Have you heard much about the pioneers lately?
OK, it’s a dumb question. This sesquicentennial year has been over-saturated with pioneer-related plays, songs, books and spectaculars. Many have been too sentimental, too contrived, or too obviously out to make a buck on the current pioneer craze.
One uplifting exception to this is “Trail of Dreams,” a musical being performed at the Valentine Theater in American Fork, just northwest of the Mt. Timpanogos Temple.
Written by James Arrington, Marvin Payne and Steven Kapp Perry, “Trail of Dreams” tells the story of John Brown, who helped a total of 70,000 pioneers cross the plains between 1846 and 1869.
This is no typical crossing-the-plains story, though. Instead, the play takes the form of John Brown’s dream, in which he and the people he crossed with all exist simultaneously — despite the fact that in real life, most of them crossed in different years and never met each other. Brown (played by Payne, who is Brown’s real-life great-grandson) flits back and forth, from winter of one year, to summer of another year, dealing with all the problems at once.
The main problem is death, as represented by Angela Hopewell (Martha Glissmeyer). Only Payne can see or hear her, but she is present whenever a pioneer dies — a genuine Angel of Death, albeit a very pretty one. It is she who eventually vocalizes the play’s theme: “Dreams are stronger than death.”
Perhaps one does not expect much from a locally written and produced musical. Good musicals are written by big-time Broadway guys like Sondheim and Lloyd Webber, right?
If this was ever my attitude (and I don’t think it was), I’ve changed my mind. “Trail of Dreams,” while obviously of local interest and subject matter, is on a par with some of the better Broadway-style shows I’ve seen. Steven Kapp Perry’s musical score is not “Mormon pop”; it’s good, technically superior music, sometimes reminiscent of “Les Miserables” in its more powerful moments.
And the play’s script, while a little long (2 1/2 hours) and occasionally too vague on all the metaphysical what-year-is-John-Brown-in stuff, is well-written and plotted.
Good acting performances are the norm in this show. Davison Cheney and Janae Thomas, as the Danish couple Nielson, are perhaps the most endearing characters, and they sing a very funny, yet very touching love song: “I’ll Love Whatever’s Left of You” (that is, even if frostbite takes your legs, or your hair falls out).
Payne is a strong John Brown, though he sort of presides over the show more than he stars in it. He often is on stage merely to observe the actions of others, and we never really get very far inside his thoughts. Still, he is solid and realistic in his performance.
The most visually impressive actor is David Whitlock, as Robert Pearce. Pearce is an English fellow who is crippled (he walks with a cane) and whose hand is withered. Whitlock is so convincing and realistic as the lame man that I was sure he actually suffered from those afflictions. Near the end, when the character was healed and Whitlock walked perfectly, the audience was stunned. This was some impressive acting.
The show is slightly heavy-handed, what with all the death and stuff, but it is ultimately positive and uplifting. It’s a show for Everyman — accessible for the casual theater-goer, but satisfying for the connoisseur.
I consider myself to be a pretty good speller, but I had to look up "connoisseur."
This was one of a very few theater reviews I did for The Daily Universe, instead of the Daily Herald. The reason I did it is that the Herald had already reviewed it, but Steven Kapp Perry (one of the authors) wanted ME, specifically, to do a write-up. It was quite a compliment, actually. He called me and said he knew I wrote fair, honest reviews of plays, and he wanted to know what I thought of this one. Since I was Lifestyle Editor at The Daily Universe at the time, I was in a position to accommodate his request.
I saw "Trail of Dreams" with a friend, and we later took much delight in referring to it as "Trail of Death." To this day, that's usually what I call it first when I refer to it, as it takes my brain a second to remember what the real title is.