Opening weekend of the Utah Shakespeare Festival is one of my favorite times of the year. It is certainly my favorite arts event in Southern Utah.
As the festival opened this past weekend it was even more exciting than usual as it coincided with the Opening Celebration for Southern Utah University’s Beverley Taylor Sorenson Center for the Arts, which is now home to the Cedar City-based theater festival. That meant three of the USF plays were performed in the brand new Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre. Even the free Greenshow had a new stage at The Beverley.
Because I was working on a story about the opening of the Neil Simon Festival, I didn’t make it to the Thursday morning dedication of The Beverley and the Southern Utah Museum of Art, which comprises the northwest corner of SUU’s new arts center. But the atmosphere was still festive as my mother and I arrived for the opening of “The Cocoanuts” at the festival’s Randall L. Jones Theatre that afternoon.
“The Cocoanuts” was a fun, musical romp featuring slapstick Marx Brothers humor and jubilant Irving Berlin music. You can read my colleague Emily Havens’ review online at TheSpectrum.com. My favorite aspect of the show was the dastardly duo of Melinda Parrett and Michael Harding as Penelope and Harvey, respectively. Melinda was especially funny with her deep, seductive voice and her exaggerated movements to the music.
Following the play, I took my mom on a tour of The Beverley. We especially enjoyed looking at the festival’s portrait gallery with decades of photos from past productions.
We also checked out the exhibits at SUMA, including the paintings by the late, great Jimmie Jones. While at the museum, we accidentally photo-bombed the governor while my colleagues Jordan Allred and Haven Scott were filming him for TheSpectrum.com. Check out their video on the opening of The Beverley and look for us in the background of the interview with Gov. Gary Herbert.
I returned to the festival Thursday evening with my wife, Cammie, for the dedication of the new Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre and its first play opening, “Henry V.” First we checked out the English Night of the festival’s free Greenshow in the new Ashton Family Greenshow Commons. It’s definitely easier to see the performers on this new stage since they face the sun now.
After the Greenshow we filed into the Engelstad for the dedication ceremony and the play (See my story on the dedication and review of the play at TheSpectrum.com.). “Henry V” proved to be a great play to open the new outdoor theater, which retained much of the atmosphere of the iconic Adams Shakespearean Theatre.
Following the play we were surprised to find an all-out dance party near the new Eileen and Allen Anes Studio Theatre with The Joe Muscolino Band tearing through hits from six decades, from The Beatles to Adele. Although I’m not much of a dancer (even after my participation in Dancing With Your Community Stars last year), my wife loves it so we joined in, dancing until well past midnight. The festival put on quite the party.
On Friday we returned for the matinee opening of the delightful “Mary Poppins” at the Randall. As the orchestra began playing the overture, Cammie whispered to me that she already liked it. I agreed. And it only got better, proving to be a delightful production all around, highlighted by Mila Belle Howells as little Jane Banks and Chris Mixon as her father, George Banks.
Then Friday night we were back for Irish Night at the Greenshow and “Much Ado About Nothing” in the Engelstad. “Much Ado” proved to be our favorite of the five plays opening that weekend, just edging out “Mary Poppins.” (See my review of “Mary Poppins” online at The Spectrum.com and watch for my review of “Much Ado” later this week.)
It was also a special treat to see festival founder Fred Adams on stage again for the first time in a decade. He played the role of Verges, bringing back fond memories of his fantastic performance as Major General Stanley during a 2001 production of “The Pirates of Penzance.” To this day, that remains one of my favorite festival experiences, though I unfortunately missed him in 2006’s “H.M.S. Pinafore.”
We were surprised again following “Much Ado” with another dance party outside the Anes. This time it was one of our favorite Cedar City bands, Wilhelm, performing. It was actually the third time we’ve heard them in recent weeks and they impress us each time with their lilting gypsy jazz.
Finally on Saturday we finished our festival experience with Paris Bistro night at the Greenshow and the opening of “The Three Musketeers” in the Engelstad. Paris Bistro was probably our favorite of the three Greenshows, both in terms of look (wonderful, bright costumes) and performance (fun song and dance numbers). The Irish Night was our least favorite, mostly because of the Gaelic version of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” while the more traditional English Night fell somewhere in between.
As for “The Three Musketeers,” it was probably my least favorite of the five openings but it was still quite enjoyable. It was fun to again see Melinda Parrett playing another villainess while Ben Livinston’s French king was hilarious. I was also glad to see Sceri Sioux Ivers in a prominent role after two admirable turns as a boy page in recent history plays.
While each of the five plays is worth seeing, my list from favorite to least favorite would lead with “Much Ado About Nothing” followed by “Mary Poppins,” “Henry V,” “The Cocoanuts” and “The Three Musketeers.” Meanwhile, the actors to watch this year as far as strong roles include those I mentioned above as well as Kim Martin-Cotton, Luigi Sottile, Larry Bull, Eddie Lopez and Kelly Rogers.
Four of the five plays run through September while “The Cocoanuts” will continue into October, joined by three additional plays later in the season. Tickets are $20-$73. Visit Bard.org or call 800-752-9849.
Tempting: A brief glimpse at the arts events tempting me this week.
· Neil Simon Festival ongoing through Aug. 13 at the Heritage Center Theater, 105 N. 100 East, Cedar City. $21-$26. Visit Simonfest.org or call 866-357-4666.
· Zion Summer Fest from 4-10:30 p.m. Saturday at the Canyon Community Center, 126 Lion Boulevard, Springdale. $5-$10. Visit ZionCanyonMusicFestival.com or call 435-772-3952.