SALT LAKE CITY – “I’m nauseated, cranky, and waiting for my chemo to end.” writes Sam Wessels in a recent blog entry. Wessels is not only the playwright (book, music and lyrics) of sam i was, he also plays Sam, the lead role. sam i was is a musical memoir about Wessels own battle with leukemia, which he is still undergoing chemo for. To be diagnosed with cancer, write a musical about it, workshop it at the Yale Institute for Music Theater, star in the production and undergo chemotherapy all in less than three years is an amazing feat by anyone’s standards.
December 2007: Wessels is finishing finals during his last week in the Utah Actors Training Program at University of Utah. He is looking forward to his upcoming move to New York City where he is going “to make it as an actor, playwright, or waiter.” His plans are suddenly derailed by a cancer diagnosis. Nearly three years later, “a recession worthy, script in hand, more than a reading, not quite a performance, lights, sound, action packed, magical two hours of leukemic musical memoir fun” is produced as part of Salt Lake Acting Company’s Fearless Fringe Festival.
When I first heard about a musical about cancer, I thought this could be terribly good or terribly bad. While it could still use some polishing, it was terribly good. It reminds me of what an early version of the recent Pulitzer prize winning musical Next to Normal may have looked like.
The ability of Wessels to weave in humor in this difficult subject was brilliant. I can’t be funny even if the situation is funny, so I am impressed when one can genuinely be funny without having to resort to being crass or crude. That’s not to say that there were not any crude moments (I loved the Hand character), but most were appropriate and delivered with perfect comedic timing. One of my favorite lines had to be when 18-year-old Sam, gets a glimpse into his future and finds out he is writing a musical. He quickly says, “Wait, I write musicals? Oh s—, am I gay?” These quick lines are punctured throughout the show and provide much comedic relief to the production.
While there were many moments of honest humor, there were moments that felt shallow. Perhaps the emotions in some areas are still too raw and throwing humor at it is the best that can be done right now, at least, that is what it felt like. The Donnie and Marie bit, while providing a little humor, did little for the story line and derailed the emotion completely. The cancer song at the beginning was too much, but could be great if scaled down and the Dr. Char song was just way over the top.
The songs preformed by Wessels were right on (“Mt. Dew”, “Funny”, the “Good News” just to name a few) and one would think that is where he might have a hard time (assuming they hit close to home). He did amazing. Whether the song called for humor or fear, he delivered the emotions clearly and was in touch with the character. He brought so much honesty and knowing that the story is about him just added layers to the production. I do worry that another actor may not be able to bring the same emotion to the show. As an audience member, knowing this was his story was very much a part of the experience.
I feel like the acting of Darlene Casanova (Mom) and Kim Blackett (Dad) was amazing. The staging during the “We’re Sorry” song was fantastic. I didn’t feel that Casanova had the musical voice for these songs but that didn’t stop me from tearing up (the only time I teared up) as the parents struggled with the possibility of remission in the end. Casanova’s performance with Kelsie Jepsen (Death) was breathtakingly emotional. I left the theater wanting to call my mom and dad.
All of the actors are worth mentioning. Elise Groves was so good that it took me late into the second act to realize she was the only blonde in the show; she pulled off the multiple roles seamlessly. Kelsie Jepsen played looming death with style and just enough creepy. Benjamin Brinton was a riot as Hand, it is amazing to me how much personality he put into 5 fingers. Riley Soter was just cute and aggravating enough to piss you off. He was sincere in his ability to toy with Sam but in an unintentional, can’t hate him way. Aric Johnstone was lay-on-the-floor funny as Greg and I could have watched his spicy interactions with the others all night. I really did love all of the actors and all the characters they played in this show.
Most of the music was amazing and I could provide commentary on what I loved about so many of the pieces. I would love to get a recording of this soundtrack (I have already found some of it on YouTube). Personally, I could have dealt without the carried out notes during many of the musical numbers. I am not even sure what you call them–where one hums, or sings Di Di or Ohh Ohh, so on and so forth. But I still loved it and will continue to look for a recording of this until it is produced.
While I won’t spoil it for any, the line where the title (and thus the meaning of the title) is proclaimed by Wessels, will probably stay with me for life.
I saw Lion King at Capital Theater the night before I saw sam i was. It took 15-20 seconds to get the whole audience up for the standing ovation at Lion King. The audience was on their feet at sam i was before the lights were able to come back up. This is a testament to the power and beauty of this production. While it was only a two night limited engagement, I suggest people pay attention, because this show will come back around and when it does, I will be first in line to see it again.