Tim Slover’s “Joyful Noise,” which premiered at BYU in 1998, is a fine play. Using an almost-bare stage and a straightforward storytelling style, it relates simply and effectively the true story of the politics and scandal behind Handel’s masterpiece “Messiah.”
The first-ever professional production of this play, at Pioneer Theatre Company, unfortunately is not a stellar one. The quality of the source material comes through — much of Slover’s witty and insightful dialogue would sound good even if the guy who says “You’ve got mail” were reading it — but the lack of passion from some of the cast members is also apparent.
Chief among the offenders in this area is the man who plays Handel himself, Charles Anatolsky. He is rotund and energetic, but his German accent is often too thick to be understood, and while he rants effectively as the “cantankerous old German bear,” his more human moments seem perfunctory. Handel seems neither larger-than-life nor life-like.
The very catty Kitty Clive, a hilariously bad actress who wants to sing for Handel and who holds a grudge against his other soprano, the scandal-plagued Susannah Cibber, also gets the short shrift. Played by Barbara McCulloh, Kitty comes off as two-dimensionally evil; if she had a moustache, she’d twirl it. This makes her hair-pulling slap-fight with Susannah (Gloria Biegler) seem entirely unrealistic, a trait I don’t recall associating with that scene in either of BYU’s two productions.
On the other hand, there are some very good performances among the supporting cast. Libby George (who was one of the highlights at this year’s Utah Shakespearean Festival) plays Handel’s most dedicated friend and fan Mary Pendarves with uncommon likability. Full of flowery language (she describes Susannah as having a voice “like the rustling of doves’ wings) and sincere praise for “the master,” she’s an entertaining character and a scene-brightener whenever she appears.
Max Robinson, consistently one of Pioneer’s best actors, shines as King George II, who supported Handel’s efforts when his wife was alive but is now being persuaded by the stuffy Bishop Henry Egerton (Matt Loney) to believe it’s blasphemous to put scriptural words to secular music. Robinson lends the king believability and humanity, particularly in his ruminations on the queen’s death two years prior.
The finale of the play did, in fact, move me; however, it was because Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” was being played, not because of what was happening in the play. Ideally, it should be a combination of both, a culmination of what the narrative has been leading to mingled with the jubilant strains of Handel’s masterpiece. This production goes by rote, and only occasionally rises above that.
I saw both of BYU's productions and was quite impressed with both. Jason Tatum played Handel the first time, Richard Clifford the second time, and both were amazing in their own different ways. (Richard Clifford, for my money, is among the top three or four actors to come out of BYU in the last few years.) Colleen Baum played Mary Pendarves in both productions, and I'm told she auditioned for the PTC production, which cast only Equity actors instead. Libby George made a fine Mary, though I must admit I miss Colleen Baum (just now I accidentally typed "Colleen Bum," which I think would amuse Colleen if she knew).