SALT LAKE CITY — I’ll admit that I have a soft spot in my theatre heart for the University of Utah theatre department. It introduced me to a world of contemporary and edgy musical theatre. Two of my new favorite pieces of theatre, Spring Awakening and Avenue Q, were shows that I first saw at the university’s Babcock Theatre. Therefore, going into Pomp & Circumstance, I had high expectations and came away from the production feeling mostly satisfied.
Pomp & Circumstance – A New Musical is created, directed, and choreographed by the first graduating class of seniors in the newly created musical theatre program at the University of Utah. The book is by Amanda Shrum, Curtis Russell, and Denny Berry, with original music by Alex Marshall and lyrics by Tiffani Barney, Ian Doherty, Curtis Russell, and Amanda Shrum. Denny Berry is the new head of the musical theatre program at the University of Utah, and with her extensive knowledge and experience working in the field, she has risen to the challenge of leading this new program. The scenes and songs in the musical Pomp & Circumstance are fictional however, they are based on the stories and experiences of the graduating seniors in the musical theatre program. The show aims to be more of a ‘concept musical’ in which is a larger message or statement is emphasized over the actual narrative. This is similar to the long running, and well loved A Chorus Line.
The first song titled, “Opening” is where the audience is introduced to the group of graduating seniors. The adequate singing and simple choreography made the piece a decent start to the show. The number that followed, titled “Commencement Part Two” contained unique stomping and choreography, clapping, and banging on various objects, which enveloped the stage. I was impressed with the preciseness and rigidness in which the cast performed the whole number.
Where the show worked both artistically and musically was witnessed in the piece titled “Circumstances.” The song is about three students and how each has had an advantage over the others when auditioning for roles, whether it be money, good looks, or their gender. Each performer expresses how they didn’t plan these things and despite what others think, they too have to work just as hard to be successful. The performers Sara Kae Childs, Jackie Jensen, and Trevor Blair, had nearly flawless vocals, with each projecting the sincerity of their part very well. With lyrics and verses that seemed to come naturally and music that was well balanced between the three performers, “Circumstances” was by far one of the highlights of the show.
A couple of the songs which did not live up to my high expectations were “Why Do I Stay?” and “Through The Looking Glass.” In “Why Do I Stay?”, which tells of the disappointment of not getting a callback, Tiffani Barney and Ian Doherty’s performance was littered with minor vocal issues as they both seemed to struggle with the music. While their motives and honest portrayal of the sadness they felt was clear they failed to provide the strong vocals I had seen earlier in the show from the two. The song “Through The Looking Glass” (a play on Alice in Wonderland) felt out of context for the show therefore making it a crutch to the production. The metaphor about “finding your way” was muddled in the Alice in Wonderland setting. It was a poor choice for a show with very honest, heartfelt, and modern songs.“Through The Looking Glass” seemed more for laughs than actually contributing to the larger message of the show.
The number “A Boy’s Life,” performed by Jaron Barney and Amanda Shrum redeemed many of the other imperfect songs in Pomp & Circumstance. The song tells of a young man seeking approval and acceptance from his parents whose ideas about him seem to be different from his own. Although I failed to understand the artistic decision behind why the whole cast was on stage quietly occupied with their cell phones, Barney’s characterization of the young man was organic and his slightly raw performance in the piece was very touching. This made the song the high point of the whole production.
The few props and very little set helped enhance the various messages of the songs. The lighting design by Joe Dutson and sound design by Shea Madsen were purposeful in highlighting each solo or trio and was well executed, although nothing spectacular stood out about it to me. Costume design by Trevor Blair and Daniel Streed was simple and tasteful with a majority of the cast in semi-casual clothing. It didn’t detract from the actors and helped carry the theme of each different song; for example when the costumes characterized a dancer in a scene.
Despite Pomp & Circumstance’s honest and truthful messages, it fell short in a few places. Although the students intended to create a concept musical, the message of moving into the future wasn’t very clear. Rather the musical came off as a series of vignettes, each containing various different messages. Even though the show lacked a strong overarching message and had a collection of a forgettable songs, Pomp & Circumstance is honest and heartfelt. With themes like friendship, trials, and ultimately moving forward, many people can relate to this musical. However, audience members should be aware that this show deals with mature themes and may not be appropriate for some children.