OREM — I am a believer that music has the power to move mountains—and the human soul. A musical theatre experience most usually takes one to soaring heights of happiness and laughs; Fly More Than You Fall, however, takes its audience on a journey through a full range of emotions. Fly More Than You Fall is real, fresh, inspiring, and fit to be a Broadway production.
Based on a book by Eric Holmes with music and lyrics by Holmes and Nat Zegree, this show seemed to be the perfect marriage of a story of grief to modern musical theatre. Director Jeff Whiting fabulously organized performers onstage to present a contemporary narrative intertwined with timeless virtues and morals. I do not often give standing ovations, but Fly More Than You Fall most definitely landed me on my feet.
Housed at the beautiful new Noorda Center for the Performing Arts on Utah Valley University’s campus, the set for this production was a creative masterpiece. Designed by Ann Beyersdorfer, the stage was a layered home, with a living room on the bottom and a bedroom up top, that could easily be transformed into a variety of other locations (including the interior of a bus, a school, and a summer camp) thanks especially to the circular, rotating floor at center stage. This rotating floor seemed to be an essential piece to the performance that I absolutely adored, helping me to better visualize the movements and scene changes occurring throughout the performance.
Beyersdorfer did not just leave the set as simple as that; the home, lined with bookshelves, was adorned with tall branches at its columns, and the silhouette of a mountain range was painted on the edge of the upstairs bedroom. These hints of nature did not detract from the indoor scenes and were all that was needed to transform the entire stage to a setting where the protagonist’s paralleled, not-so-fictional story could also take place.
Lighting designed by Keith A. Truax complemented the amazing set, with warm colors during moments of merriment and triumph and with cold colors to set apart scenes wherein sadness, grief, and darkness crept in. At some points, when the emotions became too hard to handle for the main character, the entire scene froze in a flash of brilliant blue. Truax was also the star of the funeral scene, creating a burial place out of nothing but light. A rectangular box of light outlined a grave that performers seemed to peer into. Rather than a regular dark hole, the gravesite illuminated those that stood around—making it impossible to ignore the reality of death. It was absolutely incredible.
However, close to the end of the second act, blinding strobe lights flashed from above the stage. This strobe effect was probably not the best way to approach this scene. Perhaps the performers were supposed to appear as though they were moving in slow motion, but this effect did not work. Particularly important for those with sensitivity to flashing lights, there was no warning before the show that evening that this strobe scene was coming. Flashing lights are something fairly regular on any stage, but this strobe was extreme. The emotions attempting to be portrayed in this scene could have been rendered in another manner, with less intense lighting design from Truax.
Costume designer Heather McDevitt Barton must love plaid, because there was not a scene that went by without it! That pattern comment aside, the costumes were absolutely perfect for this new musical. Bright colors and contemporary, youthful outfits that could be seen in the hallways of any American high school filled the stage. Barton added small, almost homemade-looking pieces to ensemble and main characters when they portrayed the animals of the protagonist’s novel, helping the fauna to be extra relatable. This subtle approach was the perfect way to carry the animal portrayals out, rather than extravagant wildlife suits or something similar.
The music and lyrics, by Holmes and Zegree, were at the core of this production. The music was mostly quick and upbeat, and after the performance, I immediately searched Apple Music for anything available by these two gentlemen. I am confident that if this show makes it to Broadway, the majority of the songs (not just one or two) would become Broadway hits. The lyrics were creative and meaningful, adequately expressing what the characters were experiencing; I never had to guess what they were thinking or how they were feeling. The music’s crescendos, pauses, and harmonies were powerful and emotional. No time was ever wasted with “woah oh oh’s” or the like; I hung on every word.
The only criticism I might give when it comes to the music would be that the drums specifically needed to be slightly softer during the first couple of songs of the first act, because it was incredibly difficult to decipher the lyrics the performers were singing. Aside from that, the drums only added to the production, even creating a heartbeat-like sound when Malia’s mother shared with her daughter her terminal diagnosis.
Sound design by Jackie Barrett was also terrific. I especially loved how text message conversations were performed on stage, something I doubt I have seen before. Performers would say what they were texting, and the familiar dings and whooshes clued the audience in as to where the messages were coming from and who they were going to. Any additional sound effects were always on point and perfectly befitting of the scenes they accompanied.
Director Whiting was also the choreographer of the musical, and the dance numbers and movements were outstanding. Fun, contemporary moves matched the music perfectly and often emphasized the emotions being felt during a particular scene. During one scene, Willow and Flynn crouched down on the ground, hands covering their heads for protection, as the rest of the cast danced and ran by them at a rapid rate. This move symbolically emphasized the feelings of both the real-world characters and of those in Malia’s book that life seemed to be rushing by while they were stuck in their own, unfortunate experiences.
It is important to note that the advertising of the show beforehand made me expect a different type of show. I was completely taken aback by the flying bird at the start of the play who was obviously a child with several fabric pennants making up her wings. Though I learned to absolutely love this costume choice and the story as a whole in the way it was told, the billboards, online images, and playbill cover all insinuated that I would be seeing a completely different show. On the marketing materials, the main actress appears to be a young adult, reflective and emotional, seeing an angel—none of which is part of the plot. I would highly suggest that any future installment of this production (of which I hope there will be many) advertise in a way that more accurately represents the musical sensation theatregoers will buy tickets to see.
Once in the rhythm of the high schooler-centered story, I fell in love with Malia, her writing, and her family. As a high school teacher (and, not so long ago, a teenager myself), it wasn’t difficult to put myself in the shoes of most of the characters and to feel what they felt. Fly More Than You Fall addresses grief and the loss of a loved one from all angles in such a universal way that people from diverse backgrounds can focus on the emotions and processes being illustrated so wonderfully through theatre. When characters would shout up to the sky, they didn’t address any certain deity at all, but the feelings that were depicted were reflective of those that any human might experience.
I loved the parallel stories of Malia and the birds in the book she was writing within the play. Brilliant writing by Holmes poetically helped both Malia and theatregoers to visualize the experiences of grief and pain and how they affected the world that this young girl lived in. It became clear to see that Willow, the main bird Malia wrote of, personified Malia’s own decision-making and emotions, while Flynn was the embodiment of the loving relationships Malia felt with other characters, whether that meant her family or the boy she crushed on at school.
Director Whiting brought this narrative to life and has clear experience creating a spectacle on stage, filling the space, all the while moving his audiences to feel something real. The story was told in a way that the stages of grief were beautifully and artistically illustrated, from denial to anger to sorrow to hope.
This story was told this time by both local Utah actors and other transplants from across the nation. Lexi Walker, a regional music phenomenon, was cast as the star of the show. She surprised me in her acting and dancing abilities, able to convincingly portray a young teenage girl, Malia, experiencing the death of her mother. During the second act of the play, Walker brought out genuine tears sitting in her upstairs bedroom. However, during the first few scenes, it almost seemed that Walker was pulled straight off of Disney Channel—happy-go-lucky, slightly over-dramatic in every movement and line. I was unsure if this was a directorial choice by Whiting to juxtapose the life of Malia before and after her mother’s passing or simply the acting choices made by Walker; either way, I would rather see the real Malia from beginning to end.
Walker is most definitely capable of hitting most any note. She was able to sing her assigned lyrics and almost always harmonized beautifully with other actors and actresses. Walker also has a tendency to bellow her notes excessively, much like a celebrity singing the national anthem. This type of singing is a fantastic talent, but it was used too often during the first act of her Fly More Than You Fall performance. A voice like hers is definitely needed for her finale songs, but the over-the-top sliding scales distracted from the story being told at several points of the production and needs to be toned down.
Autumn Best was the most talented actress on stage. I regret not having seen her perform before, as I was not in the least disappointed by her portrayal of the character Willow — she was a natural. Best was youthful, vivacious, and able to mirror the inner thoughts and feelings Malia had and wrote of. As a bird with broken wings, Best convincingly portrayed her determined, naive character who was ready to fight the world for her own freedom and happiness. Best’s vocal talent was also astounding. She was able to belt notes, harmonize, and even rapped a portion of a song. It would be a loss if the creative team behind Fly More Than You Fall did not bring Best along for future installments of this incredible new musical.
Jennifer Fouché was also indispensable. Fouché played the role of Jennifer, Malia’s mother. She reminded me of most any mother figure: firm, loving, understanding, and always having a desire for her child to have what is best in every situation. Fouché’s powerful vocals accompanied her genuine emotion and absolutely convincing portrayal of the intimate grief that so often accompanies someone who knows of their own imminent passing.
Thom Miller played Paul, Malia’s father and Jennifer’s husband. Miller definitely fit the role of a modern-day dad and often provided comic relief during tough situations. Miller’s acting abilities were stellar, though his singing was occasionally sub-par. He could hit many of the notes, but—especially when he attempted to harmonize with others, such as with Walker during the pizza place scene—there was definite discord.
I would not have known Cairo McGee was in reality a middle-schooler unless I read the playbill. I was blown away by McGee’s Justin Bieber-like voice, his ability to harmonize, and just how convincingly he played his role. Of course, McGee was playing a teenager, and I’m sure his current life experiences only added to this ability. But McGee as Flynn was also able to have real, mature conversations with Willow as they worked together in their climb “to the top.”
It would be a mistake not to mention the bright, cheery, and absolutely gifted Seth Foster. Foster played Caleb, the self-proclaimed “super gay” friend that Malia makes at summer camp. Foster as Caleb was another great source of comic relief during some of the toughest moments in the story, but he was also a source of real wisdom and an example of a true and caring friend to Malia. And, of course, his vocals were perfect for his role, able to belt the emotion-filled lyrics in songs such as, “Fly More Than You Fall.”
This new musical was more than I hoped it could be. I was impressed by the acting, singing, directing, writing, and every other detail that made this production brilliantly emotional and real. Don’t miss this Broadway-bound production, Fly More Than You Fall, while it’s still in the great state of Utah.