make any role a fulfilling experience. Proof is in watching Javert wrestle with his final moments on the bridge over the Seine or Fantine wishing for a better life while dreaming a dream. J. Michael Bailey as Jean Valjean is compelling. He wears his emotions on his face, spending most of the play looking as if he’s on the verge of tears. This is appropriate as these characters fight for a better life that they know may never come. Prepare to invest some time as the full play is approximately three hours. This is a long time to feel such heavy emotions. Bring tissue. Many of the people in the row behind us were sniffing back tears. Luckily, there are some silly moments to help break up the destruction. Kymberly Mellen and Max Robinson play the devious inn keepers hoping to steal fortunes from their guests. Neither of these actors are new to the festival and they are brilliant (!) as the lying, thieving duo. Allow yourself some laughs as their characters attempt to turn their tackiness into gold. I highly recommend that you see this great production. Let the beautiful music and the wonderful performances draw you into their desperate revolution. Magnifique!

If Les Mis is the height of French despair, then Scapin can be considered the exact opposite. A silly circus of circumstances, Scapin is delightful. To set the record straight, the name is pronounced Skuh-pann. My festival crush, David Ivers, is the lead character and he makes all the right moves. Literally. It’s a physical comedy that requires the actors to hit each mark. Prepare to cheer, laugh, and dance your way through this comedy. I saw this only a couple hours after Les Mis, which made for a bipolar afternoon but I was very glad to end the day on such a high note. School girl crush aside, David is a fabulous performer. Should you see him cast in any play, no need to read the synopsis. Just. Go. See. It! I must note that Matt Zambrano is a fantastic sidekick to David’s Scapin. Matt plays Sylvester, a zany servant who must morph into whatever crazy partner Scapin needs. He was great. Honorable mention must go to George. He provided most of the music from the side of the stage on a large piano set piece. He was the first to engage the crowd and continued to keep the energy high throughout the play.

I also saw one of the Greenshows outside the Adam’s Theatre. There are three versions this year and I saw the Scottish rendition. The Scottish Greenshow is quite fun with traditional dancing and song. This free performance is about 45 minutes and the whole family is welcome. Speaking of which, children under the age of 6 are not allowed to attend the formal theatre performances. Little ones can, however, see the greenshows and the backstage tour. This may seem harsh, but a fussy youngin’ can ruin the show for the entire house.

Aside from the shows, the backstage tour was really awesome. At a mere $8 a ticket, you get to see all the hidden nooks in and around the theatres. There are three theatres: the Randall L. Jones, the Adams Shakespearean Theatre, and the Auditorium Theatre. Our tour guide was Philip Bolton. This is Philip’s first year at the festival and it was a pleasure to follow him around the campus. He is a member of the ensemble for Les Mis and also performs in the Greenshow. Even though he is a fresh face there, he is very knowledgeable about the production process. I thought it was a total bonus that we had the opportunity to speak with one of the performers. It gave us even more insight into a typical day at the festival. One great tidbit he shared was the challenge of doing the Greenshow and having a mere 15-20 minutes to rush to the Randall theatre to suit up for Les Mis. He even has a chart for the amount of “dirt” he needs to apply for the scenes (before battle vs. after battle). Since the Randall theatre houses three plays (Les Miserables, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Scapin), Philip showed us the hidden sets at the back of the stage. While one set is up front and ready for the next show, the other two are neatly stacked behind the backdrop. Projections on the screen are done from behind so as to not interfere with the active set pieces seen by the audience. We also got to see the various rooms below the theatre. These include dressing rooms, a wig room, the laundry and tailoring room, and the orchestra pit. Behind the orchestra pit are a storage space for props and a repair shop for all of their equipment. We even got to see the trap door in the stage and the vomitories. Don’t let the name put you off – there are a few stories for its origin, but I like the one that means it “vomits” the performer out to the audience. In other words, the vomitories provide access to the seating space within the theatre. Performers can slip in and out of the theatre for a stealth appearance. Neither of the two vomitories (one on each side) are used this year as this would require the removal of some of the seats. Rightfully so since Les Mis attracts a packed house.

The Adams Theatre is the beautiful replica of the outdoor Globe Theatre. Philip explained that the Adams sometimes has her “fat” days with the wood paneling swelling when the weather is moist. This can be a challenge when a perfectly fitted door won’t open on stage. Being that this is a theatre open to the elements, it is not surprising that the building itself would be affected by nature. Philip walked us through the main stage area and again to the world below. Like the Randall, there are dressing rooms, green rooms, costume rooms, and storage for props. The space is tighter than the Randall, but still very efficient. My favorite part of the entire tour, though, was the tunnel. This narrow space is not meant for those with claustrophobia. You can rush from a rainy Adams stage to the indoor Auditorium Theatre without any notice by the crowd above. It’s funny to imagine Queen Elizabeth in all her garb hustling to the other stage. An entire set is built in the auditorium to replicate the scenes performed at the Adams. Per Philip, the staging is a little different in the auditorium, thus, the performers must rehearse in both spaces to choreograph their moves just right.

One might think that seeing all of the backstage corridors would ruin the “magic” of the festival. Not the case for me. It made me even more excited just knowing how much needs to be choreographed behind the scenes. Besides, in my opinion, the real magic happens on stage.

This summer season has six plays total, not including the free Greenshows. The ones I did not see include The Merry Wives of Windsor, Titus Andronicus, Mary Stuart, and the aforementioned To Kill a Mockingbird. Special engagements such as Bardway Baby and The Cabaret are still my favorite must-sees. Neither of these were running while I was there for the Fourth of July weekend, but I highly recommend both. In fact, I just got an email from a close festival-goer who said The Cabaret this year is already pretty awesome. I am officially jealous. I might even pout a little. Okay, a lot. Check out my article from last year’s festival for more information on each.

Something important to note about the festival is that the plays are scheduled in such as way that within a long four-day weekend, you could pretty much see everything. In this way, all of the shows are accessible to excited theatergoers. That said, I am already planning a late September visit so that I can catch the Fall Season, which runs from early September to October 20th. The Fall Season includes the fabulous Les Mis, Hamlet, and Stones in His Pockets. I hope to see all three (Yes, I will see Les Mis again!). I must tell you that Stones showcases both Brian Vaughn and David Ivers, the artistic directing dream team. If you are in Cedar City this fall and you don’t see these two in Stones…shame on you. Also, my new friend, Philip Bolton, will be in Hamlet  so I want to catch that dramatic play. Go to support the veterans and the newcomers. And who knows? Philip may end up on Broadway, might get his own TV show, or someday be a leading actor in an Oscar-winning movie. Even if that does not happen, I will know that I have been in the presence of true talent because all of the actors at this festival bring their A-game.

So come flock to my Paris and feel the artistic magic in Cedar City. Enjoy the gorgeous vistas, drink in the fresh Utah air, and soak up the creative energy that is the Utah Shakespeare Festival.

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