WEST VALLEY CITY — Pleasant Grove is an exciting piece of theatre that its creators have been developing since the 1990s. Set in our own Utah Valley in the 1970s, this sung-through rock opera tells the true story of the Barrett family and their son Alden whose suicide created a stir in their church community. The production’s eclectic style features SALT Contemporary Dance Company and Bay of Pigs, the rock band that wrote and performed the music live. The show is like Dear Evan Hansen — only with Molly Mormons, hippies, and a drum set.
As the show’s tongue-in-cheek title suggests, the land of Pleasant Grove is not so pleasant. The first act constitutes Alden’s coming-of-age story as he navigates the town’s strident conservatism with his rebellious personality. Alden’s father and mother struggle to parent their son, who writes about his drug-use and spiraling mental health in a journal that they read following his death. The show seamlessly integrates national politics and the community’s toxic religious culture into Alden’s narrative, explaining the pressures that culminate in his suicide. And that’s just the first act.
Part of what makes Pleasant Grove so compelling is Amelia Rose Moore’s innovative direction. Near the beginning of the show, the young Barrett parents cradle their newborn son. Instead of a doll, Moore represented the baby with a crumpled-up jacket. Then, the parents unfold the jacket and spread it on the couch to suggest Alden’s growing up. It was a simple transition that covered the span of years, introduced the motif of Alden’s jacket, and maximized the language of theatre.
When the contemporary dancers first appeared, I was skeptical of how their aesthetic meshed with that of the rest of the production. While the beginning of the show was all bright costumes (designed by Reneé Levy), emotive faces, and minimal choreography, the first dance sequence brought in dancers slithering onto the stage with their black outfits and stoic faces. If at first the dancers seemed out of place, their contribution made more sense as the show went on. If anything, I applaud the kind of theatre that is brave enough to collaborate and experiment.
What ensured the show was coherent (not just experimental) was the phenomenal cast, which pulled the disparate elements of the production together. One number took place in Alden’s head while his mental health was declining. Like eerie figments of his imagination, the cast stood in a line, expressionless and bathed in red light. As Alden (played by Ian Webb) walked by each of them, they struck a pose that encapsulated how he perceived their character. Behind each person was a clear story that helped flesh out Alden’s social and psychological landscape.
That fleshing out was important because the piece is still in workshop phase (the official premiere is set for October). I did not ever think the stage — pockmarked with bright spike tape and populated by plain rehearsal blocks — was sparse because the cast filled in the details of the set. I understood the setting of the church not just because lighting designer Adam Flitton cleverly projected long windows onto the stage floor, but also because of how the actors held themselves differently in the church scenes. The interesting soundscape by Bryce Robinette, which featured news recordings from the ’70s, did not feel irrelevant because the cast embodied the political climate of the day.
Besides a strong ensemble, Pleasant Grove boasts incomparable leads. In my mind, Webb just needs to print out his Equity card because he already earned it. His portrayal of Alden was simultaneously guarded and accessible. Webb’s character made complete sense, but it took the course of the first act to fully understand his character’s complicated nature. It is always a privilege seeing an actor who leans toward film take their careful craft to the stage.
A favorite moment of his performance — and the production — happened when Alden took drugs for the first time. Right as he popped a pill, the white circles from a disco ball exploded onto the walls of the theatre. Webb sat with his jaw-dropped in wonder at the sensation of being high for the first time. Then, his slack face twitched into a faint smile. When he stood up, he stumbled the tiniest bit. With all those details, I felt like I was high, too.
I would be amiss not to mention Marcella and Doyle Barrett, played by Laura Wright and Kyle Olsen respectively, who managed to convince me they were Alden’s parents when they could not have been much older than Webb. Even though the heart-wrenching plot required that Marcella be in tears most of the time, her grief never felt redundant. Wright mastered the art of cry-singing, so that through all the emotion and music that scraped her upper register, she did not sacrifice a shred of vocal integrity or dramatic nuance. Lastly, Krista Saltmarsh, who was the ringleader of the judgmental church members, delivered an electrifying performance that stole the show. The angst she infused into her character’s intense rock songs terrified and thrilled me.
Saltmarsh’s character stood out not just because of the brilliant actress who played her but because of the importance she has for Utah Valley today. There is a certain power that comes from retelling stories in the places they were lived out first. Unfortunately, traces of a culture that shames deviance persist. In the beginning of the show, Alden inaugurates his journal by saying that one day he hopes the world knows his story. How special that a local audience is coming to know his story with a first-hand understanding of the culture he grew up in.
The one thing I wished were different was the run time, which approached three and a half hours and made it harder to paying attention in the second act. But, I still recommend this show to anybody who wants to witness breath-taking moments of theatre or learn how to spread compassion in a judgmental community. The feat of Pleasant Grove is that its quality rivals the Hale Center Theatre without being Disneyfied like a Hale show. As a piece that has been over 20 years in the making, the music is evocative, the scope ambitious, and the talent superb.