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.
This was an awkward staging of a mediocre show. All the fight scenes were horribly choreographed and looked like skit night at the Kiwanis Club. Much of the singing, as I mentioned in the review, was sub-par. It was a hard show.
My connection with this show began several months earlier, when composer Gelter e-mailed me to inform me of the upcoming auditions, and just generally to talk up the show. I was genuinely interested, because he seemed to realize that many LDS shows are really BAD theater, but people like them anyway because they make them feel nice. He said his show would actually be GOOD theater. I was excited at the prospect.
He also mentioned, in that e-mail, that he agreed with my theater reviews 95 percent of the time, and the other 5 percent, he just chalked up to my inexperience. In other words, he had the same narrow-minded view as so many others in the valley: Whenever I don't agree with you, I assume it's because you don't know what you're talking about.
The show was heavily hyped all summer. People involved with the show contacted The Daily Herald quite frequently, trying to get various stories and what-not in the paper. Someone compared the show to "Les Miserables" at some point (a comparison that works only in terms of the shows' lengths: 3 hours each).
So I went into it hoping this would finally be the one great LDS musical, but still wary of the possibility that it wouldn't be. And it wasn't.
Naturally, the letters came. First, the one that needs the least response:
I strongly disagree with Eric Snyder's [that's the point where I stop paying attention, by the way] review of the play "Prophet." I fear his negativity will keep audiences away from a show well deserving attendance. This play makes Joseph, Emma, Hyrum and others come to life and allows us to see them as REAL PEOPLE....with all their fears, passion, love, joy, sorrow and pain...Couldn't find any "Kramers" in the cast or crew anywhere, so maybe she's not related to anyone.
There is not much entertainment available for the LDS audience which will uplift them as much as this intimate portrayal of their beloved prophet, Joseph Smith. I urge your reading audience not to rely on Mr. Snyder's opinion, but to rather judge for themselves by attending the show.
The following letter is not particularly angry, but it does require response.
I read with interest a recent review of the new musical Prophet by Eric Snider. [I assume he means the review was by Eric Snider, not the new musical "PROPHET."] I knew with his reputation it would not be a positive review, but I was curious to see if he and I agreed on anything about the musical. I agreed with him on a couple points, but was surprised by what appears to be his lack of knowledge of early Mormon history.Notice he said he knew my review would be negative because of my "reputation." That is accurate. If he had said, "I knew, based on having read his previous reviews, that it would be negative," well, that would be stupid. About 15 percent of my reviews are actually negative, though that 15 percent is still enough to get me that "reputation."
In identifying the weakness of the actor playing the role of Simonds Ryder, who by the way I also consider a weak area of the performance, [I actually was criticizing the character more than the actor] Snider states that his downfall at the end of the show was "eye-rollingly lame." History records that Ryder was indeed the leader of a mob that tarred and feathered Joseph Smith in the early 1830's at Hiram, Ohio. The reason Ryder had turned on Joseph Smith is indeed the reason given in Prophet. It may be "eye-rollingly lame" but it is historically true. I thought it was a stroke of creative guinness [Alec Guinness?]to pull an event from the past into the events of June 1844 to represent the pettiness of those who were responsible for Joseph Smith's death.
While Prophet may not be the most professional theater experience I have had, I enjoyed the performance. I particularly enjoyed the lighter moments of Joseph and Emma's relationship and I liked the role of the angel, but the guitar is out of place. Sam Payne and Johanne Perry as Joseph and Emma play difficult roles very well. Overall, I felt Prophet was unique, creative, enjoyable, and well worth my time.
Now, as for my knowledge of early church history. To explain a little more, in the show, Simonds Ryder is portrayed as Joseph's main villain. His hatred for Joseph knows no bounds. In the end, we learn that the whole reason he hates Joseph is that Joseph misspelled his name Ryder as "Rider" on a mission call. That's it. That's the whole reason.
Now, as one whose last name is frequently misspelled, I can relate to Simonds's frustration. I don't think I would renounce the Prophet because of it, but I can see being a little perturbed.
Anyway, the playwright's note in the program acknowledges that Simonds Ryder is used sort of as a composite of all of Joseph's enemies. In actuality, he was never in Nauvoo, and he had nothing to do with Joseph being killed, even though the show has him directly involved. So he's a composite, which I guess is necessary, because there was no ONE person responsible for what happened to Joseph.
Now, then. Barton Golding says he was "surprised" by my "lack of knowledge of early Mormon history," because my review gave the impression that I thought Ryder's downfall was too lame to work in the play, and I shouldn't have felt that way, because after all, that really is how Ryder felt.
First of all, Barton Golding should not have been "surprised" if I knew nothing about the real, historical Simonds Ryder. He was a relatively minor figure in early LDS history. The official manual used in LDS history classes has exactly one sentence about him. In Joseph Smith's "History of the Church" books, he is mentioned twice for minor reasons (one of them for the fact that he had gone apostate), and then again as being a Campbellite preacher later on. He did play a part in that tarring-and-feathering incident, but he is more well-known for his stupid "Joseph misspelled my name so I hate him" thing. If people have heard of him, it's usually in connection with that. Not knowing who Simonds Ryder was is not terribly uncommon in the church; it's sort of like a Californian not knowing who the governor of New York is.
But the fact of the matter is, I did know who Simonds Ryder was before I saw "PROPHET," and I was aware that the reason behind his evilness in the show was historically accurate.
What I was criticizing was the playwright's choice of Simonds Ryder as a villain, and Ryder's stupid motivations are precisely the reason he made a bad stage villain. They should have chosen someone who had a better reason for disliking Joseph. Not that Joseph -- I need to be careful here -- not that Joseph was a partricularly dislikable guy who did a lot of terrible things, because he wasn't and he didn't. But he had enemies whose beefs with him were a little more rational and legitimate than Ryder's -- people who disagreed with him doctrinally, for example. Any of them would have been better choices as villains, because they wouldn't have seemed so cartoonish.
In the end, all of Joseph's enemies' reasons for disliking him were "petty," as the letter-writer put it, but the play suffered from choosing one that was especially ridiculous. It makes for decent history, but not for good theater.
I was greatly vilified for this review on the Association for Mormon Letters e-mailing discussion group, a fact I learned several weeks later. Apparently the play's authors, as well as some of its cast members and other supporters, were members of that group, and they had a jolly old time ripping me to shreds. Then I joined the group, and everyone got a lot more tactful.