LJ Benet (left) as Young Pip and Max Robinson as Magwitch in the Utah Shakespearean Festival’s 2010 world premiere production of a new musical, Great Expectations. (Photo by Karl Hugh. Copyright Utah Shakespearean Festival 2010.)

CEDAR CITY — The Randall L. Jones Theater was buzzing with excitement on the afternoon of July 9, 2010.  A new musical was having its world premiere.  History was being made.  If the show were a success, then hundreds of lucky patrons would be able to tell all their friends and relatives that they were the first audience to see the show.  After all, who wouldn’t want to brag at a party that they had seen the first performance of the latest Broadway hit?  Such was the excitement at the opening of Great Expectations: A New Musical.

Great Expectations tells the story of Phillip Pirrip—commonly known as Pip—who rises from the masses of the common country folk to the become a gentleman through some luck, good deeds, and occasionally his own initiative.  As a young boy, Pip aids an escaped convict who was hiding near his home.  Also near his home is the mysterious Satis House, where the elderly Miss Havisham mourns her broken heart after her fiancé jilted  her on their wedding day many years before.  To exact her revenge on the male sex, Miss Havisham adopts a girl named Estella and trains her to be cruel to all men—Pip being an especially convenient target, because of his infatuation with the young girl.  Years later, Pip is surprised by a visit from the lawyer Jaggers who tells the young lad that he is the recipient of the largess of an anonymous benefactor.  Pip therefore acquires the means to become a gentleman, move to London, and woo Estella.

The story of Great Expectations is a complex one to move to the stage.  The action takes place over the course of decades in a multitude of locations and with dozens of speaking roles.  Director Jules Aaron handled the challenge exceptionally well.  I never felt confused among the flashbacks, changes of location, or the rapid passages of time that the script is riddled with.  Aaron has also adopted a central concept of reflecting upon one’s past that is well suited to the story of Great Expectations; the concept also invites the audience to reflect on their own past and see themselves in Pip.  Aaron has also brought the theme of redemption to the forefront of the play; this theme, coupled with the strong self-identification I had with Pip, helped me realize that all people have the possibility of redemption, including myself.  The power of this message toward the end of the play cannot be understated and Aaron is to be commended for presenting this subtle but powerful moral to his audience.

Ellen Crawford (left) as Miss Havisham and Jack Noseworthy as Pip in the Utah Shakespearean Festival’s 2010 world premiere production of a new musical, Great Expectations. (Photo by Karl Hugh. Copyright Utah Shakespearean Festival 2010.)

The two omnipresent forces in the play are Pip (Jack Noseworthy) and Miss Havisham (Ellen Crawford).  Noseworthy effectively portrays a human Pip who has dreams for himself, but also stumbles on his way to achieving them.  In addition to his strong acting, I appreciated Noseworthy’s clear tenor voice that brings out the best aspects of the score.  I believe that Crawford’s role was more challenging—it would so be easy to portray a flat, one-note Havisham—but her performance was nevertheless a triumph.  Her song “Play” (the first one the character sings) was performed perfectly to portray simultaneously the sadistic, human, and slightly batty aspects of Havisham’s personality in the course of a single tune.  The rest of the cast was also a delight to watch.  However, because all of them (except Noseworthy and Crawford) played multiple characters, greater distinctions among each actor’s characters would help the audience.  For example, Pip’s sister (played by Lillian Castillo) suffers a stroke, but a few scenes later, the actress is front and center in a song.  Because her mannerisms and costume were so similar to what we had seen as Pip’s sister, I was confused about why she was singing and dancing when the character should have been bedridden.  A more clear costume change or different acting choices would reduce this confusion.

Visually, this show is a pleasure to watch.  Jo Winiarski’s set is almost an extension of Miss Havisham’s personality, and the assortment of platforms, stairways, ladders, and gates keeps the blocking fresh and likely made the director’s job of managing the complex story easier.  The lighting (from designer Jaymi Lee Smith) had its subtle moments, but could also be exciting and breathtaking—such as during the act one rainstorm.  I also appreciated the fact that costume designer K. L. Alberts took great care in creating period costumes that didn’t just feel like they were surplus clothes from a BBC production.

Now we come to the script and score.  At the media reception afterwards, the show’s creators told the press that they hoped to take the production elsewhere and that changes to the script and score were likely.  I think they have a great product and that Great Expectations has real potential to open in the big leagues of Broadway or the West End.  However, there are shortcomings to both the script and score that handicap the show’s potential.  First, the only three-dimensional characters in the production are Pip and Miss Havisham.  This is not the fault of the book writers (Margaret A. Hoorneman, Steve Lozier, and Brian VanDerWilt).  Rather, there is simply too much happening in the story to permit secondary characters to receive much depth.  The unfortunate side effect is that everyone else seems to exist solely so that stuff can happen to Pip.

Emily Trask as Estella in the Utah Shakespearean Festival’s 2010 world premiere production of a new musical, Great Expectations. (Photo by Karl Hugh. Copyright Utah Shakespearean Festival 2010.)

Of course, musical theatre history demonstrates time and again that flimsy characterization is not the death knell for a musical (i.e., Crazy for You, The Pajama Game, and many others).  A strong score covereth a multitude of sins.  Therefore, I also recommend that the score be revised and improved.  The title song is—by far—the best one in the play, and Richard Winzeler is to be commended for writing such a hummable, theatrical song.  (I know I was not the only person humming the main theme as I walked out of the theater.)  I would recommend opening the play with an abbreviated version of the song that then segues into current opening number (“Welcome Home”), which was not a strong enough hook to engage me in the show at the beginning.  Although I enjoyed the songs “Back to Black,” “Making of a Gentleman,” and “Love by Definition,”  much of the rest of the score is rather forgettable.  Minutes after “Do As I Say,” “The World to Me,” and “Put the Case,” I couldn’t remember their tunes—which is death to a musical score.  I also found Steve Lane’s lyrics to be functional, but not especially artistic.  Compared to recent modern musicals like In the Heights, The Drowsy Chaperone, or Hairspray, Great Expectations’s lyrics are rather unremarkable, although they get the job done.  For example, if “Everything I Wanted” had witty lyrics, it would be as strong as the title song.

As it stands now, I think Great Expectations has a future and the Utah Shakespearean Festival production is not to be missed.  This is a very touching and visually appealing show that audiences of all ages can appreciate.  You’ll likely cherish the two hours you spend with this cast.  And who knows?  One day you may even be telling everyone at a party that you saw this production.

Update: Click here to read background information on this production.  You can also watch exclusive UTBA interviews with Ellen Crawford, Steve Lane, and Jules Aaron and Jack Noseworthy.

Great Expectations: A New Musical plays at the Randall L. Jones Theater on the campus of Southern Utah University at the Utah Shakespearean Festival through August 28th at 2 or 8 PM.  For exact show dates see the Utah Shakespearean Festival web site.  Tickets range from $29 to $68.