'Jekyll & Hyde' and 'Red'10/15/2017
I don't know why I've been hesitant to start blog postings here . . . but I have been. I'm going to post reviews of my work and whatever thoughts I may have along the way.
To start, here are two reviews, one of an acting project, and one of a show I just directed.
by Brian Passey on October 14, 2017 in Theater, Theater reviews • 2 Comments
Yes, “Jekyll & Hyde” is an excellent choice for the Halloween season.
If you’re going to put on a musical during the month of October it might as well be a monstrous musical about mayhem and murder — a dark and disastrous tale of dual identity. The Stage Door’s production of the show will continue through Oct. 21 at the Electric Theater in St. George.
“Jekyll & Hyde,” with book and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and music by Frank Wildhorn, is not the family-friendly kind of musical you typically see staged in Southern Utah. It’s not a tame musical. There are prostitutes, sexual references and plenty of violence.
However, he real crime is the storyline, loosely based on Robert Louise Stevenson’s novella “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.” Yes, at least the musical adds two major roles for women to the storyline (none of the major characters in the novella were women) but the roles remain shallow and defined only by their relationship to the leading man. One is an uninteresting fiancée while the other falls into the “virtuous prostitute” trope and together they create yet another annoying love triangle.
None of this, of course, is the fault of The Stage Door, director Varlo Davenport or the talented cast. They all do a fine job here with the material, knowing that the musical’s strength lies in its music. The storyline problems are just another example of an entertainment world (theater, film, television and even novels) where far too often women are relegated to love interests instead of becoming fully developed characters of their own that have some reason for existing beyond their relationships with the leading men.
Rant over. Now let’s get to what makes this a musical worth seeing.
First and foremost is the voice of Taylor Williams. In fact, it’s one of the best vocal performances you’re likely to hear on a Southern Utah stage — Tuacahn and the Utah Shakespeare Festival included. He’s that good.
Williams plays title role(s) as Dr. Henry Jekyll, the good doctor looking for a way to save his mentally ailing father, only to have his experiments transform him into the demonic Mr. Hyde. Williams adeptly tackles these transformations, changing his posture, expressions and voice as he switches back and forth. Those Hyde growls are especially fun.
Yet he’s at his best when singing as Jekyll. His voice is filled with all sorts of luxurious tones. All of his songs are solid but the musical’s big song, “This is the Moment,” is the standout. Williams is simply masterful.
His is not the only strong performance, though. Although their characters are poorly written, Brooke Bang and Kimber Dutton are both superb as Lucy and Emma, the prostitute and the fiancée, respectively. Bang’s voice is simply lovely on “Someone Like You,” proving that even though she is capable of vocal firepower, she can keep it under control. And Dutton’s voice is just gorgeous on “Once Upon a Dream” It’s even better when they sing together on the luminous “In His Eyes,” as long as you can ignore the love triangle.
Overall, the music of “Jekyll & Hyde” is a step up from your average stage musical. There’s an element of early ‘90s pop to ballads like “Take Me as I Am” and “A New Life” while many of the ensemble numbers (like “Façade”) are grounded in strong rhythms and filled with intensity (“in 10 cities,” as Wayne Campbell would say).
The other thing saving “Jekyll & Hyde” from its storyline is Davenport’s directing. He brings an overall ominous vibe to the production, aided in no small part by Josh Scott’s moody lighting design. While fog enhances the effect in one scene, it’s not even necessary. The darkness is inherent in Davenport’s vision.
Perhaps his directing genius is most evident in how the cast navigates a small stage with virtually no backstage area. This severely limits props and especially scenery, leaving a director with few options for illustrating scene changes and the challenge of working around what is there. A large, dynamically designed set pieces with a variety doors not only allows Davenport to bring more movement to the stage but also to use it for portraying various images.
Enhancing Davenport’s vision is prop designer Emili Whitney, whose small but intricate chemistry table prop is perfect for creating a believable laboratory for Dr. Jekyll. The attention to detail on this prop is truly spectacular and unexpected for a production of this size.
Even producer Kerry Kimball Perry contributes to the musical’s look with her professional costume design in conjunction with Tonya Christensen.
If you’re still confused about whether this is a negative review or a positive one, it’s the latter. The Stage Door’s production of “Jekyll & Hyde” is definitely worth seeing. After all, the singing is always one of the most important parts of any musical and this cast truly delivers.
We just need to be more aware of the roles being written for women, especially in light of the recent Hollywood controversies with Harvey Weinstein. When so many roles focus on women simply as love interests, it enforces the ideas that women in general are defined by their relationships to men — becoming not only love interests but sex objects.
Representation matters. Women and men need to see more women on stage and on the screen as fully developed people. The arts have a responsibility to enforce that.
So go see “Jekyll & Hyde.” Rejoice in the fantastic vocal performances. Groove on Davenport’s stylish vision. But don’t dismiss Emma as an uninteresting love interest, even though she’s written that way. Don’t dismiss Lucy as an overused Fantine trope, even though she’s written that way. Know that these women, like all women, have stories that go beyond how they are portrayed by the men who create and control much of the industry.
The Stage Door presents “Jekyll & Hyde” from Oct. 5-21 at the Electric Theater, 68 E. Tabernacle St., St. George. Tickets are $18-$21. Visit TheStageDoorTheater.com or call 435-656-4407.
A review of The Space Between Theatre Company's May 2016 production of "Red." I played Mark Rothko, Jesse Nepivoda played his assistant, Ken.
For a few moments after the play ended, nobody moved. We sat transfixed, attempting to process the majesty and beauty of what we had just experienced.
Kelly Thomas, the director, exited the control booth to make sure we knew the play was over and that the two actors, Varlo Davenport and Jesse Nepivoda, would not be returning to the stage. We simply told her that we just needed a minute to process.
Such is the triumph of “RED,” a play by John Logan that is currently in production by The Space Between Theatre Company at the DiFiore Center in St. George.
It’s difficult to describe the impact of “RED” because words don’t seem adequate. The language of Logan’s play is so poetic and powerful that anything I write will pale by comparison.
Yet this production’s greatness goes far beyond the Tony Award-winning source material itself. This tragically beautiful play could easily crumble in the wrong hands. But Thomas and her assistant director, Jacob Beecher, have done a masterful job in staging “RED.”
As an audience we feel as if we are actually sitting in Mark Rothko’s New York City studio in 1958 as he works on a massive commission for The Four Seasons restaurant. Part of that sense of transportation is found in the director’s decision to stage the play in a small room at the DiFiore Center. There is only enough space for about a dozen audience members, all of whom sit in single rows along three of the four walls.
Still, the acting remains the single element that can truly make or break a play but Davenport and Nepivoda deliver one of the most strongly acted plays I’ve ever seen — that includes professional productions in London, Statford and St. Louis as well as dozens of plays at both Tuacahn and the Utah Shakespeare Festival here in Southern Utah. They are that good.
Davenport’s presence is captivating from the moment he appears on stage, gazing straight ahead at an unseen work of art. We don’t see an actor when he’s on stage; we see Mark Rothko.
“What do you see?” Rothko asks Ken, a fictional studio assistant created for the play.
In those four words we discover the path this play will take over the next 90 minutes or so. It’s Davenport and Nepivoda, as Ken, who take us down this path. As a two-person play, they are both on stage for nearly the entire dialogue-heavy production. It must be both mentally and emotionally exhausting for the actors as they delve into the troubled minds of their characters.
At first the character of Ken seems lightweight compared to Rothko. While Davenport’s performance is pervasive, crashing through the production like an avalanche of genius, Nepivoda delivers with nuance, lulling us at first with Ken’s aloof demeanor before his mic-drop moment as he goes toe-to-toe with the force of nature that is Mark Rothko: “Is it just possible that no one is worthy to look at your pictures?”
The atmosphere of the space is perfect for these performances. It’s small enough we can hear their near-whispered musings. And when they explode in fury, we can almost feel the wind of their screams.
Even in the rare moments when they aren’t speaking, the actors play off each other. As Rothko invites Ken to prime the canvas with him, we see them approach its glaring whiteness together, then suddenly they are painting — moving together, yet apart — generating a fervor in their movement that is at once intense and graceful, vigorous yet ethereal.
It all builds to the final scene as Rothko appears alone in his studio, stumbling through the red-hued darkness as music blares. Red paint drips from his hands like blood. Then he launches into a tirade about the depravity of the socialites who dine at The Four Seasons, describing it as “forced gaiety at gunpoint.”
It’s unfortunate that the theater students at Dixie State University have lost this tremendous talent.
In the midst of “RED,” I thought of how it reminded me of “Art,” the play by Yasmina Reza that the Utah Shakespeare Festival staged a few years ago. It is one of the best productions I’ve seen at USF. That comparison made me think of how art about art leads to some of the most intellectually moving creations.
Yet art about art also faces a great obstacle: the attempt to portray a certain type of grandeur through a dissimilar form. That is the challenge facing me as I attempt to write about this sublime piece of theater. My words do not feel worthy of my subject.
Part of me wants to heed Rothko’s rumination as he says, “Silence is so … accurate.” But a column full of nihility lacks purpose and I feel compelled to at least make an attempt at conveying the wonder of this play. So I will say this plainly: If you consider yourself a fan of live theater, this is a must-see production.
If adult language bothers you, be warned there is a small amount — enough to garner an R-rating as a film. However, the language is part of the tragedy it describes.
Near the beginning of the play, Rothko tells Ken he knows his paintings are finished when there is “tragedy in every brushstroke.” Perhaps that is why “RED” is such a compelling play. It’s bursting with brushstrokes of tragedy.
“RED” is halfway through its eight-day run. It continues at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 6 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $14 or $12 for students and seniors. Visit tsbtc.org.
Email reporter Brian Passey at email@example.com and follow him at Facebook.com/PasseyBrian or on Twitter and Instagram, @BrianPassey. Call him at 435-674-6296.