SPANISH FORK — A long standing policy at UTBA is to judge productions by the standards that the theatre companies set for themselves or that they advertise. Holding every company to the standard of a professional theater is not fair for amateur companies, and even non-professional groups vary greatly in their goals in producing a play. If Bums! were an arts council production with the goal of developing local residents’ talents, then I would give it a politely complimentary review. But Bums! charges up to $20 per ticket and is produced by a company with serious artistic pretentions. By these standards, the show is a failure in almost every aspect.
Bums! tells the story of Edward, who feels crushing responsibilities at work and in his relationship with his fiancée, Rhubarbara. As he flees his troubles, he leaves the rat race behind, only to end up in the gutter. Along the way, he meets the good natured homeless street people, including the queen of the bums.
Somehow, that story takes up two and a half hours, even though there is only enough plot to fill an hour. Stephen Gashler‘s script is a slow, illogical, sprawling mess. The play has far more characters than are needed to tell its simple plot, and their actions rarely arise from the story or their psychology. As a result, it is never clear why Edward’s boss, Mr. Engerman (played by Brad Southard), is so emotionally attached to his employee, or why Edward wants to be a jazz musician, even though he admits he has no musical training. (He doesn’t even touch a musical instrument until 20 minutes into the second act.)
In addition to being poorly organized, the dialogue in Gashler’s script is clunky at best. Characters spout exposition by telling other characters information they already know, like when Mr. Engerman explains Edward’s behavior to his coworkers who see him regularly. Facts about characters or their backgrounds are inconsistent; I wondered why Edward’s parents were so eager to meet Rhubarbara if he had known her since childhood, had been dating her for six years, and had already had wedding dates set in the past. Worst of all, the leading characters’ decisions seemed shallow because they would easily change their mind a scene or two later. Edward wants to be a jazz musician? Not for long! Rhubarbara questions the strength of their relationship? Don’t worry; she wants to reconcile a few scenes later. It is hard to believe that the play’s main interpersonal conflicts are serious when they last for such a short time.
The score, by comparison, is better. The music is tuneful enough, and the arrangements are inoffensive and pleasant. Gashler’s lyrics, though, are pedantic and reveal no new information about the story, environment, or characters. Unfortunately, one of the best lyrics is, “What is the sense of wearing a suit? There must be a faster way to the loot.” Probably the best aspect of the lyrics is that they are almost entirely forgettable.
Still, it is a director’s job to make a script work, and even some of the best plays have difficult scenes to put on the stage. Matthew Davis, though, was not up to the challenge. Davis struggled with the deep stage at the Angelus Theatre, and he often blocked scenes far too upstage from the audience, which made it difficult to connect with the actors’ performances. He also often confined actors to a platform at the extreme upstage center portion of the stage, which limited options for movement and created awkward blocking choices in scenes like “The Corporate Gods.” Davis’s direction also suffered from a lack of logic, and it was never clear what the rules of a scene were. I am still not sure whether “Boring, Serious Businessman” was Edward’s fantasy or whether it really happened. Likewise, I do not know whether Rhubarbara and Weasel could hear one another in “Hopeless Romantic” (the best musical theatre song of the play), or whether they were singing to themselves about the other person.
The cast of Bums! has my utmost sympathy. These amateur performers are probably craving a creative outlet, and not many are available right now. But the incoherent script and lackluster directing mean that these actors are stuck in a show that was destined for mediocrity. The best performance is from Brandon Pack as Weasel (Edward’s co-worker who tries to sabotage his life for some reason). Pack’s nasally voice, colorful mannerisms, and light New York accent made him the most interesting actor on stage in all of his scenes, and I found his performance to be the most memorable. Jessica Lifferth has a strong performance in the bit part of the city judge, and her exasperation with Edward’s speeches was highly relatable.
As Edward and Rhubarbara, Peter Johnson and Chelsea Tramell (respectively) tried their best. Johnson is comfortable in his character’s skin, and he has an understanding of the basics of acting. However, he struggled to make much of his clunky dialogue believable, though any amateur actor would have the same challenge. Tramell was best in the scenes where Rhubarbara was reacting to Weasel’s overtures, and her character’s distrust of the Weasel was one of the few logical behaviors in the show. Amanda Wilson played Filthy Fran, the queen of the bums, with gusto. But her diction during her songs was poor, and I failed to understand why Edward would connect with her as she told him about hobo life.
The best technical aspect of the show was the set (designed by Amanda Wilson), which had had a few nice art deco accents painted on platforms, an artistic cityscape on two flats, and a dumpster that bums could lounge on or climb into. At the other extreme, Bethany Taylor‘s choreography consisted of some of the simplest dance steps possible, and somehow many cast members still failed to execute them properly.
If everyone in Bums! were working on one of the old workhorses of amateur theatre, they could have created a pleasant evening for the audience. But Bums! is a completely misguided effort, and asking an audience to sit through the play, let alone pay up to $20 for the experience, indicates a serious mismatch between expectations and the final product.