Joyful Noise

It’s only a matter of time before saying this becomes cliche, but “Joyful Noise” truly is joyful.

I can’t think of a better way to describe it. The play, written by BYU faculty member Tim Slover*, tells the true story of George Frederic Handel (Richard J. Clifford) and his struggles to write and perform his famous “Messiah” oratorio. The play was performed for enthusiastic crowds in March, and the same director, Bob Nelson, and much of the same cast have come together now for this restaging.

Mixed in with Handel’s story are several other elements. Singer/actress Susanna Cibber (Stephanie Foster Breinholt), once a noted performer in London, has become an outcast, thanks to a major sex scandal. She seeks for redemption and a chance to sing again, while at the same time Handel seeks to regain the favor of notoriously fickle London crowds, and to produce something that will really mean something.

At the same time, King George II (Cameron Deaver) is still in mourning for his wife, who was a big fan of Handel’s. Since her death, he has been uninterested in music, and Bishop Henry Egerton’s (Braden Gregory Bell) insistence that Handel’s music is evil isn’t helping any. Susanna’s old rival, the very catty Kitty Clive (Katie Foster), is tossed into the mix as well, aiding and abetting the Bishop’s crusade against popular music.

So there’s a lot going on, but at the center of it is Handel. Clifford, who was not in the first production, plays Handel as a blustery, prideful fellow, a “poisonous, puffed-up old hog,” as Kitty puts it. Clifford gives the character depth, though, particularly in the scene where he explains to Susanna his inspiration for setting Charles Jennins’s (D.C. Wright) libretto to music. Handel is a fascinating character, full of life, and Clifford nails the role.

Breinholt, too, is marvelous. She is not much of a singer (there’s not too much singing in the show anyway), but as an actress, she is consistently one of the best around. Her Susanna is a heart-wrenching character, full of honest emotion and real tragedy. Watching her slowly work toward redemption almost becomes the focus of the play, though it ultimately remains a complementary metaphor for Handel’s work. Her story and his story work together perfectly.

Also worthy of mention is Colleen M. Baum, who plays Handel enthusiast Mary Pendarves. The character is full of praise and flattery and some very amusing melodrama (“Cease, zealot!” she cries in an impassioned plea against the narrow-minded Bishop), and Baum plays her excellently. The character is not buffoonish, despite being there mostly for comic relief; instead, she adds layers to the play. I honestly think the play would suffer without her, and this production would most certainly suffer without Baum. She, Breinholt and Foster are three of the most talented actresses BYU has churned out in recent memory.

Every part is well-played. The actors are skilled and keep things moving at a brisk pace. One senses that one is watching a group of real professionals at work.

What makes the play effective is that so many of the themes are applicable to modern life. The Bishop is against “Messiah” because he considers it blasphemous to put the words of scripture to “common” (i.e., non-hymn) music. He is opposed to it, despite not having heard it. We chuckle at the irony — here is a Bishop opposing something that we now know to be one of the most religious and sacred works ever produced — and yet, how many of us have been against something without even seeing it, or even really knowing what it is?

At one point, Handel tells the Bishop, “You wanted something very badly, and so you thought God wanted it, too.” This sums up perfectly the motivation behind so many personal crusades that people embark on. Don’t know what “crusades” I’m talking about? Read the letters to the editor of any newspaper in Utah.

Susanna is blackballed mostly because of bad press and rumors, and because people are unwilling to give anyone a second chance, or even the benefit of the doubt. The applications here are obvious.

I could go on and on. Someone should, and probably will, write an in-depth analysis of all the intricacies of this play. It’s that complex, and that beautiful.

But it’s simple, too. The stage is simple, the lighting is simple, the message is simple. Ultimately, everything comes together. The work is performed, redemption is found, hearts are changed, and the audience’s emotions are stirred. The sincere worship of God inherent in “Messiah” becomes the all-encompassing summary of everything else that has gone on, and as the characters sing it in the final moments of the play, we see that the message of the music truly represents the message of all the plots and sub-plots, down to the last “Hallelujah!” of that famous chorus. I defy anyone to watch this play, become caught up in it, and not walk out of the theater filled with the joyful tidings of “Joyful Noise.” It is the sort of play that transcends ordinary theater and becomes an experience.

*Tim Slover was pressured to resign from BYU after having an affair with a fellow professor’s wife, an affair with a student, and at least one attempted affair with a student that was rebuffed and reported. The BYU Theatre Department shamefully kept all of this quiet and allowed false alternate explanations for Slover’s departure to spread.