PROVO — One of the greatest Christmas traditions in the English speaking world is to attend an attendance of The Messiah, George Frederick Handel’s most famous oratorio. What most attendees don’t realize, though, is that the London premiere of The Messiah was performed amidst great opposition and controversy. Playwright Tim Slover‘s Joyful Noise tells the story of the intriguing events surrounding the oratorio’s first performance.
Joyful Noise is becoming a Christmas tradition at the Covey Center, which I welcome in the sea of A Christmas Carol productions. One of the reasons that Joyful Noise is popular in Utah County is the strength of the script. Slover’s script has moments of humor, pathos, tension, hatred, and forgiveness, all wrapped up into one evening. The dialogue is accessible, but often poetic (especially for the characters of Handel, King George II, and Susannah Cibber). More importantly, Slover’s script is spiritual without being preachy or alienating non-Christians or people with no specific religious affiliation. I’m not aware of any other modern script that strikes the careful spiritual balance that Slover achieves in Joyful Noise.
Perhaps because I love Slover’s script so much, I feel somewhat let down by Covey Center’s inconsistent production. Directed by David Hanson, the production has moments of brilliance and scenes that disappoint. I enjoyed some of Hanson’s choices, such as presenting the contrast between the brilliance of Handel’s old opera Rinaldo and his then-current creative and commercial slump. I also appreciated how Hanson prevented the breakfast scene from becoming static. Hanson also embraced silence at appropriate moments (such as after the first time Susannah sings and in the scenes leading up to intermission). However, I feel like the “defense” at the front of the theater was poorly directed as many of the movement choices didn’t make dramatic sense. I also believe that Hanson also missed the chance to pull out some of the humor from the script (such as about the royal family dwelling on Parnassus or operas being expensive).
Like the direction, I felt like some of the acting was inconsistent. I was impressed throughout the night by Adam Argyle, who played Handel’s librettist, Charles Jennens. Argyle played this supporting role exquisitely as he tried to maneuver through Handel’s temperament, attempted to maintain his artistic integrity, and events as the oratorio’s London premiere approaches. I also thought the two female leads, Susannah Cibber (played by Anna Daines) and Kitty Clive (played by Madeline Weinberger), were well suited for their roles. Daines is an extremely empathetic in her portrayal of the ostracized Cibber. She seemed believably distraught when reminded of her scandalous past and to show true longing for her daughter that had been taken away from her. Weinberger displayed great versatility in her role of Kitty Clive. I loved her comic moments (such as both of her scenes in the church or her stint as Desdemona) and the spite that she showed towards Susannah.
On the other hand, I thought that Lynne D. Bronson did not fulfill the potential inherent in the role of Mary Pendarves, an 18th century groupie of Handel. Pendarves is supposed to be a batty woman who often isn’t aware of how funny she is. Although Lynn Bronson got some laughs from the audience, many of the jokes fell flat because she didn’t milk the script for all the humor in the character (such as being ravished by the master, or when she first meets the bishop). I also thought that Travis Hyer was missing regal qualities of his character, King George II. Too often Hyer seemed to be talking to other actors as equals, and not the supreme monarch of the nation. Overall, the other actors were, in my opinion, satisfactory, although not as stellar as Argyle, Daines, and Weinberger. But I think the Covey Center should have invested in a dialogue coach because the quality of the accents varied from actor to actor and from scene to scene. A dialogue coach for J. Scott Bronson, who played Handel, would have especially helpful because many of the jokes (for example, about the locket) would have been funnier with a true German accent.
This play has gorgeous costumes (designed by Agnes Broberg) that brought a little bit of lavish spectacle to an otherwise plain show in a black box venue. Broberg was aware of how small the Covey Center’s black box theater is, as she picked textured fabrics and paid close attention to the details in hems, layers, and linings (such as in the costume for the bishop or for Handel). I have mixed feelings about the set (designed by Mike James). Although the sheets of handwritten music scores on the wall and floor were a nice visual touch, I did not like the small platforms (none more than about two feet high) that took up much of the space at stage left. Having these levels created a barrier for actors whenever they entered from that side of the stage (which was half the time because there were only two entrances) and often closed off roughly half the stage to blocking.
Although Joyful Noise is not a musical, it would not be appropriate to write a review of it without mentioning the music—all of which is from the works of Handel, including The Messiah. Daines and Weinberger do the lion’s share of the singing and both have gorgeous voices. Weinberger, however, struggles with some of the notes in “How Beautiful are the Feet” and some of the harmonies in the finale (the “Hallelujah Chorus”) are slightly off. I believe this production would have benefited from a music director who could have cleaned up these minor pitch issues.
Joyful Noise is a gorgeous play about one of the most sublime works of music in the Western canon. It’s a touching script that tells a moving and (mostly) true story that is appropriate for the Christmas season. Although the Covey Center production isn’t perfect, I still endorse it and encourage the Covey Center producers to maintain the annual tradition of Joyful Noise.