Joyful Noise

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In 1998, Tim Slover’s brilliant new play “Joyful Noise” was so well-received that BYU staged two sell-out productions of it within the same calendar year.

Now, a scant four years later, a perfectly good production of it languishes at Orem’s Center Street Theatre, unseen by more than a handful of people at a time.

I hope this can be ascribed to the theater being too new for Utah Valley to know about it; this is only its second production, after all, and the first one was “My Turn on Earth.” If the sparse attendance for “Joyful Noise” is due to the public having forgotten how wonderful, how exuberantly uplifting, this play is, then consider this the reminder.

It is the true story of how George Frederick Handel came to write “The Messiah,” the oratorio without which, for many people, Christmas would not be Christmas. Though it seems absurd now, he faced opposition from religious leaders of the day who felt it was blasphemous to set scriptural language to “popular” music. (Bishop Henry Egerton, the character who represents this opposition, decries it as “the pernicious practice of turning the Bible into entertainment” — a description that produces knowing smiles in Utah, where “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” is the most popular musical.)

Intertwined with Handel’s story is that of his soprano, Susannah Cibber, a once-successful actress whose life has been ruined by a sex scandal and an illegitimate pregnancy. The clergy opposes Handel; haughty actress Kitty Clive opposes Susannah; and King George II is caught between following the Bishop’s advice to stop Handel and offending the spirit of his late wife, who loved the composer’s work.

The script is brimming with fantastic dramatic conflict, but it also is so rife with great lines that it is nearly Oscar Wildean. The richly drawn characters speak in ordered, perfectly nuanced sentences; each of the four times I have seen this play since 1998, I have come away with a new favorite line. (Currently, it is this, spoken by Handel’s chief admirer: “My perpetual ravishment has been at the hands of the master — I speak musically, of course.”)

The script is so good, in fact, that all it needs is a competent director and a half-decent cast, and the beauty of it will shine through. At the Center Street Theatre, the director, Christopher Clark, is more than competent, and the cast is better than half-decent.

Clark uses the theater’s intimate setting to his advantage. The scaled-down set design and simple costumes let the characters be the main attraction. This also allows the play’s many scene changes and transitions to occur seamlessly, giving the story a fresh pace.

C. Heywood Bagley is a fine Handel, large and lovably cantankerous, and eminently German. His entertaining rampages against the fickle audiences of London are cleverly balanced by his even-tempered assistant, John Smith, played with subtlety by Joel R. Wallin.

Even more spectacular, though, is Hailey Smith as Susannah Cibber. I applaud the casting: It is the first time that the description of Susannah given within the play — “the voice of an angel” — has been accurate. The character does not have to sing very much — this is a play ABOUT music, not a musical — but her audition scene for Handel should be powerful. Smith’s is extraordinary. Throughout the show, she continually breaks your heart. I say it is one of the best non-professional performances of the year.

Thom Duncan is by turns amusing and touching as King George II, still grieving for his beloved wife, and Robert Johansen is effectively authoritative as the Bishop.

We also must mention Mary Atkin’s gloriously catty Kitty Clive, and Celeste Barrand, whose fawning Handel devotee Mary Pendarves strikes just the right balance between zeal and daftness.

There is roughness around some of the edges of some of the performances, but by the time “Messiah” is given its London premiere and every character’s heartache is redeemed, you will not notice or care. Wit, emotion and loveliness abound in this stellar production; I hope you do not miss it.

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