While attending a Mormon singles dance in 1996, John Moyer felt very out of place. He was divorced. In a church where the ultimate goal is marriage, being divorced was like having that brass ring taken away. Feeling like he had taken a few steps back, John's cynical side coupled with his stand up comic observations got the best of him as he took in all the little peculiarities of his fellow single Mormons. The wheels turned and John came up with the initial concept for The Singles Ward. But where in the world would you ever take it? There just wasn't a market for Mormon niche cinema.
Several years later John remarried and found himself in escrow limbo, waiting to move into the house he and his now wife Melissa just purchased. They were staying with friends - very dysfunctional friends - and needing escape from the constant drama, John began writing the script about LDS singles he conceived several years earlier, even if it was just for himself. He knew it would never go anywhere.
That is until Richard Dutcher's film God's Army paved the way. Telling the tales of young Mormon missionaries in Los Angeles, Dutcher's indie film became a hit with the Mormon audiences.
After being approached by Kurt Hale of Halestorm Entertainment in the fall of 2000 about writing a script, John mentioned he already had one. Originally entitled Singles, the script was shown to various investors and proved to so funny and so exciting they provided the half million dollars to make it.
The lead character, Jonathan Jordan, named for stage name John once used, was written with John's point of view, things he's said, and they way he said them. Jonathan Jordan was John Moyer. Originally the producers considered having John play the lead, but then felt John "just wasn't attractive enough to play himself."
The Singles Ward was filmed in and around Provo, Utah in September of 2001 and released to the the theaters February 1, 2002. While the initial reviews from the Salt Lake City area newspapers were scathing to say the least, the filmmakers had the last laugh as audiences have flocked to see this film.
The Singles Ward spent eleven weeks as the number one movie in Utah, beating out such major releases as Panic Room and The Scorpion King and maintained a second place [ranking] behind Spiderman.
During the summer of 2002 The Singles Ward will be releases regionally through out the United States and on video and DVD in the fall.
I saw 'The Singles Ward' a while back a couple of times and died laughing. Sure, the local critics here in Utah were saying, "Whatever, it's okay." But I'm telling you it's just hilarious-- at least for those who are members of the LDS church. Most of the movie the characters make jokes only a person of the faith would get, but they do have a lot of other jokes that others would get also.
This is the story of Jonathon, and as of recent, he's an inactive member ever since his wife left him for the road. He now is a comedian, and wants nothing to do with the church, until he gets stuck at a singles ward activity and meets Cammie, the singles ward president, who he suddenly gets a crush on. The rest of the story, you're just going to have to see for yourself. There are numerous cameos of Utah/LDS celebrities that are quite funny too such as: Steve Young, Shawn Bradley, LaVell Edwards, Richard Dutcher, Danny Ainge, and tons more. As I said, this is one heck of a funny movie that you just have to see to experience. A lot of funny parts, me, my brother, and the rest of the theater were in tears because we were laughing so hard.
***1/2 [out of 4]
The Singles Ward is rated PG for brief violence and mild vulgarity.
The burgeoning Mormon cinema movement expands once again, encompassing romantic comedy in this tale of a happily married stand-up comic (Will Swenson) whose perfect life falls apart when his wife unexpectly leaves him, prompting him to use the quirks of the Mormon culture and dating scene as fodder for his act. That is, until he meets his church ward's activities director (Connie Young) and decides to plunge back into the dating pool. (102 min.) PG; brief violence, mild vulgarity.
There used to be a series of heart-string-tugging commercials that focused on acceptance, abuse, angst and the like, and they were always followed by the disclosure, "Brought to you by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints." The ads were like miniature versions of after-school specials, with their clear-cut morality and simple messages.
The LDS movie "Singles Ward" is a one-hour-and-42-minute version of these fluffy but well-intentioned commercials, made by Mormons, for Mormons, encouraging Mormonism. The film tries to illustrate just how funny, painful and downright hard single life can be (a singles ward is an organized group of Mormon singles within a congregation) in a church where marriage is a requirement to get into a certain level of heaven. Marriage before age 25 is one of the main goals. One church member in the move quotes Brigham Young: "If you're 25 years old and unmarried, you're a menace to society."
Such expectations make life difficult for divorced Mormons like Jonathan Jordan (Will Swenson). "A divorced Mormon might as well be walking around with a factory recall sticker on his forehead," jokes the main character, who has turned his back on the LDS church after his wife decides she can't live under the church's constricting beliefs and leaves him. Jonathan becomes a stand-up comedian, venting his anger through jokes at the expense of Mormons and experiencing such devilries as beer, sex, R-rated movies and caffeine. He's enjoying this lifestyle and denouncing the church's control over an individual until she enters the picture.
She is Cammie (Connie Young): pretty, smart and the new activities director at Jonathan's Singles Ward-the one that he's been avoiding. Cammie is just the ticket to bring Jonathan back to Jesus. Only this very special woman can make him realize that being a Latter Day Saint isn't about letting the church control you; it's about making your own personal decision to be controlled, I mean, er, accepting that lifestyle and those beliefs.
Of course, arriving at this realization involves a long, drawn-out process, which is as formulaic as they come. See, Jonathan is trapped between two worlds. The secular world laughs at Mormon jokes. The Mormon world loves Jonathan for just being Jonathan. And the Mormon world includes Cammie. Though Jonathan never really seems to care about rejoining the Mormon world for its beliefs, he's willing to accept those beliefs in a Mormon minute if he can glimpse that hottie Cammie in her special underwear. Holy Mormoni!
The acting's mediocre, the script is mundane, the characters are one-dimensional stereotypes, and the intra-LDS jokes, well, even us non-Mormons have heard them a heap-though it's not every day that viewers can watch two Mormon boys getting high off of helium and then dancing and singing about popcorn popping on the apricot tree. And there are such notable phrases (to be imitated only in a harshly wrenching motherly voice) as "hopped up on goofballs," "they're kind of peter-priesthoody" and a few chortle-inducing polygamy references.
Still, canned humor aside, it should be said that the movie fulfills its purpose, which is entertaining a very specific audience with very specific beliefs. It's not trying to convert the world, or make artistic strides in filmmaking. It's a clean, safe, benign piece of what some may call "family fun."
Personally, I'd rather be hopped up on goofballs.
[NOTE: Somehow Kate Silver manages to imagine scenes in "The Singles Ward" that in no way resemble anything actually in the movie, such as her obviously inappropriate and blatantly false jab about "special underwear." If Kate Silver didn't like "The Singles Ward," that's fine. But what is unfortunate is that she didn't identify the biases which clearly colored her views. Alternatively, she should have asked that this review assignment be given to someone else. Silver's review should not be taken at face value because she fosters an odd obsession about Mormon sexuality, and she brings this obsession into the review. Kate Silver has written at least six articles for Las Vegas Weekly about Latter-day Saints during the last two years, all of them focusing entirely or in part on LDS sexuality. All exhibit a sneering attitude about "restrictive" Latter-day Saint sexual ethics. (The articles are online. Feel free to look them up.) Silver, who describes herself elsewhere as a cigarette smoker, a beer-drinker and "someone who's strayed from religion since age 12" (Las Vegas Weekly cover story, 22 August 2002) seems incapable of tolerating or accepting the fact that a group of people has beliefs and values different from her own.]
GREETINGS FROM THE 'WARD'
My name is Scott Champion. I work for HaleStorm Entertainment, producer/distributor of "The Singles Ward." I'm just dropping a line to say thank you for your review ("Single White--and One Black--Mormons: Welcome to the World of Latter-Day Singles," July 25). It was great. The review was well-written and funny. Ironically, some of our harshest reviews were from Utah critics. Thanks for holding back.
It's hard to imagine anyone outside the LDS church thoroughly enjoying "The Singles Ward." And even if you get all the Mormon-rooted gags and references this humble little movie is not going to knock you over-it's not cleverly profound or profoundly clever. But it's long overdue.
The film launches its perspective on LDS single life from the vantagepoint of Jonathan Jordan (Will Swenson) a stand-up comedian, recently divorced and feeling like an oddball attending church while surrounded by happy families. "A factory recall," as it were. His sarcastic resistance to being fellowshipped by the local singles ward is challenged when he meets Cammie (Connie Young) a gorgeous and available young woman. Swenson's self -deprecating charisma is John Cusack-like and the early scenes that contain his wry observational narratives are some of "The Singles Ward's" best moments. (Unfortunately, this technique is abandoned for a good part of the movie.)
There is an amazing amount of humor culled from peculiar Mormon mores. Most notably, the goofy preference dance rituals that include spiking the punch bowl--with Mountain Dew of all things-and a young man getting hilariously excited about a mission call to Boise, Idaho despite the tepid reaction of his friends. You'll find plenty of characters here-most of them lovably nerdy-which will seem amusingly familiar.
The "serious" part of the film involves Jordan's difficulty in choosing between the girl (and diving back into the straight-laced lifestyle) or the world (unfettered sex, booze and apostate stand-up comedy). "Singles Ward" doesn't really delve much into Jordan's decision process here-it skims over what could be a very worthwhile investigation of spiritual discovery.
This obviously modest effort aims primarily at the funny bone and to that end the "hits" outweigh the "misses." The majority of the many cameos of familiar LDS celebrities are more cute than inspired, but keep things lively. The soundtrack doesn't do much to embellish what's happening on the screen but it contains many fun interpretations of LDS songs-mostly in an emo-punk style. (Local band "The Soulutions" has one number).
"The Singles Ward" follows a succession of diverse movies over the past few years including "God's Army," "Brigham City," and "The Other Side of Heaven" that do an admirable job of exploring the many facets of LDS culture. None will win an Oscar anytime soon, but these pioneering films deserve all the financial support they can get. Even better big-screen expositions will hopefully follow.
Mad About Movies grade: B- (Rated PG or mild thematic elements and brief language)
Mormons can be highly annoying people, even to each other. The first bit of The Singles Ward shows just how annoyingly persistent LDS members are. The Ward's main character, Jonathan Jordan (Will Swenson), is disillusioned with the church after the failure of his marriage - a marriage, by the way, he undoubtedly rushed into; you'd probably rush to the altar too if you were forbidden from having extramarital relations.
Director Kurt Hale's movie not only pokes fun at the Mormons' tendency for speedy matrimony, but the guilt trips (how can you say no to the church?), the phone calls, the morning house invasions and general pestering anyone who stops attending church gets treated to.
In real life, if you really want to quit, you can get your name taken off the Grand Master Mormon List and finally sleep in on Sundays. Instead, Jonathan decides to stop going to church and mouth off at his fellow Latter-Day Saints when they call or visit, which is every Saint's secret dirty fantasy. But that's only until he meets the congregation's activities director, Cammie Giles (Connie Young).
If you've ever seen an episode of "Touched by an Angel," anything on PAX TV or any other squeaky-clean Disneyesque piece of crap, you know what happens next. The whole purpose of a singles ward, after all, is to get you out of it. It's a self-defeating entity that obligates you to an endless string of social events created to get you off and married already, dammit.
Overall, the film is overflowing with religious references that'll mystify ordinary folks; be sure to bring along your Mormon-to-English dictionary. Or save yourself the time and money by guessing how this one ends up. Heavenly ever after, anyone?
[Megan Capehart, 23, is the public relations officer for "3rd Wave in Nevada" a feminist group (which she also describes as a "women's activist group") founded in March 2001 by Moreno and Lauren Izzo. As of 28 August 2002, the group had 15 members -- all younger than 25. According to Capehart, the organization's primary areas of concern are multiculturalism, equal wages, abortion rights and lesbian rights. Capehart graduated from UNLV with a degree in communications/public relations in December 2001. Megan Capehart works as the webmistress and calendar editor for Las Vegas City Life. This review of "The Singles Ward" is her first published movie review.]
3 stars [out of 4]
When a movie bills itself as "the LDS comedy hit of the year," you know that you're in for something unique.
Most of us non-Mormons don't equate Mormonism with easy laughs. Maybe it's the image of that stern guy Brigham Young.
Whatever, "The Singles Ward" is a funny little movie.
The plot (written by director Kurt Hale and John E. Moyer) isn't particularly original: A man, dumped by his wife, has trouble getting back into the swing of dating. But the movie's comedy doesn't depend so much on the story as it does on how the story fits the setting.
See, Jonathan (Will Swenson) is unique all by himself: He's a stand-up comic whose act revolves around his faith, which he pokes fun at -- gently -- to get laughs from his largely non-Mormon audience.
Basically a decent guy, one raised in the church, he one day finds himself divorced. And Mormons are all about family; at one point, in one of the movie's several cameos, former NFL star quarterback Steve Young quotes Elder Brigham to the effect that if you are 25 and unmarried, "you're a menace to the church."
Hurt and feeling betrayed, Jonathan stops going to church. Instead, he spends most of his time doing comedy, hanging with his Mormon buddies and, as he says, "living on the edge."
Of course, his way of being edgy is to drink iced tea, rent movies such as "Newsies -- the uncut version" and -- gasp! -- to remove the MTV block on his cable subscription.
Then one day Jonathan meets the local congregation's new singles activities director, Cammie (Connie Young), and is immediately smitten -- despite the fact that, not knowing how attractive she was, he had earlier insulted her over the phone.
The rest of the film is predictable: He pursues her, she resists his advances, he begins attending church to be near her, she resists his advances, he does manage to connect with her, they date, she doubts his sincerity, they split, but ... well, you get the point.
"The Singles Ward" isn't merely a church film. In many ways, it mirrors mainstream movies.
Swenson is an engaging performer, far superior to the rest of the cast, which ranges from the acceptable to something out of a middle-school play. Young (Connie, not Steve or Brigham) is acceptably cute.
And the humor here -- while often broad to the extreme -- should cause Mormons to laugh, even if a bit self-consciously.
Example of a Mormon pick-up line: "What's your tribe?"
Or: "I think we met in the pre-existence."
Many of the movie's jokes will go past those of us who don't speak the lingo. Ward, for example, is the word that Mormons use for congregation (a singles ward, then, would be a congregation for the unmarried). And a punchline such as "magnify your calling" clearly means more than it seems.
But even the densest among us should be able to get this one: "Being a divorced member of the church," Jonathan says, "I felt like people were looking at me like, `Hey! Our ancestors were able to handle four or five wives. You can't even keep one? What's the problem?' "
Like other recent films that revolve around the Mormon church -- Richard Dutcher's "God's Army" and "Brigham City," Mitch Davis' "The Other Side of Heaven" -- "The Singles Ward" offers a look at the church that, unlike a standard Sunday-morning drama, feels real.
That it does so with humor is a bonus.
They come with VHS tapes, the titles hastily scrawled on the box. They come with press kits put together at the Kinko's down the street. They seem like nice enough fellows. I wish them well.
And I wish they'd stop.
With the rise of digital video and editing technology, a new guerrilla filmmaking aesthetic has given would-be movie auteurs more freedom to create than they've ever had before. They can tell their stories on a shoestring budget, leaving them only to find receptive venues for exhibition like the Utah Film & Video Center or the newly re-opened Alternative Grounds in Trolley Square. Because they believe that this publication is a place where the rebel and the little guy can go to be heard, the tyro filmmakers bring me these stories. They want me to tell you what I think about them.
At least, that's what they think they want.
As film and theater critic for City Weekly, no issue has given me more indigestion than what standards to apply to those criticisms. Do I review community and university theater productions, understanding that I'm more likely to find enthusiasm than refined artistry? How do I balance the desire to encourage potential with the responsibility to point readers toward the best aesthetic bang for their bucks? If I decide to play nice-nice with an artist who may be reading what I have to say, am I doing anybody any favors?
Local film critics faced this dilemma earlier this year when individuals associated with the locally-produced, LDS-themed comedy The Singles Ward fired back at less-than-glowing comments by critics from other Utah newspapers. I was kinder than most, and, in retrospect, I don't think I should have been. The Singles Ward offered some pleasant enough moments, but on the whole, it looked like what it was: the work of well-intentioned amateurs. It strained for laughs. It wasn't always in focus. I lobbed a puffball of a review because it felt at the time like the generous, supportive thing to do--even though the film simply wasn't very good.
In the end, I was one of the only critics blurbed for local ads promoting The Singles Ward. The thought sometimes still wakes me up in a cold sweat.
There will be more of those occasions rather than less in the coming months. Maybe it would be better not to review films like the ones Alternative Grounds will show at all, even though many of them might be the calling cards for great future work. Or maybe I should give the directors exactly what they're asking for, and evaluate them on the basis of the professionalism for which they claim to be striving. If they succeed, more's the glory. If they don't... well, every director has to learn how to deal with a bad review.
A few weeks ago, columnist Paul Swenson made comments in this paper criticizing The Salt Lake Tribune's Sean Means and the Deseret News' Jeff Vice for not reviewing Paul Larsen's locally-made documentary Chasing a Good Day to Die. Swenson made the assumption that every film shown in a theater warrants equal consideration, and maybe he's right. While I can't speak to anybody else's motivations, maybe it's better not to smack a filmmaker around for being self-indulgent if he's a local guy trying to make good.
In my gut, I know good intentions don't make up for bad cinema. But I do have a heart, and I know these people have dreams. But I still don't know the right thing to say after having shaken the hand that hastily scrawled the movie's name on a VHS tape.
Who says Mormons don't have a sense of humor?
In "The Singles Ward," a Mormon Church-affiliated romantic comedy that bills itself as "The LDS (that's Latter-day Saints) comedy hit of the year," there's all kinds of self-deprecating humor about all sorts of sensitive issues.
There are gags about the church's often heavy-handed intrusion into its followers' lives, about their squeaky clean image, about the scarcity of black members, about the required missionary service, even about the practice of polygamy.
It's the story of Jonathan (Will Swenson), a handsome young aspiring Utah writer and stand-up comedian whose wife has recently divorced him (she couldn't stand up to the church's strict moral code), thus putting him back in the dreaded pool of unmarrieds known as the "singles ward."
In the opening sequence, he unknowingly insults Cammie (Connie Young), a beautiful young nurse's assistant who has called him up in a telephone solicitation for a church function, and he spends the rest of the running time trying to get back in her good graces.
The movie is up front with its strong LDS connection (it's spelled right out in the bouncy title song), and despite endlessly poking fun at the more vulnerable aspects of Mormon culture, the script ultimately embraces Mormon values.
But with its surrealism and dating-angst humor, it otherwise could be a John Cusack movie. There's no conversion effort, much of the writing is genuinely witty and both stars are appealing enough to probably have a good shot at a Hollywood career, if they want one.
** [2 out of 4 stars]
"The Singles Ward," a low-budget, mild-mannered comedy about twentysomething Mormon singletons in suburban Utah, distinguishes itself from its late-summer Hollywood cousins by being, occasionally, actually funny. For example, the movie's divorced hero, Jonathan (Will Swenson), at one point decides to rebel against the church, and does so by having his cable company unblock MTV, and by renting movies like the uncut version of "Newsies."
Well, OK, it's not exactly "Saturday Night Live," but in late August, you're grateful for what you can get.
So what we have here is a sweet-natured and entirely predictable tale about how Jonathan finds true love and faith with the fetching Cammie (Connie Young). It's the latest in a handful of recent films focusing specifically on Mormon culture to be released in mainstream theaters. (Others include "Brigham City," "The Other Side of Heaven" and "God's Army," at which friendly potshots are taken in this film.)
But "The Singles Ward," as perhaps the first LDS comedy, may be better compared with something like "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," another romantic comedy that focused on a specific community and found affectionate humor in its foibles. The comparison is apt in another way, too: Both films gloss over seemingly huge ideological differences between their central couples, resolving questions of faith quicker than you can say, "When's the wedding?" and leaving only happy endings in their wake.
Nothing wrong with a little romantic fantasy, though, and director Kurt Hale presents his with a likable, attractive principal cast. Swenson, who has the blue-eyed handsomeness of a Baldwin brother, is particularly good at making an audience root for him. But the pace is uneven -- some scenes, particularly one involving the setup of a new TV, drag on forever -- and a few supporting cast members seem amateurish.
And those unfamiliar with Mormon traditions may find "The Singles Ward" occasionally bewildering -- little explanation is given for the non-Mormon audience member, and the film's parade of cameo appearances by LDS celebrities falls a little flat if you don't recognize who the people are. For example, that's "God's Army" director Richard Dutcher, in the scene where his movie is dissed. That's a great in-joke, but only if you're in on it.
The Singles Ward
Mormon moviegoers screaming for more Mormon-centric movies at least have this romantic comedy to look forward to. In it, a young Mormon gentleman gets divorced and suddenly finds himself pursued by his church's singles group. (See, Mormons are supposed to get married and produce as many little Mormons as humanly possible, hence, this film's hilarious premise.) Our hero doesn't want to go, but finds himself attracted to the group's female activities director. Apparently, there are lots of funny cameos featuring famous Mormons like ... uh, sorry, Donny and Marie are the only ones I know, and they're not in this. 110 minutes. (Coronado)
The Singles Ward
This is the story of a guy who is Mormon and gets divorced, a big problem if you're Mormon. He attends the singles ward, which is basically like a dating club for single Mormons. Just as he's getting fed up, he falls in love with the ward director. Drama ensues.
THE SINGLES WARD (PG) (Fireweed) In this romantic comedy with a Mormon twist, Johnathan is 20-something divorced Latter Day Saint who's lost his faith and embraced a career as a stand-up comedian. That is, until he meets Cammie, activities director of the church's local singles ward. Christian sparks fly and Mormon "in" jokes abound as Cammie and Johnathan wrestle with what it means to be young, single and Mormon.
BEST "SENSATIONAL! ... MOVIE! ... ADVERTISING!"
The Singles Ward
It's not like they created an imaginary critic or anything, but the Utah-based producers of The Singles Ward still need to do some thinking about taking creative license with quotes. In a move Halestorm Entertainment called a joke, they cobbled together quotes from negative reviews by local critics such that they appeared laudatory -- "Cameos ... equal laughs ... fresh-faced cast ... amusing" read the comments attributed to Deseret News critic Jeff Vice. The ads were quickly pulled, though City Weekly's own 2-star review somehow became praise for "Plenty of charm!" in a subsequent ad.
I didn't want to argue in front of company -- but now that the Olympics are over, it's time for a Utahns-only talk about "The Singles Ward."
Saying I didn't like this made-in-Utah production, a comedy about a guy trying to survive the meat-market atmosphere of an LDS singles-only ward, is an understatement. In my Feb. 1 review, I gave it one star and wrote that the movie "is parochial, accessible to a chosen few, standoffish to everyone else, and smugly suggests that a superior moral tone is more important than filmmaking skill."
The response was heavier and angrier than any I have received for any other review. The letters included accusations of incompetence, anti-LDS bigotry and even "moviemaker envy."
Let me answer a few points raised by the letter writers:
"When you suggest that this movie is accessible to a chosen few, you are correct. . . . As one of the chosen few, I enjoyed this movie."
-- Shane Kelson
It's possible to make a movie about a subculture -- Mormons, gays, Native Americans or any other group -- that is familiar to that group's members and still entertaining, even enlightening, to people who don't know the code.
Other entries in LDS cinema, like "The Other Side of Heaven" or Richard Dutcher's "God's Army" and "Brigham City," managed the crossover. "The Singles Ward" went out of its way to alienate those not in the know. My friend Scott Renshaw, over at the City Weekly, put it succinctly: "Don't slam the door in my face and then complain when I say you're being rude."
"Even if it did really suck, you should be rooting for the home team and encouraging Utah filmmakers."
-- Eric Martinis
That would be unfair to my readers, to other Utah and LDS filmmakers whose movies I have praised, and ultimately to the makers of "The Singles Ward." A negative review can teach, let a filmmaker see what works and what doesn't, and maybe provide lessons for the next movie -- if the filmmaker takes the review in that spirit.
I wouldn't bet on this happening with the folks who made "The Singles Ward." One e-mail I received from the guys in director Kurt Hale's office read, "We're still looking for your public apology." A week after opening, the producers ran an ad that butchered negative reviews by me and two other critics to produce positive quotes. Hale told Eric D. Snider, the Daily Herald's critic and another of the ad's victims, that the ellipses-filled quotations were meant to be funny -- and, judging by the lame standards of his movie's humor, Hale probably thinks they were.
"Next time you review a 'local, low-budget film,' try not to compare it with anything Ron Howard has done. He probably spent more on craft service in one day than the entire budget of 'The Singles Ward' was."
-- an anonymous staffer in "The Singles Ward's" production office.
This is what I wrote: "When you must pay the same $7 that gets you into 'A Beautiful Mind' or 'The Lord of the Rings,' amateur hour is over."
Hale told me he made "The Singles Ward" for $400,000. That's double what the 2002 Sundance Film Festival entry "Tadpole" cost, and it had Sigourney Weaver and Bebe Neuwirth going for it.
The only budget that matters is the moviegoer's -- and until theaters give discounts based on the size of the movie's budget, it's fair to compare the local guys to Hollywood's heavy-hitters.
"It was intended to be only one thing: entertaining. And using that as my criteria, I would say the movie achieved its goal enthusiastically."
-- Jeff Jensen
This comment, which I hear about many movies, suggests there are filmmakers who try not to be entertaining. There are a few -- bomb-throwers like Todd Solondz ("Happiness") or Catherine Breillat ("Fat Girl") -- but most moviemakers want viewers to get some entertainment value out of their work.
The comment also implies critics don't want to be entertained. Trust me, I want to be entertained every time the house lights dim. The question is, "What is entertaining?" For every person, the answer is different.
What entertains me is an original movie that genuinely makes me laugh, smile, cry, get angry -- or experience any unfabricated, honest connection on a human level. The fact that I am entertained by David Lynch and Daffy Duck is not a contradiction, no more than anything else is in life.
"I'm guessing nobody trusts your reviews anyway, as I tried to attend Friday and Saturday [on the opening weekend] and was turned away due to sold-out shows. Keep up the good work. Maybe you should try reviewing the Jazz -- you both suck!"
-- Andy Porter
A movie review is not an election, it is a vote -- my vote. Each reader must decide whether to trust that vote. The only thing I can do to maintain trust is to stand behind my reviews, unswayed by box-office success or angry letters.
Correction: In my "Singles Ward" review, I referred to "The Other Side of Heaven" and Dutcher's two movies as being "self-distributed." That was wrong. Though they were released outside the Hollywood studio system, they did in fact have a distributor, Excel Motion Pictures Distribution. My apologies for the error.
Stories from Utah's history tend to have more than one version, depending on the storyteller. "Utah!," the historical extravaganza that inspired the creation of Tuacahn Amphitheatre in Ivins, follows the same pattern.
A new version of "Utah!" -- the fifth -- opens Thursday on Tuacahn's cliff-encircled outdoor stage.
The show, absent from the Tuacahn Amphitheatre the past four years, returns with its trademark elements of spectacle intact -- live horses, burning wagons, the gushing Santa Clara flood and a booming fireworks finale. But the story that generated more controversy than cash in its prior renderings is being told by a new teller -- carefully.
Meet Stallion Cornell. To no one's surprise, the attention-getting name is not his own.
Cornell gets playbill credit for writing the revised book and lyrics for the new "Utah!," but the nom de plume belongs to Jim Bennett, a former administrator at Tuacahn who is now communications director for Sandy City. The son of Sen. Bob Bennett dreamed up his rakish pseudonym as part of a long-ago college prank. He says bringing Cornell back to life "wasn't so much to hide my identity as to be consistent with my goofiness."
Bennett is the fifth writer to try his hand at the "Utah!" script, which has seen some 25 drafts.
The first production of the show opened in 1995 with a script by playwright Robert Paxton, author of several works on Mormon themes. Paxton's sprawling musical play, which included elements of an earlier draft by the late Mark Ogden, valorized the role of Mormon pioneers in the settlement of Southwestern Utah. "Indian agent" Jacob Hamblin was the main character in the rambling three-hour show, which featured music by Kurt Bestor and Sam Cardon with lyrics by Doug Stewart.
The show was praised for its gorgeous red-rock setting and Western flavor, but got harsh criticism for the dramatic interpretations of polygamy and the Mountain Meadows Massacre. In response, Paxton tweaked his script for the second season. A revised version with additions by Reed McColm premiered in 1997.
The next year, an all-new "Utah!" that veered away from Hamblin and history of the St. George area had its premiere. Utah playwright Tim Slover was the author of this more inclusive "Utah!" Slover's script increased emphasis on pioneering groups other than the Mormons and took in settlement of the entire state. Lyrics by Marvin Payne were superimposed onto the Bestor/Cardon score to match Slover's script.
By this time, it was becoming apparent that "Utah!" had saturated its audience base. In the summer of 1999, Tuacahn producers took a different tack, mounting a pair of crowd-pleasing Broadway-style musicals in "Utah!'s" place. "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" proved successful, and "Broadway in the Desert" became Tuacahn's catchphrase, with new musicals each season.
Despite the success of the Broadway tuners, a wish to bring back "Utah!" to the stage built especially for it never wavered in the hearts of Tuacahn's directors. A decision to try producing an autumn show at Tuacahn provided the opportunity to resurrect the pioneer spectacle.
" 'Utah!' is our signature piece -- and of course, we own it," said Tuacahn executive producer Kevin Smith. Since ownership translates to an absence of royalty payments, and few costs for scenery and costumes, "Utah!" is a relatively inexpensive choice as a fall-season experiment. Smith gave Bennett the assignment of retooling the show -- according to specific guidelines.
Bennett says the Tuacahn board of directors gave him leeway to write his own script or incorporate earlier versions, but issued precise instructions about subject matter. The show's focus was to return to Southwestern Utah and Jacob Hamblin's life. Polygamy and Mountain Meadows were to be avoided.
This year's shorter production follows the structure of earlier versions, but with fewer side trips. The show acknowledges Hamblin's plural marriages in an introductory monologue, but skirts the issue of polygamy in its plot. The Mountain Meadows Massacre, which involved Hamblin only in its aftermath, is beyond the time frame of the revised plot and is not mentioned.
Bestor and Cardon's musical score from the first production was retained. Stewart's original lyrics are used for most songs; a few have new lyrics by Bennett.
Bennett says LDS Church leaders had no part in determining the contents of the new "Utah!"
"There has been a misconception that Tuacahn is an extension of the Mormon church," he says. "Tuacahn is hospitable to members of the Mormon church, but it is not an extension or official arm. In my rewrite it was important to tell a story about people who happen to be Mormons. Religion figures in, but the purpose is not to advance the cause of the Mormon church -- or belittle it, either. The show should be interesting to people in and out of the church."
Director Tim Threlfall says that by concentrating "Utah!'s" script upon Hamblin's activities as a go-between for American Indian tribes and pioneer settlers, Bennett's script uses the most exciting chapter of Hamblin's life to good dramatic effect.
"Jacob Hamblin had a great love for Native American people and could see things from their perspective," says Threlfall. "He ate and slept and walked and talked with the Indians and learned their language. No one else was willing to do that -- [the American Indians] were considered barbarians. Jacob Hamblin won their love and trust. He was way ahead of his times in terms of race relations."
Smith hopes people who saw earlier versions of "Utah!" will come back to see the story of Jacob Hamblin, peacemaker:
"For us to have for our inaugural fall season the show that started everything here is really exciting for us. It's like another beginning."
Tuacahn will continue to produce different shows each year, but will bring "Utah!" back from time to time, says Smith. Next year's shows are "The Wizard of Oz" and "The King and I" for the summer season and "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" for fall.
Will Swenson, who starred in the recent movie "Singles Ward," heads the large "Utah!" cast in the role of Jacob Hamblin. Rachel Hamblin is portrayed by Marilee Spencer, Stuart Bird is Tutsegavitz and Black Hawk Walter is Agarapoots. Jenny Frogley is music director; Derryl Yeager is choreographer.
"Utah!" opens in the Tuacahn Amphitheatre, Ivins, Thursday and continues Monday through Saturday through Oct. 12. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. A chuckwagon cookout is offered before each show at 6 p.m.
Tickets for the production are $14.50 to $29.50 with local discounts available Monday to Thursday. Dinner is $11; $8 for children.
Call 435-652-3300 or 1-800-SHOW-UTAH. For information, visit www.tuacahn.org.