REVIEW — Celebrating its 60th season, the Utah Shakespeare Festival returns from a yearlong lockdown-induced hiatus with two richly rewarding plays that range from the silly to the sublime, reminding those fond of their non-Bard productions why they love and missed this repertory so much.
‘The Pirates of Penzance’
How can it be that 20 years have passed since the festival last produced Gilbert and Sullivan’s (decidedly) light opera “The Pirates of Penzance”? Back then, Brian Vaughan — the festival’s current artistic director – portrayed the Pirate King, and the late Fred Adams marveled audiences with his cameo as the Major-General.
But oh, how time flies when you’re having this much fun!
In the hands of first-time Utah Shakespeare Festival Director-Choreographer Cassie Abate (many, many happy returns, please), this season’s production of the 142-year-old parody feels positively fresh, stuffed with satirical merriment. This version takes full advantage of Pirate King Rhett Guter’s ample aptitude for both dance and magic, most notably in a surprise 11 o’clock tap-off number with the Police Sergeant (a hilarious Ian Allred).
The ever-winking, in-the-moment Guter is surrounded by a terrific cast. Cecelia Iole displays her stunning coloratura soprano as Mabel (notably in “Poor Wand’ring One”), Richard R. Henry delivers “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General (parodied everywhere from “Frasier” to “Hamilton”) with panache, and Jalon Matthews is rock solid and dutifully sympathetic as Frederic.
With a story featuring tenderhearted pirates, timid police and a chorus of wonderfully diverse sisters, “Penzance” is filled with contradictions, challenging music and witty lyrics that one must really scrutinize to fully appreciate. But most of all, it is perfectly timed, unabashed fun.
“Ragtime,” with book by Terrence McNally and music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, is a sprawling flawed-but-epic adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s novel.
That said, much like “Pirates of Penzance,” it also feels absolutely right for these times.
With multiple Tony Award nominations when it debuted in 1996, “Ragtime” isn’t produced very often — probably because of the complexity of its material and the disparate nature of its multifaceted plotlines. It features nearly 30 richly crafted songs – none of them truly iconic – and a script that abruptly changes tone in the second act.
The musical is nonetheless compelling, and when done properly it features show-stopping performances that touch on themes of class, race, family and ultimately hope for a new America that was still experiencing post-Civil War growing pains at the turn of the century. The story depicts the experiences of three different groups: working class African-Americans, upper-class suburbanites and Jewish immigrants.
Great performances abound, most notably Ezekiel Walker (following up his amazing turn as Jim in the festival’s 2018 production of “Big River”) as Coalhouse Walker Jr., a Harlem-based pianist. Here, Walker personifies strength and dignity, especially during the convincing strains of “go out and tell our story” from “Make Them Hear You.”
As Mother, Melinda Pfundstein has never sounded better, particularly on the aching “Back to Before.” And Utah Shakespeare Festival veteran Aaron Galligan-Stierle, typically cast for his comic dexterity, is terrific as the resilient Latvian-Jewish father Tateh.
Several real-life historical characters are part of this story, none more significant than Booker T. Washington (Rene Thornton Jr.), a transcendent figure representing Black America and whose life and accomplishments are sorely underappreciated. I applaud the festival for maintaining the harsh language in the script as it is critical to the context of the story. While it meanders a little and feels longish at nearly three hours, “Ragtime” nonetheless rewards the patient and attentive patron and is must-see theater, especially given its rare appearance.
The Utah Shakespeare Festival is still in a transition of sorts, requiring (but not over-supervising) masks, using music tracks in place of a live orchestra and struggling occasionally in the tech area. But it would be unfair to criticize the cost-cutting and cautious measures of an arts organization trying to come back from a disastrous year. With “The Pirates of Penzance” and “Ragtime,” the festival provides two terrific reasons to return to Cedar City. Without a doubt, founder and fearless leader Fred Adams is somewhere smiling down with enthusiastic approval.
Showings of “The Pirates of Penzance” and “Ragtime” run through Oct. 9 in revolving repertory with other shows at the Randall L. Jones Theatre at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, 299 W. Center St., in Cedar City. Tickets are $23-$80, with discounts for groups, students, locals and seniors and may be purchased online or by calling 800-PLAYTIX (800-752-9849).
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