Omega Productions’ 25th anniversary revival of “Saturday’s Warrior,” currently playing at Salt Lake’s Capitol Theatre in preparation for an eight-city tour, is better than it could have been.
The LDS musical has taken a lot of abuse for the last quarter-century, some of it well-deserved, for being cheesy, trite, and full of doctrine that ranges from the merely hypothetical to the downright incorrect. (Pam dies and goes BACK to the pre-existence, where the as-yet unborn Emily still waits? I don’t think so.)
This image has not been helped by the video production released a decade or so ago which has become commonplace in many LDS homes and which is horribly overacted, accentuating every minor flaw in Doug Stewart’s script and lyrics and adding plenty more of its own.
The new production overcomes many of the obstacles that face it, thanks to some minor changes in the script and a major overhaul of Lex de Azevedo’s original musical arrangements, re-done quite well by Clive Romney.
Some solid acting, good choreography (by Kieri Coombs) and able direction (by Robert Manning) also contribute.
The show begins in the pre-mortal world (they called it the “pre-existence” in 1973), where several spirits are waiting to be born. In particular there is a family of eight, the oldest two of whom — twins Jimmy (Casey Reeves) and Pam (Kiri Price) Flinders — are about to enter this world. Also going is Todd (Mark Daniels), who has already proclaimed his love for Julie Flinders (Ashley Jepperson). And there are a couple of guys, Wally (Brian McFadyn) and Harold (Matthew Lewis), who are destined to be missionary companions 20 years down the road.
This long scene unfortunately resembles the aforementioned video in terms of embarrassing cuteness. In fact, it seems some of the actors studied that video carefully to learn how they should say their lines — a bad idea, to be sure. Some of the dialogue is cringe-worthy as written, but could be salvaged if delivered with some down-to-earth sincerity.
But there is none of that in the opening sequence, which is instead full of broad, obnoxious choreography, jokes that are swung around like sledgehammers, and some real ham-fisted directing.
Fortunately, the show makes a 180-degree turn with “Sailing On.” That number exemplifies what is good about this production, and how the rest of the show should have been, in that it is simple and understated. Jimmy and Pam sing while a few dancers move elegantly in the background. Throughout the show, when things are kept simple like that, there is much feeling, much emotion, and much humor. It is only when they try to make things “big” that they instead make things melodramatic and embarrassing.
McFadyn and Lewis as the two missionaries demonstrate some of the best chemistry — as well as some of the best singing ability — playing off each other with skill and creating genuine laughs — again, because they don’t try too hard to force the laugh out of us. McFadyn, particularly, is energetic and full of life in everything he does.
Reeves is solid as Jimmy, singing well and conveying his inner struggle as well as is possible, given the vagueness of the script in that department. Some work could be done to make him seem more sympathetic to the audience, as opposed to being somewhat non-descript, as he is now.
Surprisingly helpful in a supporting role is Fred Lee as younger brother Benjy. While many young actors, including some in this show, feel a need to yell every line with a self-aware “this-is-funny” attitude, Lee is honest and real in his performance. This young actor will do a killer job at lead roles when he gets a little older.
Jepperson plays the fickle “Dear John”-writer Julie with a whininess that is at first annoying, until you realize she’s doing it on purpose, at which point it becomes quite funny.
In the end, “Saturday’s Warrior” really is touching and inspiring. Theatrically, several scenes have flaws, and those do detract from the spirit that could otherwise be felt. (It’s hard to cringe at the ridiculousness of something and be inspired by it at the same time.) But ultimately, those flaws can be overlooked as the important message of the show and its uplifting spirit are conveyed by a cast that obviously puts its heart and soul into everything.
I went to this show fully expecting to hate it as much as I hate the video version of it. I was quite pleasantly surprised, then, when I actually enjoyed it quite a bit. There were parts, as I mentioned, that were unbearably cheesy, but there weren't too many of them (except for the entire first 15 minutes).
And the new orchestrations really are an improvement. I just listened to the original cast album -- from 1974 -- and maybe it sounded cool in 1974, but it sure doesn't now. The new orchestrations help a lot in making the show a very solid production.