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Charlie's In The House: So Much Good Theater, So Little Time

I have to confess that I’ve always unconsciously assumed that our Lyric Repertory Company and the Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre rank somehow below more prestigious theater programs like the Utah Shakespeare Festival. But I never had the opportunity or the inclination to test the validity of that impression until this past summer.

The result of my recent attempt at making a head-to-head comparison of those programs might surprise you. It surprised me.

My admittedly subjective analysis was sparked by a lively conversation with a couple of our “summer citizens” during an intermission of The Marriage of Figaro back in July. The tourists from Arizona turned out to be loyal patrons of our Lyric and UFOMT productions for the past ten years. When I inquired if they had ever been to the Utah Shakespeare Festival, I got a glassy-eyed stare.

“Why would we want to go there?” the retiree matron replied. “What you have right here is perfect.”

There’s a lot of truth in that comment. After all, is there any other community of this size in Utah that has two successful professional-quality theater programs? I can’t think of one.

Consider also how complementary the Lyric and UFOMT are in terms of their offerings. The UFOMT reverently stages classic shows with all the attention to detail and respect for tradition that we normally associate only with high-profile touring companies of Broadway successes. The Lyric’s trademark, on the other hand, is intimate, finely-tuned, smaller-scale productions that often convey powerful messages.

When you marry those two programs with all the amateur talent to be found in productions by the Cache Theatre Company, the Four Seasons Company, Music Theatre West and the Pickleville Playhouse, it’s hard not to realize that we’re sitting on a theatrical goldmine here in Cache Valley.

Ah, but what about quality? There’s the rub. How do our programs fare when compared to the Tony Award winning Utah Shakespeare Festival?

My wife Debbie and I spent a busy weekend  down in Cedar City back in August. We saw three USF productions, two of which coincidently invited comparison to relatively recent Lyric and UFOMT shows.

The first of those comparisons is between the Shakespeare festival’s recently closed production of Macbeth and the Lyric’s staging of the same classic drama in 2018.

The USF’s classy version of Macbeth had all that money could buy – an eerie set design, elaborate costumes and state-of-the-art sound, lighting and special effects. It goes without saying that those factors merely enhanced the superb performances of the cast, which included no less than a dozen professional Equity actors.

But does a big budget guarantee a better production? Not necessarily, I’d say.

By contrast, the Lyric’s production of Macbeth last year was a more modest affair. It featured a smaller cast, with more performers filling multiple roles. Given the artistic constraints of the Caine Lyric Theatre, the stage setting was simplistic and the lighting and sound effects were somewhat less advanced than those of the USF’s Macbeth.

But the Lyric production was innovative in that director Adrianne Moore moved the action of the drama into a modern setting, with a hodgepodge of military uniforms and automatic weapons replacing medieval armor and swords. That re-imagining of Macbeth emphasized the universality of the play’s theme of the consequences of ambition, lust and betrayal. The small-scale intimacy of the Lyric production also focused the attention of the audience more closely on the cast’s emotions. The outstanding performances by Chis Mansa as Macbeth, Kelly Rodgers as Lady Macbeth and Mitch Shira as Macduff were well-worth that type of scrutiny.

Of the two productions, I preferred the Lyric version of Macbeth.

While watching the USF stage Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat this summer, I couldn’t help mentally comparing it to the UFOMT production of that show back in 2013.

The Shakespeare festival production of Joseph was performed like a Las Vegas musical review. It delivered ample doses of glitz and glamour along with snazzy costumes and excellent vocal performances.

As I recall it, the OFOMT production a few years ago was somewhat less an awesome spectacle in terms of sets, costumes, lighting and special effects. But there was also a sense that UFOMT cast was celebrating Joseph rather than merely performing it and their enthusiasm was absolutely infectious. As an added bonus, local audiences got to see a normally disciplined actress like Vanessa Ballam let her hair down and really have fun in the role of the narrator.

I’d say that these excellent USF and UFOMT productions of Joseph were about on a par in terms of quality. Given the likely gulf between their respective budgets, that’s quite an accomplishment for our Festival Opera folks.

Maybe the lady from Arizona was right. When it comes to live theatrical entertainment, what we have here in Cache Valley is perfect.