Jesse Alvarez and Mandana Namazi in the new musical Facing East. Photo by Allyson Fournier.

The world premiere of Carol Lynn Pearson’s stage play, Facing East, took place in Salt Lake City, Utah.  It is not hard to see how it would have resonated at the epicentre of Mormon country. For the rest of us though, it does not have the same impact.

Facing East, now a musical based on Pearson’s original play, tells the story of a seemingly devout Mormon couple coming terms with their gay son Alex’s suicide.  Mark-Eugene Garcia’s book uses a familiar device by starting at the end and working his way forward. In revealing Alex’s suicide in the first scene, Garcia has the unenviable task of creating sufficient tension for the next 80 minutes that will take us full circle. Unfortunately, that tension never quite materializes. As a result, Facing East never surprises nor does it add anything new to the religion versus gay argument.

Mother Ruth, played with a near fanatical intensity by Mandana Namazi, is no saint herself. Never mind the absurd idea that you can “pray the gay away”, Ruth finds herself turning to religion in an attempt to excise her own demons.  It is Ruth’s struggle with her faith that should be at the emotionally conflicted core of Facing East, but there is frustratingly little here for non-believers to understand how she so readily rejects her son. Ruth does have a final moment that opens the door to reconciliation, but her journey to that point makes it tough to accept a sudden change of heart.

Dad, a likable Francis Boyle, is a caricature of the busy working man who on one hand broadcasts nuggets of fatherly advice on his radio show, while ignoring the troubles at home. Unlike his wife, there is a glimmer of hope from the outset in his ability to accept his gay son.

Matt Montgomery and Jesse Alvarez in Facing East. Photo by Allyson Fournier.
Matt Montgomery and Jesse Alvarez in Facing East. Photo by Allyson Fournier.

As son Andrew, there are some joyfully pure moments in Jesse Alvarez’s innocent portrayal as he comes to terms with being gay. As his boyfriend, Marcus, Matt Montgomery is confident and open-hearted. The scenes between the two are warm and tender, providing some of the best moments of the play. Interestingly, in Pearson’s original script, Andrew never makes an appearance. The decision to add him in the musical was a smart one.

David Rigano’s music is wonderfully diverse, with identifiable themes running through it. The liberal use of the cello, which is referenced in the show, brings an emotional warmth against the tragic story. Musical directors Steven Greenfield and Clare Wyatt make the most of Rigano’s tunes with their small band. With its Sondheim-like quality though, the cast struggles at times.

Tim Driscoll and Ryan Mooney’s set design feels crowded as it tries to accommodate the play’s various locations. One wonders if a more simple staging in the round might have served better for what producer Nate Gardner described as a chamber musical.

During my recent interview with playwright Carol Lynn Pearson for Daily Xtra, it was her personal story that was captivating. A devout Mormon who ended up marrying and ultimately divorcing a gay man, he spent his final days with her after contracting AIDS. Because of her husband, Pearson became an outspoken ally to the LGBTQ community within the Mormon Church.  Pearson’s daughter even ended up marrying and divorcing a gay man herself. That is a story that would make for a fascinating stage play (or maybe even a musical?).

There is no question as to Pearson’s connection to the material, and why she found it important to write. As she said in our interview, the reaction from the Salt Lake City audiences and the church during her play’s original run was “tremendously positive”.  Even producer Gardner talks of the emotional response by a member of the Latter-day Saints to a performance in Chicago.  For those without a connection to the Mormon faith though, while Facing East’s central message is laudable, it never draws us in fully.

Facing East with book and lyrics by Mark-Eugene Garcia. Composition by David Rigano. Based on the play by Carol Lynn Pearson. A Fighting Chance Productions presentation in association with Nathan Gardner and Danny Brooke. On stage at the Jericho Arts Centre (1675 Discovery St, Vancouver) until May 14. Visit http://fightingchanceproductions.ca for tickets and information.

Note (29 April 2016): this review was edited to correct the name of the character played by Jesse Alvarez.