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Logan • Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre's 22nd season includes four ambitious, superbly produced mainstage shows, with Schönberg's and Boubil's ultra-popular "Les Misérables" topping the bill. All four productions feature some of the country's finest rising operatic talent, impressive experienced voices, eloquent acting and thoughtful direction.
Stage director Valerie Rachelle embraced the cozy space of Logan's Ellen Eccles Theatre, creating an intimate dramatic focus for "Les Misérables." Musical elements, under conductor Karen Keltner's energetic leadership, soared; Misty Bradford's impeccable period costumes, built by UFOMT artists, evoked 19th-century France's revolutionary atmosphere. Patrick Larson's sets were not Broadway-lavish but imaginative, especially when enhanced by Christopher Wood's expressive lighting.
Tenor Patrick Miller, as the harshly judged protagonist Jean Valjean, sang with seemingly limitless range and keen dramatic focus. His performances of "Who Am I?" and "Bring Him Home" were as finely honed and compelling as one is likely to hear.
Daniel Cilli, as Valjean's relentless pursuer, Javert, sang "Stars" with vocal and emotional potency that cut to the bone. Cilli's characterization of the police inspector was chilling, dark and brooding.
Vanessa Ballam's Fantine was vulnerable and poignant. Ballam successfully negotiated the score's wide vocal range, giving "I Dreamed a Dream" expressive depth. Tyler Olshansky as Éponine was another standout, delivering "On My Own" with a touching mixture of passion and pathos.
Stefan Espinosa and UFOMT regular Vanessa Schukis, as the Thénardiers, left nothing to be desired, wreaking havoc as the outrageously degenerate innkeepers. Espinosa found particularly clever ways to make the character his own with a sly wink here, a raised brow there and even a bit of well-timed slapstick it all landed well.
Patrick Massey's Marius and Leah Edwards' Cosette made a handsome couple. Though vocally less well-suited, they produced sympathetic characterizations. But the children, as they typically do, stole the show. Carter Ellis played a spunky Gavroche with a spot-on accent, and Kayli Checketts sang young Cosette's song, "Castle on a Cloud," in tune and achingly cute. (The roles were double-cast with Stewart Merriam and Grace Mickelson, respectively.)
'The Student Prince'
UFOMT general manager Michael Ballam has the distinct ability to breathe new life into old (sometimes moldy) operettas. His company did it again with Sigmund Romberg's "The Student Prince." With performances dedicated to LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson and his late wife, Frances, the schmaltzy work gleamed with cheery sets, depicting 19th-century college life in Heidelberg, Germany; opulent costumes; and sumptuous vocals, especially from golden-throated tenor Andrew Bidlack. Though the story contains little dramatic conflict and a somewhat bittersweet ending, the cast and production team created something quite delightful.
When baritone Wes Mason (Curly) opened Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" singing, "There's a bright golden haze on the meadow," somewhere in the heavens, Gordon McRae (who played Curly in the 1955 movie version) must have fallen off his horse. Mason's incomparable vocals and endearing characterization stoked but didn't dominate the gifted cast.
One of the pleasures of attending UFOMT's repertory productions is seeing some cast members take on different roles. This year, UFOMT regular Kevin Nakatani displayed remarkable range with his absorbing portrayal of Judd in this show, an austere Butler in "Vanessa" and a comically pompous valet in "The Student Prince." Character actor Vanessa Schukis was another example, creating a folksy Aunt Eller in this production and going pleasingly over the top as Madame Thénardier in "Les Miz."
Somehow Maggie L. Harrer, wearing both stage director and choreographer hats, was able to take a cast whose primary strength was singing and molded each of them into triple-threat performers no small feat. The production's dance sequences, including the full dream ballet, were especially successful.
Michael Ballam searched far and wide to find the right voice for the title role of Samuel Barber's "Vanessa." With soprano Beverly O'Regan Thiele, he found the expressive qualities and vocal agility to tackle the challenge. As the opera opened, Thiele, as the eponymous recluse, skeptically awaited the arrival of Anatol (Andrew Bidlack), the man who had rejected her 20 years earlier. But instead, it was the deceased Anatol's son, who went by the same name.
Stage director Daniel Helfgot deftly steered this psychological drama, allowing Barber's descriptive score to do the heavy lifting. Helfgot coaxed subtle characterizations, especially from mezzo Alice-Anne M. Light as Vanessa's protective niece, Erika. Her elegant tone matched well with Thiele's, and the dramatic mental erosion she displayed virtually transforming into Vanessa's alter ego was mesmerizing.
Bass-baritone Richard Zuch, as the affable doctor, contributed his cavernous voice and gift for providing comic relief, and Amanda Tarver, as the judgmental Baroness, showed strength through restraint. Tarver's chilling silence or disapproving stare spoke volumes.
Conductor Barbara Day Turner led a large orchestra of fine musicians from throughout the country who dispatched the score's technical challenges and successfully fleshed out the opera's emotional bones. Turner was also on the podium for "The Student Prince," while Keltner presided over "Les Misérables" and "Oklahoma."
Hear the people sing … in Logan
P Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre presents four productions in rotating repertory.
When • Reviewed opening week, July 9-12. Productions continue Tuesdays through Saturdays through Aug. 9.
Where • Ellen Eccles Theatre, 43 S. Main, Logan
Tickets • $12-76 with discounts for students K-12, full-time college students and when purchasing all four shows; http://www.ufoc.org, arttix.org, 435-750-0300 or 800-262-0074 ext 3.
Running times • "Vanessa," about 2 ½ hours with two intermissions; "Oklahoma," about 3 hours with one 20-minute intermission; "The Student Prince," about 2 ½ hours with one 20-minute intermission; "Les Misérables," just over 3 hours with one 20-minute intermission.