OGDEN — The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, is a novel that has a reputation for being one of the most difficult to digest and is true to life portrayals of early immigrant challenges at the turn of the century in our history, so I was very intrigued to see how this novel could be adapted into a musical. The writing team of Nathan Dame and Rob Baumgartner, Jr. have certainly brought in a great deal of meat, pardon my pun, to this story for the audience to chew on and consider as they get to experience the framework of the beginnings of what could very well become a masterpiece with the right type of growth. Much of what Sinclair brought to life in his novel was true and lead to the forming of what we now know as the Food and Drug Administration.
I need to first compliment Good Company Theatre for stretching the theatre community here in Utah and offering the opportunity for audiences to participate in a workshop reading. This stretching is an important part of the creative process, and one that many theatregoers are not aware of and do not seek out. I have had opportunities to spend time in venues like Theatre Works in California that are dedicated to the development of the shows that Utah audiences love and consume, but I am so glad to see that places like Good Company are branching out and showing that the talent in our community can and should be used to strengthen and build productions from the ground up. I hope that more writing teams like Baumgartner Jr. and Dame consider Utah in the future.
For the Utah Theatre Bloggers who have never attended a workshop or reading, this show is a great experience. Keep in mind tthe content surrounding Sinclair’s book, that the actors have music and script in hand, and that music is being worked on daily. The audience is given feedback forms on which they can share their own thoughts of the performance to be a part of the growth of the show. This impressive workshop included more than just a pianist, though pianist and music director Karin Gittins should not be labeled as “just” for she commanded her team of musicians well and added so much to this lovely evening.
What an intriguing show The Jungle is. Imagine the plight of an immigrant couple from Lithuania: Ona, sung exquisitely by Cassidy Wixon, and Jurgis, played by the equally as talented Aaron Ross. The two arrive in Chicago with the American dream of owning a farm, but settle into a life of working at a meat packing plant. The two did extremely well at connecting with each other and the audience, especially considering how little time they had to practice their parts. I was enamored with the song, “With You in Mind,” by Ona, a song that highlights how much of the world and history has had a male focus and how that focus is reflected even in our current history. On the flip side, Ross as Jurgis also portrayed well the challenges of needing to provide for the family in the song, “Signs of Life.”
Other strong points of the music were in the very beginning, the ensemble song, “Remember their Names,” which was a good reminder that so many have come before me, and even now, so many do back breaking work to help me live a good life. Another strong song by the ensemble entitled, “The Wheel,” combined some haunting melodies with the fact that most of the immigrants did not end up at all where they wanted to be and are just trying to get by with the hope that somehow things will turn around for them.
As the story progresses, things get darker for everyone in the story, and some of the music gets darker as well. As the writers work to refine this show, I hope to see more deepening of this darkness. I do enjoy the hope of the final number, “Climbing Over the Wall,” and I want that song to stay. However, before that hope comes to light, I feel the darkness of Sinclair’s novel should come through. Each of the family members end up turning down very dark paths, and those paths should be reflected in the paths of the music. Some of the songs from side characters, such as, “What I Want From You” by Marija played by Heidi Hunt and Tomas played by J. Michael Bailey offered some comic relief. Others such as, “Want More” by Elzbieta played by Carol Madsen and Szedvilas played by Kevin Ireland were beautiful musically, but may need a little more build up in the script to help the audience understand their placement within the show and importance to the plot.
I wonder if the play’s ending stays true to some of the deaths and tragedies that happen in the book. While I know that many shows take some liberties and license, I hope that the authors can take the opportunity to show, as they do so well in the opening number of, “Remember Their Names,” that the early immigrants to this country sacrificed so much so that the country could live a good life and that the country continues to benefit from those who did what they did and fought how they fought. Much of how I live today is a direct result of the tragedies they endured, and it can be uncomfortable, but also vital, to witness just what they saw and did. I commend the authors for giving northern Utah the chance to be a part of this process.