BWW Reviews: BYU's Impressive U.S. Premiere of THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO Shows Great Potential
Brigham Young University was offered an incredible opportunity in mounting the U.S. premiere of THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO. The musical, which has previously been staged in Europe and Asia, features music by Frank Wildhorn, who composed the wonderful Broadway musicals JEKYLL & HYDE, THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL, and BONNIE & CLYDE, as well as book and lyrics by Jack Murphy (Wildhorn's THE CIVIL WAR and WONDERLAND).
Although fully staged, this production is ultimately a student workshop to prepare the musical for future life, including its North American professional premiere at Pioneer Theatre Company next season. All assessments of the show should be made with this caveat in mind.
Having said this, BYU's production is nothing short of spectacular, with gorgeous design, strong performances, thrilling music played by a large orchestra, engaging storytelling, and even special effects courtesy of Flying by Foy.
Although many changes could, and indeed should, yet be made to improve THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO and prepare it for its inevitable long life, this impressive premiere proves that the musical has great potential to be a successful crowd-pleaser all across the country.
It is perhaps Wildhorn's most complex score to date, and the story is perfect for his style of music and brand of narrative.
THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO is based on the classic novel by Alexandre Dumas. It is the story of Edmund Dantes, who is wrongfully imprisoned but then returns home to exact revenge on the men who sent him away. Woven throughout the story are his love for his intended, Mercedes, and an emergent theme of forgiveness.
The biggest stars of this production are the scenic design by Rory Scanlon and projection design by Daniel Fine (art by Kristi Harmon). The projections are a feast for the eyes and keep the action moving fluidly across the many settings. The large, movable set pieces perfectly compliment the projections in every scene, adding scale and spectacle. With automation (and the simplification of a few overly busy projections), this scenic and projection design would be perfectly at home in a Broadway house.
The costume design by Lara Beene is striking and historically accurate, and it is paired well with the makeup and hair design by Mary Beth Bosen and Celena Kurogi Peterson.
The exceptional choreography by Nathan Balser (who has performed on Broadway in a number of original casts, including 9 TO 5 and LEGALLY BLONDE THE MUSICAL) is fitting and enjoyable no matter the required style.
The performers, who are almost all BYU students, do great work under the guidance of director Tim Threlfall and music director Gayle Lockwood.
Preston Yates is astounding in the role of Edmund Dantes. The maturity of his vocal presence is far beyond his years, and his acting is up to the same standards. He is one of Utah's best musical theatre performers.
Shae Robins as Mercedes also has a beautiful singing voice and is up to the task of creating a Wildhorn heroine.
A clear audience favorite is professional actor Brian Clark as Dantes' fellow inmate Abbe Faria, who is flawless in the role and makes a huge impact, even in his brief time onstage.
Other praiseworthy supporting players include Cassie Austin as Valentine Villefort, Lauren Hughes as Louisa Vampa, James Bounous as Jacopo, Taylor Morris as Fernand Mondego, Cameron Smith as Baron Danglars, Matthew Krantz as Gerard De'Villefort, and Cayel Tregeagle as Albert.
For the majority of Act I, from the beautiful duet "I Will Be There" through the stirring Mercedes solo "When the World Was Mine," THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO is extremely satisfying theatre. The music and dialogue are complementary to one another, well written, memorable, and move the story along. Add the great design, performances, and staging, and that section of the show is honestly near perfection.
Especially worthy of praise is the portion that covers Dantes' time in prison with Abbe Faria, including the strong scene work and songs "Another Day" and "Lessons Learned."
It is difficult to become invested in the characters until "I Will Be There" because the first few scenes of the musical are drawn with the large strokes of grand opera. There is some recitative, reminiscent of LES MISERABLES, but few spoken lines. More dialogue surrounding the lovers' introduction in "When Love is True" and during the overly long dance break in the ensemble number "Raise a Glass" would work wonders in sparking interest at the outset and maintaining a more consistent style.
The comparison to opera could be made throughout the show due to the passionate story, grandiose music, and occasional overdramatic lyric. However, Threlfall's decision to embrace the operatic nature sometimes undercuts the sentiment of the story by drawing caricatures. This is abundantly clear in the Act I finale "Hell To Your Doorstep." Focusing on just Dantes and his three enemies would have been much more successful than the current approach, which muddies the waters with the ensemble's participation and overblown flame projections. There are also many instances in the show in which Mercedes throws herself on the ground or reaches forward dramatically. A more realistic treatment throughout could much better serve the musical by tempering the bombast and uncovering more stripped down emotion.
Act II contains many wonderful moments in both the songs and book. However, some of the music slows down the pacing, and the complicated story would benefit from more explanation and development. If the act opened directly with "That's What They Say" at Monte Cristo's Paris estate (with the opening scenes featuring the tangential "Carnival in Rome" and "Ah Women" excised), more time would remain to introduce Valentine and provide additional needed details on Dantes' revenge.
In isolation, Valentine's song "Pretty Lies" is one of the most enjoyable moments of the musical. It has a unique melody and touching lyrics and is performed spectacularly. Unfortunately, in context it slows down the plot to hear the inner turmoil of a character the audience doesn't know well, especially when it is followed by another ballad from Mercedes--"All This Time." As both women want to stop the man they love from making essentially the same mistake, the pacing would be well-served by combining the two scenes and creating a duet moment for the two.
THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO has huge potential. If the second act can evolve to become as well developed as the first, it will no doubt be a completely enthralling piece of musical theatre from its intriguing beginning to its tragic, yet uplifting end.
It has been a great treat for BYU and Utah audiences to participate in the premiere of this musical, and it will be exciting for them to continue to follow its evolution and development as it moves on to a professional production at Pioneer Theatre Company next year.
THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO plays through January 31, 2015. It is sold out for the remainder of its run, but a student rush policy is in place for BYU students. For more information about future performances at BYU, and to buy tickets, visit arts.byu.edu.
Photo Credit: L-R Cameron Smith (Baron Danglars), Cassie Austin (Valentine Villefort), Matthew Krantz (Gerard De'Villefort), Preston Yates (Edmund Dantes), Shae Robins (Mercedes), Cayel Tregeagle (Albert), Taylor Morris (Fernand Mondego)