By Jay Wamsley,
Deseret News
Published: Monday, July 13, 2015

LOGAN – For many, the highlight of summer in Logan is the arrival of hundreds of musicians, dancers, singers and actors to tackle musical theater and high opera as presented by Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre, now in its 23rd year. This season holds four familiar offerings.

‘La Boheme’

“La Boheme” is often described as the most-produced opera in history. UFOMT, however, is offering Giacomo Puccini’s famed opera only six times this summer, the least of any of the four main productions this season.

Don’t assume that is because it is not well-done. It is.

“La Boheme” begins with four artsy types living together in a cold upstairs apartment in Paris, all starving artists. Love begins to bubble when Mimi, a seamstress who lives next door, befriends Rodolfo, the poet/writer of the roommates. Turns out painter Marcello also has a love interest, a hot-and-cold old flame, Musetta, who injects herself into a dinner party hastily put together by the five new apartment buddies.

Opening night, in the opening scene – that of the apartment as the audience begins to know the artists – conductor Barbara Day Turner’s presentation of the score almost overwhelmed the singers (Peter Scott Drackley as Rodolfo, Antoine Hodge as Colline, Quentin Oliver Lee as Schaunard and Gregory Gerbrandt as Marcello). But the four soon found their volume and projection, particularly a strong Lee, and all was well.

As Mimi (a strong performance by Catherine Spitzer) and Roldolfo begin getting acquainted and begin hinting at long-term promises of love, each solo is strong and rich and projects hopefulness. Their time together onstage is well-tied, and their sharing of stage and song is very uplifting.

Ensemble pieces are strong, busy and like eye and ear candy for patrons. The scenic design, by Jack Shouse, is a masterpiece, and even scene changes in the dim light receive applause as they are so well-staged in and of themselves.

Enter Musetta (Jamilyn Manning-White), who is the definition of high maintenance. Manning-White’s Musetta is just flirty enough, and her soprano is a strength to the production. As in all operas, it seems, the piazza is a lively place with high spirits and, well, spirits, with Marcello and Musetta reuniting to no one’s surprise.

Curtains drop, time passes and jealousy and troubles infect the love of Rodolfo and Mimi, not to mention Marcello and Musetta. Mimi is also afflicted with consumption and finds herself struggling for steps and breath. Puccini’s score is a star in the short Act 2. Patrons might also note how Drackley’s strong tenor seems perfectly matched with the voices of all those with whom he sings, particularly Mimi in the final act as he laments his situation.


Even before founding director Michael Ballam added “Musical Theatre” to the Utah Festival Opera Company’s moniker, the four main stage productions over the years would usually include a familiar musical production, perhaps so patrons could leave the theater singing a familiar tune under their breath, including favorites such as “Fiddler on the Roof,” “My Fair Lady” or “Oklahoma!”

This year, “Carousel” certainly fits that description, though some audience members might not be able to sing due to the lump in their throats. An emotionally strong and well-performed final act sees to that.

Richard Rodgers – he of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame – once called “Carousel” his best work and a “thank-you card to God.” So, yeah, there are some strong feelings tied to this sometimes-rousing and familiar work. But know for certain that this UFOMT production does not cut corners that may have been missed with other community theater or less-than-opera-company offerings of “Carousel.” The full score is bounced to life by conductor Karen Keltner, and the production is heavy on precise choreography that fills the stage.

The strength of the production seems to be in its casting, or perhaps in the actors’ and singers’ ability to form their voices and dynamics to the character being played. As Billy Bigelow, Wes Mason has a robust, sharp-edged voice perfect for the role. As Julie Jordan, Molly Mustonen has a soft yet solid projection, hitting the top of every note, not waving – again, perfect for her role.

Donald Groves as Enoch Snow proves to be another stroke of casting genius. His arrival to the stage and story is very well-done, and his precise diction and unwavering tenor seem to be written for the role in which he is cast. Groves and Leah Edwards share a delightful “When the Children are Asleep” in Act 1.

Even James Harrington, playing bad-guy Jigger Craigin, matches the character’s persona to his voice. W. Lee Daily delights in the dual role of the Storekeeper and Dr. Seldon.

And as sure as June is bustin’ out all over, dance numbers are bound to as well, this being musical theater and all. Choreographer Maggie Harrer and dance captain Katelin Ruzzamenti deserve accolades for overseeing a full stage of dancers and a variety of dance numbers.

But be prepared for that lump in the throat as the most noted of popular hits from “Carousel,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” makes its way into the ensemble.

‘How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying’

A couple of points of evaluation regarding the Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”: The cast has a lot of high-energy fun, many of the characterizations are best described as “over the top,” and a grain of salt will be advised for much of the ’50s and ’60s humor contained therein.

Adam Biner stars as J. Pierrepont Finch, a window washer who aspires to sit in the president’s office chair as soon as he can manipulate and slide his way into the corporate world. Biner sometimes doesn’t project quite as strongly as needed, but he makes up for it with smooth movements across the stage and easy-to-watch mannerisms. Leah Edwards is solid and satisfying as Finch’s sometimes girlfriend/sometimes secretary as he moves from the mail room to junior executive to head of advertising.

Donald Groves is a pleasant surprise in the early scenes as his tenor voice solidly presents “I’m a Company Man.” While the ensemble slipped here and there on opening night, a high-energy pirate number was a treat. Some solos are less than true and solid, but they are always fun.

Valerie Rachelle’s choreography is tight throughout and often fills the stage. Emphasis in the show is on Phillip R. Lowe’s costume design, as well as the wig and hair design by Yancey Quick.

The Martin and Lewis-esque humor hits high gear and low brow with the arrival of Hedy LaRue (Jillian Prefach) to World Wide Wickets, Finch’s choice of a business to infiltrate. LaRue is the stereotypical cigarette girl that uses her “charms” to get a job, thanks to the loose affections of boss-man J.B. Biggley, played smoothly and solidly by veteran W. Lee Daily.

Besides Biner, a glue throughout the production is Frump (Kevin Nakatani), Biggley’s nephew who uses every conniving angle of nepotism and fraud at his disposal to try and thwart Finch while helping himself. Nakatani is the show’s epitome of “over the top” and dominates the stage when he works his evil designs.

While any message contained in “How to Succeed” lasts about as long as the last company memo – a theme noted in the show – it is fun fluff.

‘Man of La Mancha’

The featured presentation of this year’s UFOMT season is “Man of La Mancha,” and under the baton of conductor Keltner and the stage presence of Ballam (playing Don Quixote), the famed musical drama does not disappoint.

Keltner opens “La Mancha” with a rousing prelude, well-received by an opening night audience and worthy of extended applause. The staging is complicated, with the story having another story within, as being told by Miguel de Cervantes. The stage is relatively open, but the blocking of the many characters is a challenge throughout.

Ballam has the creaky, unsteady gait of Quixote down perfectly. He is able to truly make this role his own. His solos – the noted “The Impossible Dream” being chief among them – are full of emotion and heart.

Jessica Medoff as Aldonza is the strongest presence onstage. Medoff’s soprano pushes her from gutter trash to Quixote’s queen. Her projection and dynamics work well with the lyrics Dale Wasserman and Joe Darion provide.

Michael Day must be singled out as having the evening’s most-listenable voice. Strong and smooth, Day (playing the Padre) serves up solos well, and the quartet “We’re Only Thinking of Him” is a highlight. W. Lee Daily presents a likable Sancho, Quixote’s servant sidekick, and links with patrons during his singing of “I Really Like Him.”

The ensemble, dominated by a strong cadre of Muleteers, is perfect throughout, highlighted by a strong-voiced Max Zander as Anselmo.

The message of “La Mancha” is not lost on this cast, nor will it be on any audience member.