SOUTH SALT LAKE — Did you know that Flash Gordon isn’t a superhero? I learned that on Saturday. Flash Gordon and The Flash are two entirely different fictional characters. I was disappointed. The little boy in the audience wearing a Flash costume probably didn’t know either.
The character of Flash Gordon was born in a comic strip in the 1930’s (drawn by Alex Raymond). He jumped into a television series in the 1950’s, and in 1980 he debuted on the big screen in his very own motion picture. The film Flash Gordon contained basically the same plot that Orville Fox and Joanne Parker have written for The Children’s Theater, but Joanne Parker cites the television version as her inspiration. Parker offered an introduction before the show began and explained to us how she used to watch Flash Gordon as a child and she adored him.
In Flash Gordon Defeats The Evil Planet, Flash Gordon (the non-super hero) takes off in a rocket with his pals Dale Arden and Dr. Zarkov to stop an “onrushing planet” from colliding with Earth. When they arrive, they discover that the planet is being manipulated by an evil ruler named Ming (Sean Pickell). Ming is a very bad emperor, oppressing people left and right. Ming meets our heroes and takes a liking to the lovely Dale; he wants her for his own. Ming’s daughter, Princess Aura, feels the same about Flash. But Flash and Dale are pretty sure they maybe kind of like each other. (If the interactions sound messy, that’s because they are.)
The first hour of the play was very fast-paced, hard-hitting, and intense. It was pretty overwhelming to me, as an audience member, and to my five-year-old son, as well. He was quite scared. There was just so much going on and it felt as if every character was shouting. There were plenty of lizards, monsters, weapons, fights, and threats, as well. I know that there was humor, and clever lines, but they weren’t highlighted, given enough emphasis or time to really hit the audience. I know, for one, that when Flash, Dale, and Zarkov were in the rocket, they were shooting off potential clever lines left and right, but it was so loud and chaotic, and all my son and I could focus on was the shaking rocket. It kept us from really listening to the characters or giving us a break from all that intensity. The show felt heavy. The last 45 minutes were the most balanced, to me; they were less packed, less intense, less yelling—there was even the occasional smile.
Flash (Tom Hohl) was absolutely energetic and the most memorable part of the show for my son (besides the things that terrified him). I think that Hohl did a great job with what he was given. I wished I could have seen some kind of depth to Flash, though. He was heroic and great, but basically a one-dimensional character. It would have been nice if the writers and director had created moments where Flash paused to think, or greater variation in the way he delivered lines.
Meighan Smith plays Princess Aura, a somewhat detestable character, but whenever she was onstage, my eyes were on her. Smith is a fascinating actress, and I think she did everything right in this play. My favorite thing was her love/hate relationship with Prince Barin; it was a joy to have something deeper than just face value! Smith is passionate, colorful, fun, and physical. She is a pleasure to dislike. I liked Barin (Matthew Windham) a lot. He was witty and charming, but also strong and rebellious. He loved a woman who never encouraged him. He projected to the entire theater without shouting. He was great. “Quick, I know a secret passage!” was one of the best comedic tools of the show and I wish there had been more like it.
Dale Arden (Madeline Richardson) began as a strong and independent character, a reporter who was interested in getting a story, but she became scared and weak soon after leaving Earth. I wish Richardson could have maintained her spunky character, kept up her strength, but maybe she wasn’t given enough material to do so. She needed more lines like, “Off to get ready for another wedding.” And she needs to make sure never to break character onstage; this will come with time. The love story of Flash and Dale was weird, confusing, and flat. Neither character showed any real emotion toward the other; I wish they’d been more like Barin and Aura. But they were true to the 1950’s show, as far as I can tell, so perhaps that was Parker’s intention.
In case you didn’t know, The Children’s Theater has moved; they are now located on State Street in South Salt Lake. The new theater is very professional and welcoming; I noticed that the stage wasn’t painted anything special for this show, and I was disappointed, because I have seen some really artistic sets from these guys in the past. But I know they’ve been working really hard to get the new theater open and running for this show. I look forward to seeing the next beautiful stage transformation from James Parker.
However, the set pieces and costumes made each scene fun and colorful. The play went from a bare stage with a rocket ship to a strange landscape with boulders and fierce lizards, then on to a luxurious and foreign palace—if you blink, you will miss something. Jessica Wilson, Matthew Windham, Joanne Parker are to thank for these interesting scenes. And Cathy Maurer filled them with tons of costumes, which all looked wonderful. Kudos to the cast for successfully executing the many costume changes; so many of the actors played several characters. Aura’s costumes were my favorites; also I loved seeing Sean Pickell (Ming) with a bald head and long black goatee. I enjoyed the wings on the Sky People (Laura Alsop Checketts and Natalie Colony). And I must sing praises to the stage manager (Jana Lynne Cox) for somehow arranging all those characters and their many props backstage.
As for the directing (by Joanne Parker), I have one major issue. Frequently in the play, Flash would rush at someone to attack/injure them and then two or three guards would yank him backwards and restrain him as Flash would struggle to get free. I can’t even count how many times in the show this scenario plays out. Yes, sometimes Flash actually gets so far as to actually strangle or hit a person before those guards yank him backward, but the scene was essential the same. Over and over and over. I was absolutely baffled at this staging because it felt so repetitive and pointless. Plus, I felt sorry for poor Tom Hohl (Flash), who was dripping in sweat by curtain call.
I think it would also have been nice to see Ming react to the uprising of the clay people. He had cursed them and forced them to live underground, so for them to confront and defeat him should have been a big deal, I think, rather than being skimmed over. It could have reinforced the idea of good fighting evil. However, I think that the show ended well. I loved the way that Ming met his inevitable end—it was a great effect. And I liked the triumphant wrap-up when good defeated evil, and everyone came together to celebrate. I did wonder, though, how things turned out back on Earth.
I watched a bit of Flash Gordon online and realized that many of the things I didn’t like in the play were stylistic choices patterned after the television series. I think that Flash Gordon just isn’t my style. But I can appreciate good acting, beautiful costumes, and an energetic cast. If you want to see a rocket ship save the earth from destruction, The Children’s Theater is the perfect destination.