"PROPHET," at SCERA Showhouse
by Eric D. Snider
Published on September 12, 1999
While many LDS plays and musicals give up on being high-quality theater and seek instead to get by solely on their warmth and fuzziness, the creators of "PROPHET" have boldly declared all summer that their show would NOT be like that.
Thom Duncan (book and lyrics) and Mark Steven Gelter (music and lyrics) have insisted that while "PROPHET" would indeed have an uplifting message, that would not be the end-all and be-all of its existence -- it would be, first and foremost, a quality show about the last days of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Being a testimony-builder was of secondary concern; being good theater was first.
Well, we've seen the show now, and it's true: This is not a typical LDS musical. Unfortunately, it is also not any grand theatrical experience, nor does it provide any insight into the character of Joseph Smith beyond what we already knew.
The idea here is that Joseph (played with enthusiastic blandness by Sam Payne) was more than just a prophet: He was also a man, a husband, a brother, and a lot of other things.
The main person he is concerned with is his strong, long-suffering wife Emma (Johanne Frechette Perry). They have more scenes together than anyone else, and it is his love for her that motivates many of his final actions. One would think, then, that their final moments together would be extraordinarily powerful. But the show plods along so cumbersomely, so certain of its own magnitude ("This will be the DEFINITIVE play about Joseph Smith!" it seems to say; just look at the all-caps title), that there are few, if any, moments of real emotional connection.
Joseph and Emma do come close, and there is some chemistry there, particularly in the flashback to their courtship days. But Joseph and Hyrum (Jamie Edwards) -- his brother with whom he was, in real life, inseparable -- seem like strangers to each other.
Joseph has a guardian angel who looks like a white-jumpsuited Elvis (he even carries a guitar), played gamely by the venerable Marvin Payne. This part is entirely unnecessary, looking like it was written just because they wanted Marvin Payne in their show (not that I blame them).
The bad guy is Simonds Ryder, a ridiculously one-note character played with cartoonish conviction by Michael Cox. He struts around with a cane and a voice like the evil emperor in "Return of the Jedi," leading his band of bearded, Dockers-wearing ruffians against the "fallen prophet."
Ryder is a good enough "Satan figure," I guess, but he's too one-dimensional (especially with his eye-rollingly lame downfall at the end) to be an effective villain -- especially when his enemy is so dull.
That's right, Joseph Smith comes across in this play as dull. Of all the things Joseph Smith was ever reported to have been, dull is not one of them. We might expect him to be engimatic and unfathomable, like there's something going on inside him that we just can't comprehend. But Sam Payne's portrayal of him isn't impenetrable depth; it's just blandness.
In a play whose sole purpose is to make Joseph seem like a real man, to break him down into pieces that regular folks can relate to, you'd think there'd be more insight.
Some attempt is made to show his sense of humor, his love for physical activity, and some of his other "human" traits. But those scenes are almost rote, just going through the motions and painting Joseph Smith by the numbers.
The show is nothing if not ambitious. Gelter's music is generally quite good, and definitely a cut above the three-chord tripe we hear in a lot of other well-meaning shows. Payne and Perry both sing very well, though their supporting cast (particularly Cox) are a little uneven. Sam Payne even changed his hair and eye color to make himself look more like Joseph.
But all together, the result is weak. The show is too long (the entire "Oh My Heber!" number can be cut altogether), too talky, too slow, and it never really tells us anything. By its own admission, it takes itself out of the category of "cheesy-but-spiritual LDS musicals" ("Saturday's Warrior," etc.), so we can't compare it to those. But in the category of "good old-fashioned high-quality theater," in which we have plenty to compare it to, it fails to measure up.
Copyright © Eric D. Snider.
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