Before I get to my review of the Kayenta Arts Foundation’s production of “[title of show]” I hope you’ll allow me a few paragraphs (or 12) to editorialize on the subject of art and obscenity. If you don’t want to read my diatribe, scroll on down to “Finally, the review!”
I’ve tried to write my previous theater reviews on this blog in a professional manner, which means offering my opinion from a critical perspective without putting myself into the review. That means there is no “I” or “me.” And that’s how I intend to write this review as well. But I feel compelled to use the newfound editorial freedom that comes with unemployment to say some things about the arts in Southern Utah that I’ve been thinking for quite some time.
One problem I’ve observed for more than a decade is the ideological divide that arises from the influence of the LDS Church within the community. Now, I’m a faithful, church-going Mormon myself. I even serve in a leadership position within my LDS ward. But I still find myself uncomfortable with how the church’s influence often looms over various elements of the community.
Among those elements are the arts. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard from various arts organizations that want to bring in some critically respected theater production but they don’t because of fears about how the LDS community will react. They’re not talking about obscenity, but rather edgier plays with deeper storylines, mature language and, yes, sometimes sexual dialogue. These fears include reprisals from religiously conservative audiences.
No, I don’t think obscenity is art. But I don’t think art that pushes boundaries is necessarily obscene. The best art often reflects humanity and humanity doesn’t always live by LDS “standards.” Nude art is not necessarily pornography. In recent years we’ve started to see more nude paintings in local galleries and exhibits. It’s not explicit. It portrays the beauty of the human form. And painting the nude form helps artists become better painters because they understand the complexities of the anatomy beneath the clothing.
Similarly, a play with swear words and sexual references is not necessarily obscene. Yes, some might feel those specific phrases are obscene but seeing realistic portrayal of humanity helps us all better understand the complexities of the human condition beneath the emotional disguises we all wear.
If you choose not to attend a play because of language or content, OK, that’s your choice. But please don’t force your personal morality on other adults or shame those who choose to explore diversity and depth in various art forms.
Last year I reviewed a slightly edgy musical at a local community theater. This musical offended some audience members. Not only did they complain about the theater producing the show, they also complained about my positive review of the production because I didn’t mention the sexual dialogue and I actually (gasp) liked it.
Apparently there was some confusion about my role as a critic. My job is not to say whether a play fits your specific moral code or not. My job is to say whether it’s entertaining and artistically sound. And yes, plays with bad words and adult content can still be entertaining and artistic.
In fact, some of the best plays I’ve seen in Southern Utah have been these edgier, more “mature” productions, including The Space Between Theatre’s “RED,” the Kayenta Arts Foundation’s “Oleanna” and the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s “How to Fight Loneliness.” All of them have the kind of language and content that would result in an R-rating if they were films. While I wouldn’t classify any of them as “fun” or “entertaining,” they were all definitely moving. Each of them helped me understand humanity better.
Personally, I’m ecstatic to see the Utah Shakespeare Festival diversifying. A major regional theater with a Tony Award to its name has a responsibility to introduce its audience to some of these edgier productions. I truly hope the audience supports that move.
I’m similarly excited to see the Kayenta Arts Foundation growing. Now that it has the new Center for the Arts at Kayenta, I’m curious to see what intriguing productions they will bring to the theater. Prior to this new facility, it was unlikely we would ever see a production like “[title of show]” in Southern Utah. Thankfully there’s now a venue for art like that. I can only hope Southern Utah theater lovers will be supportive and maybe challenge themselves a bit. Now for the review …
Finally, the review!
If you’re not a musical lover, don’t dismiss “[title of show].” It’s most definitely not your average musical.
This one-act, Tony-nominated Broadway musical is basically the true story of its creation by Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics) and Hunter Bell (book). Joining them are two of their friends, Susan and Heidi, as well as a piano player named Larry. They are all real people who originally collaborated to create this musical.
“Write what you know” goes the popular phrase. That’s the reason many of Hemmingway’s characters were journalists. That’s why there have been a number of movies about making movies. In fact, just a few years before “[title of show]” debuted, Mel Brooks turned his popular film “The Producers” into a musical about the writing of a musical.
Artists writing about themselves or versions of themselves is nothing new. It’s even become something of a trope. And “[title of show]” does fulfill that particular trope.
From that explanation it might be easy to write off “[title of show]” as a navel-gazing vanity piece by New York theater geeks obsessed with their own self-importance. It easily could have gone that way.
But there’s much more to “[title of show]” than navel-gazing and a tired trope.
First of all, it’s quite entertaining. It’s genuinely funny and the music is genuinely good. In the hands of the Kayenta Arts Foundation’s superbly talented cast, creative staff and technical crew, it even translates well to a community theater setting.
Second, there’s a depth to the theater geekery. The most telling moment comes as the cast debates the always-relevant conflict between creating art for art’s sake and creating art for commercial success. Should they remove the explicit language from their musical so it might be more successful on Broadway? Or should they stay true to their artistic principles and trust that the gray-haired matinee crowd has seen much worse because they lived through multiple wars?
(This scene explains the critic’s personal diatribe above this review.)
The brilliant Douglas Caputo is in the director’s seat for this production. A co-founder of The Space Between Theatre Company and director of the foundation’s past production of “Oleanna,” Caputo is no stranger to edgy theater. And “[title of show]”is yet another home run for him.
While all five members of the cast have different strengths, there isn’t a weak link among them. Even better, they appear to have a genuine affection for each other. So, either they actually do enjoy performing together or they are really good actors. Perhaps it’s a bit of both.
Brodie Perry, a professional Equity actor and local voice coach, built his regional popularity through a variety of roles at St. George Musical Theater before co-founding The Stage Door Theater. He’s fantastic as Jeff, especially when he’s lending his golden voice to the musical numbers.
Bobby Edwards built his regional and national fame through a little invention to help everyone poop better. That’s right, he’s the CEO and co-creator of the Squatty Potty. But he’s also quite funny as Hunter, whose dream led to this inspiring musical.
Sceri Sioux Ivers has been a familiar face at the Utah Shakespeare Festival for a few years now, though her small stature has typically relegated her to children’s roles — often boys. It’s heartening to see this talented performer getting a well-earned mature role. She was stellar this past summer in the role of Jim Hawkins in “Treasure Island” but she’s even better here as Susan, especially when she’s displaying her physical humor. Susan has some killer moves. And she also delivers the musical’s most memorable (and important) song, “Die Vampire, Die!”
Ashley Benham, like Ivers, is a Tuacahn High School graduate and evidence of the value that arts-focused charter school brings to the community. Her vocals are simply lovely and we’re lucky enough to be treated to a few solo numbers during the course of the production.
Finally, we have pianist Aaron W. Lund, who has played in the orchestras at various Tuacahn productions. Here he is the orchestra, since this simple musical only employs a single keyboard. While he’s often “behind the scenes,” he also plays the role of Larry, the pianist. He only has a few lines but they are among the play’s best.
While each member of the cast has standout talents, the brightest moments are those where they come together with gorgeous four-part harmonies, backed by Lund’s piano. “Who says four chairs and a keyboard can’t make a great musical?”
There were a few hiccups on opening night with some line stutters and a couple of slow lighting cues but overall it was an easy step above typical community theater fare.
If “[title of show]” is an indicator of what the Kayenta Arts Foundation will offer in the future, greatness awaits.
However, this production has an extremely limited run. There are only four more performances left so make plans to see it now and help them defeat the kind of vampires that kill art. (See the musical and you’ll understand what that means.)
“[title of show]” continues at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 21, 26, 27 and 28 at the new Center for the Arts at Kayenta (located at the northern end of Kayenta’s Coyote Gulch Art Village, near the intersection of Kayenta Parkway and Coyote Gulch Circle in Ivins). Tickets are $50-$100 for tonight’s showing (Oct. 21) or $20-$30 next weekend. Visit KayentaArtsFoundation.org or call 435-674-2787.