The Desert Star Playhouse in Murray produces melodramatic, family-oriented, cabaret-style, song-and-dance musical parodies, usually full of broad jokes, broad characters, and broad acting. Some shows turn out better than others; the current one — “Hercules: It’s All Greek to Me” — is one of the best.
Desert Star succeeds best when satirizing a more familiar story than that of Hercules, but that doesn’t turn out to be a liability here. The plot? Ancient Greek Hercules (played beefily by former Mr. Utah Rick Miller) wants to marry Deianira (Julie Ann Christensen), but due to the connivings of the evil Medea (Alison Henriksen), he must first perform three seemingly impossible tasks. He does them, of course, and they all live happily ever after.
What makes this show better than some others at the Playhouse is that the script, by Norman E. Plate and Beth Bruner, has fewer lame, cheap-shot jokes than usual, and far more genuinely witty, funny lines instead. The Greeks began the Olympics, and the Olympics are coming to Utah in four years — and yet only one very brief reference is made to them. That shows considerable restraint, especially at the Desert Star Playhouse.
In one scene, Hercules re-routes a river in order to clean out Medea’s palace (one of his tasks). As the palace is flooded with water and the entire cast floats past, some of them several times, we hear and see references to “Titanic” (complete with a dead floating body), “Jaws” (“That was no boating accident!” yells someone), “The Poseidon Adventure,” the Beach Boys, and the song “Old Man River” — all in about 60 seconds.
The show also contains references, at various times, to “Bye Bye Birdie,” “When Harry Met Sally” (I bet most people didn’t catch it, and I can’t explain it, ’cause it’s dirty), “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” Disney’s “Hercules” movie, the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” Monty Python’s “bring out your dead” routine from “Holy Grail,” Harvey the invisible rabbit (it’s a horse in this show), and the Grecian urn bit from “The Music Man.”
Unlike most other Playhouse shows, which tend to hit you over the head with the jokes and which usually make only the broadest pop culture references, “Hercules” allows itself to be fast-paced and even subtle. It’s a hybrid of a very well-produced Road Show and “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”
Adding to the zeal and enthusiasm of the show — in fact, carrying the show in many ways — is Nicholas D. Bruun, a BYU student who plays Hercules’ trainer Philo. Bruun brings an energy and dynamic with him onstage that automatically improves everything else that’s going on. He throws himself into his parts with reckless abandon — stay for the post-show Olio, a ’70s tribute, just to see his frenetic disco dancing — and yet simultaneously obviously doesn’t take the whole thing too seriously. Rather than trying desperately to make you laugh, he just does his thing and lets the laughs come.
Two problems with this show: Diomedes (Jesse Dolce), son of Medea who also wants to marry Deianira, is inexplicably played as an over-the-top flamboyant homosexual. This is a cheaper laugh than the show needs, though it’s fairly typical of Desert Star mentality.
Also, Medea’s maid Thoula, while performed smartly by Amy Nattress, is written as a subservient animal. Really — Medea literally treats her like a dog several times, and it’s a little creepy, almost disturbing, to watch. It’s probably supposed to make Medea seem more villainness-like, but it seems so odd. (Still, it’s nice to hear Thoula refer to Philo, her new-found love, as “my own geek god.”)
“Hercules” is a fast-paced, very funny show, miles above the pie-in-the-face goofiness Desert Star usually serves up. See it and see what a good parody/melodrama is all about.
We all enjoyed this one more than we'd enjoyed any of the previous Desert Star shows; that decision was unanimous. We particularly enjoyed Nick Bruun, whom a few of us knew from BYU and whom we found especially amusing.
The "When Harry Met Sally" reference is to the scene when Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm in a deli just to prove to Billy Crystal that she can do it, and afterwards, a woman at an adjacent table tells the watiress, "I'll have what she's having."