Updated: Sep 6
The Utah Shakespeare Festival (USF)—now in its 61st season—has a stellar lineup this year, even if you’re not a Shakespeare fan. Continuing their runs are three hefty non-Shakespeare productions well worth the scenic journey to Cedar City.
“Trouble In Mind” masterfully highlights race and gender blindness through a play-within-a-play. Excellently executed physical comedy in “Clue” will leave you in stitches. And USF's production of the macabre (yet funny) musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” astonishes with both its atmospheric staging and singing.
“Trouble In Mind”
African-American playwright and actress Alice Childress’s 1950s play “Trouble In Mind,” at USF’s indoor Randall L. Jones Theatre, features an experienced performer finding her voice during rehearsals of a 1957 Broadway play. The play succeeds not just because of its intricate story but the engaging fluid dynamics of its cast of eight, expertly directed by Melissa Maxwell.
Veteran Black actress Wiletta (Yvette Monique Clark) is returning to the stage she loves, ready to perform in a drama written by a white playwright set in the rural South in which she plays a plantation maid whose son may be lynched.
Before the rest of the cast arrives, Wiletta preemptively schools newbie actor John (Maurice-Aimé Green), who plays her son, on how to suck up to the director (invariably a white male during this time period) by agreeing with everything he says, especially how good the play is.
Though John balks yet reluctantly goes along—her fake backstory about him being a child actor in “Porgy and Bess” leads to amusing confusion—this kind of deception is how Wiletta believes she has succeeded in theatre for 25 years.
However, as rehearsals continue—and especially when she reads how her character nonchalantly sends her son out to be killed—Wiletta begins to second-guess her usual way of not speaking up. Moreover, she sees how her voice isn’t even heard when she does, despite her experience.
Rex Young confidently plays production director Al Manners, who creeps on the cast’s sole white actress Judy (Bailey Blaise)—also a newbie like John—and squeezes Wiletta’s neck and shoulders for an uncomfortably long time.
Manners also dismisses and berates aging doorman Henry (Michael Fitzpatrick)—a sympathetic Irish immigrant—and meek white assistant Eddie (Jeremy Thompson). He offhandedly overrides talkative older Black actor Sheldon (Antonio TJ Johnson) when the latter says he’d prefer a jelly donut instead of a Danish. (Henry gets jelly donuts anyway.)
Manners is clearly as much a product of his time as Wiletta, and also Henry—who, like Wiletta, questions why his character is simply whittling a stick on the plantation while his son is in danger. But Manners seems blind to the privilege that comes with his race and gender, even though he defensively describes having to fight for everything he has.
And yet, Manners never had to hide like Sheldon when a white mob came to his town when he was a boy to lynch a man, dragging him behind a horse cart until he was unrecognizable, until he screamed without sound, as Sheldon describes in a nuanced monologue.
Rounding out the cast are fashion-forward Black actress Millie (Cherita Armstrong) and older white actor Bill (Chris Mixon), both adding humor in ways that inflect on race, as does the entire cast enacting Childress’s intricate script. As an ensemble, the cast performs fluidly and engagingly, clad in period costumes designed by Myrna Colley-Lee, on a brick-walled backstage set designed by Jo Winiarski.
Seeing “Trouble In Mind” might be supplemented by the exhibit of photographs entitled “I’m Walkin’ for My Freedom,” capturing scenes from the early 1960s Civil Rights Movement, next door to the theatre at the Southern Utah Museum of Art through Sept. 24. The play might also be complemented by seeing USF’s upcoming production of “Thurgood,” set to begin Sept. 14 at the festival’s Anes Studio Theatre.
Regardless, “Trouble In Mind” is an engaging and intriguing play that will entertain you with its wit while leaving you probe the assumptions we make to this day about race, gender and experience.
“Trouble In Mind” continues in the Randall L. Jones Theatre, 351 W. Center St., Cedar City, at the Utah Shakespeare Festival on the Southern Utah University campus, through Sept. 9. For tickets and information, call the Utah Shakespeare Festival box office at 800-PLAYTIX (752-9849) or (435) 586-7878, or visit Bard.org.
Though you may have seen the 1985 film of the same name, USF’s staged production of “Clue” feels completely different and way more enjoyable!
Originating from the board game and written by Sandy Rustin—based on the screenplay by Jonathan Lynn, with additional material by Director Hunter Foster and Eric Price—“Clue” offers nonstop physical comedy carried off without a hitch by a talented cast.
The six colorful “Clue” board game characters come to life in this play—Miss Scarlet (Cherita Armstrong), Mrs. Peacock (Bree Murphy), Mrs. White (Melinda Parrett), Colonel Mustard (Rex Young), Professor Plum (Michael Sharon) and Mr. Green (Michael Doherty). Each actor is well cast and also well dressed (costumes by Lauren T. Roark).
They are all guests in a mansion near Washington D.C. in 1954, having been invited by a mysterious Mr. Boddy, who has been secretly blackmailing each of them.
Orchestrating events in Mr. Boddy’s initial absence is butler Wadsworth (a spry Aaron Galligan-Stierle), who greets each guest and gives them Mr. Boddy’s insidious instructions that come with a weapon for each ranging from a candlestick to a revolver.
Mr. Boddy himself arrives to reveal that he intends to blackmail them for even more money. The lights go out and someone is shot—Mr. Boddy!—but who did it?
Murder-mystery hysterics ensue as the seven guests, along with Wadsworth and sexy French maid Yvette (Bailey Blaise), rush about the mansion trying to discover the murderer—only to encounter even more deaths in various rooms—the library, the billiard room, etc., which you may remember from the board game. No one is safe and anyone could be a murderer.
Most of the fun is watching the dynamic cast dash about in a coordinated way, opening and closing three doors on Jo Winiarski’s well-designed set with sliding walls that reveal different rooms—slipping through secret passages, and propping up dead bodies to deceive the police.
Clever staging and lighting (William Kirkham) allow the cast to run (in place) through the mansion’s long hallways with synchronized steps and other choreographed actions. The characters also move in slow motion at one point and even “rewind” backward several times while going through possible whodunit scenarios.
More surprises and enjoyment could not be had in the theatre, especially owing to the excellent cast and staging of USF’s production of “Clue.” Run (not in slow motion) to see it!
“Clue” continues in the Randall L. Jones Theatre, 351 W. Center St., Cedar City, at the Utah Shakespeare Festival on the Southern Utah University campus, through Oct. 8. For tickets and information, call the Utah Shakespeare Festival box office at 800-PLAYTIX (752-9849) or (435) 586-7878, or visit Bard.org. Run time is 90 minutes with no intermission.
“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”
First produced on Broadway four decades ago, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”—written by Hugh Wheeler based on a play adaptation by Christopher Bond—has enjoyed a revival this year, perhaps partly to honor its composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who died in 2021.
Sondheim’s trademark dissonant harmonies work well with the creepy yet sad story, and USF’s production does it justice—not only through exceptional singing but immersive atmospheric staging on its outdoor Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre.
Set in London in the mid-1800s, “Sweeney Todd” tells the story of skilled barber Sweeney (J. Michael Bailey) who, after spending 15 years imprisoned, seeks revenge on the judge (Tim Fullerton) who ravaged his wife and took his baby daughter.
But vengeance leads Sweeney down a dark path that has him murdering nearly anyone who sits in his Fleet Street barber’s chair—and, fortuitously, a downstairs meat-pie maker named Mrs. Lovett (Bree Murphy) who has a crush on Sweeney and can’t see all that meat go to waste.
While the story is certainly horrific, it is rendered sympathetic and almost romantic through the character depictions and often funny lyrics—such as Mrs. Lovett’s description of her own baking as “The Worst Pies in London”—lyrics that sometimes work contrary to the music. The result is like an Edward Gorey illustration of Victorian death that is at once macabre and darkly amusing.
Murphy shines as Mrs. Lovett, both in terms of her exuberant singing and physical mannerisms. She embodies her character’s maternal streak and love for Sweeney, but also makes believable Mrs. Lovett’s cutthroat business acumen.
Bailey similarly makes a credible Sweeney with an imposing physical demeanor and baritone voice, but also a wounded softness. Sweeney is a man so deeply hurt he can only wait for his prey the judge to come to him, like a spider in his web, casually using his sharp barber’s blade to slay any other victims who happen in.
Fullerton makes an excellent evil Judge Turpin, aided by his assistant Beadle (Rob Tucker) and torn over his growing lust for Sweeney’s daughter Johanna (a sweet-voiced Lucy Austin), now a young woman of 15. Sweeney and Turpin’s duet “Pretty Women”—sung the first time Turpin is in Sweeney’s chair—weaves together their strong voices in a melancholic (yet disturbing) way.
In fact, the entire cast soars in singing the musicals’ dozens of songs, from the solos to duets to the impressive ensemble numbers. Each performer brings palpable energy and investment, seeming to enjoy playing their part, including the crazy Beggar Woman (Stephanie Lambourn) who haunts Fleet Street; street urchin Tobias Ragg, whom Mrs. Lovett takes under her wing; Anthony Hope (Nathan Haltiwanger), a sailor who loves Johanna; and the whole 12-member ensemble.
The entire cast is also fittingly costumed by Bill Black in detailed Victorian dress, and perform on a similarly detailed multi-level set designed by Linda Buchanan—with effective lighting by Stephen C. Jones that uses red, purple and green to evoke murder and death—and periodic use of atmospheric haze.
Continuing only through Sept. 9, USF’s production of “Sweeney Todd” is an unexpected highlight of the festival, showcasing the formidable talents of its performers and crew. Don’t let the violent nature of the story deter you. The killing is artfully done, allowing the audience—through Sondheim’s well-executed music and creative staging—to enjoy being immersed in the depraved depths of the human heart.
“Sweeney Todd” continues in the Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre, 200 Shakespeare Ln., Cedar City, at the Utah Shakespeare Festival on the Southern Utah University campus, through Sept. 9. For tickets and information, call the Utah Shakespeare Festival box office at 800-PLAYTIX (752-9849) or (435) 586-7878, or visit Bard.org. Run time is 2 hours and 45 minutes, with intermission.