By Rachelle Hughes
Iron County Today
The finishing touch on Utah Shakespeare Festival’s fall season is a play with the unassuming title of The Tavern.
However in the case of the world premiere of Director Joseph Hanreddy’s adaptation of George M. Cohan’s play The Tavern, it’s necessary to invoke the old adage “Never judge a book by its cover” or in this case a play by its title. For The Tavern is anything but unassuming as it is quickly unveiled as a melodramatic comedy, and in Hanreddy’s adaptation, a Western melodrama set in Southern Utah.
Who doesn’t love a good Western melodrama? They happen to be one of my secret favorite theatre genres. Throw in some of this season’s best actors and the odds are stacked in favor of a successfully funny play. Indeed The Tavern is a delight.
On a dark and stormy night a handful of quirky and mysterious characters are literally blown into Zachariah Freeman’s (played by James Newcomb) tavern in the middle of nowhere Utah. The wind effects are at once both amazing and a little over the top. But the wind doth seriously blow in this neck of the woods and I had to appreciate the comedic nod to our stormy weather.
The Vagabond (Andrew May) is the first visitor to join the eclectic group of travelers and visitors to the Tavern where Zachariah, his son Zach (Fred Geyer), and their hired help, Sally Mae (Kelly Rogers) and Wile Ed Coats (J. Todd Abrams) are waiting out the storm. May is masterfully funny and charming in his role as the mysterious vagabond who is flashy, theatrical, honest and yet deceptive, and at the center of all the drama that develops on the stage throughout the stormy night. Freeman’s crusty, suspicious innkeeper is a perfect foil to the enthusiastic vagabond,
As the night progresses, much to the chagrin of the innkeeper, the vagabond is joined by a feisty fainting damsel in distress (Melinda Parrett), the new Governor of Utah (Michael Harding), his wife (Melissa Graves), their independent and curious daughter (Cassandra Bissell), and their daughter’s stuffy fiance (Eric Schabla). Eventually they are all joined by Sheriff Elijah Tull (Paul Michael Sandberg) and his posse who blow into the tavern spoiling for a fight after they were fetched from Parowan to investigate the mysterious origins and intentions of the vagabond and the damsel in distress after they were discovered in the tavern’s shed. There is a thief on the loose and they are someone at the tavern is the suspected villain. Finally one final visitor will arrive at the cusp of dawn to solve all the mysteries and it is a pleasure to see the Festival’s Educational Director Michael Don Bhar take the stage for a few moments as Stevens to bring a surprising resolution. But until then, there are accusations flying as fast and hard as the wind all through the night, there are gunshots and fights and declarations of love — all typical melodrama stuff.
This comedic mystery unfolds on a beautifully rustic set that I wouldn’t mind spending a weekend at somewhere in the wild west. Scenic Designer Linda Buchanan has worked her magic on the stage and although this is one of the only sets on the Randall L. Jones Theatre this season that doesn’t have a set change it is never visually boring. A beautiful two story window that gives the audience a vision of the storm outside, a very detailed cuckoo clock complete with a duck instead of a cuckoo bird, antlers and a cozy fire are some of the fantastic details on this set. Highlighted by the lighting of co-lighting designers Kirk Bookman and Michael Megliola make this set and show a visionary treat.
Hanreddy’s adaptation of Cohan’s The Tavern is funny without being tacky and the cast bring depth to characters that could easily be one dimensional if performed by less experienced actors. Yes, The Tavern is a delightful melodrama but it is also something a little bit more. Perhaps when you reach the end of this romp through a tavern on a stormy night you will get to discover the secret why this plot continues to leave audiences satisfied since it first hit the stage in 1920.
The Tavern will run through Oct. 21 at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. For more information visit bard.org.