WEST VALLEY CITY — Theatre is a collaborative art form. Rarely do you have a single actor, who does their own lights, sound, costuming, and is self-directed. It takes a strong and robust ensemble of cast, crew, and production staff to make the magic of live theatre happen. This was the general thrust of the opening night remarks of West Valley Arts executive director Jeff Olson, who took the time to express detailed appreciation for a robust team of creatives who brought Puffs to life. He noticed each of their contributions, pointed them out in their seats in the audience. It is this kind of warm embracing of each individual as key to a collective good that is the thrust of Matt Cox’s deconstruction of the World of Certain British Wizards. The togetherness is so charming and — just like West Valley Arts’ theatre in the round space — was a perfect fit for the show.
This production is the directorial debut of Rob Fernandez-Rosa. Given the heavy technical demands and the show’s highly ensemble driven nature, Puffs is a challenge show to tackle. But Fernandez-Rosa delivered. The cast was impressively well balanced and seemed to have great on-stage chemistry. Over-the-top kisses felt comedic and not cringeworthy. The script of Puffs permits dialogue changes and improvisation in certain sequences, and Fernandez-Rosa trusted a capable cast enough to allow some truly hilarious moments to shine through. Despite having seen this show several times, I found myself astounded my new delivery of lines such as Potter expressing that a certain teacher would often look deep into his eyes while, “Whispering my dead mother’s name.” These lines, while funnier to those who know the books and stories well, are still inspired and playful.
As I mentioned in my earlier review of Utah State University’s production of Puffs, there are elements of the show that play best to those call Hogwarts a second home. For such geeks as myself, the set (designed by Morgan Golightly) was a treasure trove. The rotating set featured words and phrases like “Lumos” and “RickmanSempra,” as well as footprints in a style found on a particular magic map that appears in the source material. Floating candles above the center playing area changed color to reflect story elements, and acting platforms next to audience seating had iconic stone archways.
Likewise, the lighting design (by Renee Fowler) was also brilliant because it enhances the story without drawing attention to itself. A key moment of this was when the story’s narrator (played by Brandwynn Michelle) walked to each side of the stage at the show’s beginning and used a device known to Potter lovers to put out lights, as if magically the device sucked the light to her hand. Other times, the lights demonstrated clever spellwork, such as the lengthy fight scene at the story’s conclusion. The lights were crisp, well executed, and thoughtfully designed to enhance a strong production. Ditto for a soundscape (created by Grace Heinz) that was original and effective. Though companies can license the original off-Broadway sound design for Puffs, the West Valley Arts production used entirely original sound to great effect. In this show, so much depends on whip-fast and intuitive sound effects that demonstrate the magic the actors carry, and it was all done well. Similar kudos to a costume and prop design that were beautifully planned and appeared to be effortlessly executed.
The actors in this show nearly all play multiple parts. Often they will play a combination of Puff students and students or teachers from other parts of the “Certain School of Male Magic and Female Magic.” The ensemble on the whole was cohesive and playful, but two actors in particular stood out as stellar performers in each part they played. Among the several parts Amanda Anne Dayton played were a scintillating French foreign exchange student, a hair flipping flirt of of a red-head, and the well intentioned but exceptionally Aloof Leanne. Each part was dynamic, and I found her constantly drawing my eye in each scene. Dayton’s absolute commitment to each character was so clear as the swapped effortlessly into different roles, and I had to remind myself that she was the same person acting as so many characters. Dayton’s Leanne was particularly endearing as she advocated for the Puffs to stand and fight against evil.
Similarly, Adam Packard played a charismatic and youthful Cedric, as well as a bumbling and creepy Mr. Voldy. The two characters had such varied gaits, inflections, and drew such dynamic cast reactions. Throughout the night, Packard was an energetic focal point of the scenes he was in. Nowhere was this clearer than the scene where Packard, as Cedric, must solve the riddle of a golden egg while taking a bath in front of the audience and a peeping ghost. Packard’s portrayal of Cedric made the audience feel both the awkwardness of the situation, while laughing at the hilarity of Cedric’s failure’s to understand the clues obvious to both performer and observer alike.
The play culminates with Wayne Hopkins (played by Grayson Kamel) receiving profound advice about his own purpose in life: “It is very easy to feel like you’re only a secondary character in someone else’s grand story. That does not mean, however, that there isn’t another story out there that’s all about you.” Unfortunately, this play is the story of Wayne Hopkins, and at times he felt like a secondary character in his own story. While that is more a tribute to excellent ensemble work, it also reflects on the direction and acting of the story’s protagonist. Kamel embraced the aspects of Wayne’s character that were awkward in the limelight. He was a believable early-1990s tween whose aloof expressions and warm affability made him a great fit for so much of Wayne and his failures throughout the play. (He fails a lot.) Kamel exquisitely performed this happy-go-lucky but incompetent aspect of the character. What I missed, however, were the moments that a burgeoning protagonist truly shines through. Among a spectacular ensemble, there needed to be some more moments where Wayne truly felt like the main character of his own story. That is a nit to pick, but it made a couple of key Wayne-centric moments lack impact.
The concern for many audience goers is that Puff is a festival of inside jokes for Potter fans only. It could not be further from the truth. Puffs delivers a strong, unifying story that does not require much knowledge of the world of wizards. The play features both high comedy as well as a profound and satisfying catharsis. However, for those who love all things Hogwarts, Puffs is always as sweet as butter beer. West Valley Arts managed to elevate my expectations for the show with a profoundly positive ensemble and a phenomenal technical design. Whether you bravely enter through the Gryffindor, or at the last minute you have to Ravenclaw a ticket for yourself as you Slytherin to your seat, Puffs is a show to see.