SOUTH SALT LAKE — I’ll admit to being impressed the minute I walked into Utah Children’s Theatre‘s gorgeously restored Art Deco movie house space. Taking in the floor to ceiling details, I felt like I had stepped back in time into a space where I could escape my everyday life. My smile only grew as I entered the performance space. I was not surprised to learn that James Parker, the set and light designer for UCT’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, was also responsible for the restoration of the building and is one of the theatre’s owners. UCT is clearly a labor of love for him. He and the artistic director, Joanne M. Parker, clearly share a unique creative bond as together they have created a production that is both gorgeous and delightful. With everything from puppetry, media projection, voice over work, and sound and visual effects, every element of the production is beautifully crafted to fully captivate the audience. Joanne M. Parker’s use of the large and versatile acting space is very engaging. UCT has arranged its general seating around a thrust, or three-sided stage. As I like to be close to the action, I chose to sit on the side—a place where, in the hands of a less skilled director, I might miss important moments of the action, but didn’t miss a thing. In fact, I would recommend the side seating to anyone. Even when the action was happening over my head it was still a pleasure to take in the actors’ strong focus and energy.
The script, adapted by Joanne M. Parker from the classic by Jules Verne, is structured as a 1940’s radio drama and leans heavily on melodrama to provide vitality to its shallow characters. The enthusiasm and physical presence of the ensemble makes up for what the plot lacks in a coherent flow of events. Action compels action as the story moves in quick succession from New York City to underwater forests, tropical islands, the south pole, and who can remember the rest. Each episode is announced by an omniscient narrator as our hero, Ned Land (Trayven Call), miraculously escapes death with help from his clownish sidekick, Consielo (Bryson Dumas), and our leading lady, Lilly Landing (Lexi Thomsen), fights off the unwanted advances of the mysterious and evil Captain Nemo (Stephen Harmon). This core of four, along with Alex Gunn as inexplicably-British Professor Aronnax, give it their all on stage. They fill the time with physical and vocal gags that kept me laughing and entertained throughout the 90-minute run time. The break-neck pace of the action is supported by an army of performers joyfully giving their all as sailors, puppeteers, and two fantastic, fully-covered bushes that stole a whole scene. It was clear from start to finish that these actors are sharp and are bringing everything they’ve got to this action-packed performance.
Though the performers thoroughly entertained in tandem with a flawless production, this script is more interested in paying homage to its golden age Hollywood roots than in having anything to say about the dated tropes of gender and non-western culture it portrays. It would have been nice for the script to go further in pushing against some of the stereotypes it presents. There are moments where the script implies Lilly might be more than, “just a girl,” and she does use her brilliant mind to save everyone, but in other moments she is swooning in fear and wearing lipstick while trying to disguise herself as a man. I know it’s all in good fun, but these plot points felt shallow and inconsistent. The production’s excellent costume design by Julie Anderson also uses Lilly as a fashion doll with lovey, if unnecessary, costume changes in the middle of the action.
One of the things I appreciated most about attending UCT was looking out on the audience of children, parents, and grandparents enjoying the performance not only in physical proximity to each other but also in the same emotional journey. Too often performances for young people waste energy winking to the audience members they suppose are more sophisticated while patronizing the young with cheap and immature humor. This UCT production is a performance of pure heart with no cynicism or eye-rolling for parents being forced to watch a children’s show. During the performance I found my gaze returning to the front row of the audience where a man who looked to be in his 80’s sat next to a boy of about 10. They spent the performance riveted, side-by-side in wide-eyed glee with every twist, turn, and dive of the Nautilus. I myself attended the performance without a kid in toe and had a wonderful time. For length, some peril, and full-belly laughing, I would recommend UCT’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for ages 5 to 105.