Like its ancient Greek forbears, southern Utah’s Tuacahn Amphitheatre lies nestled in a rock bowl shaped by nature. No set designer could compete with the spectacular backdrop of massive red cliffs topped by a crescent moon. But they could certainly be inspired.
Tuacahn offers regional summer stock theater with a spectacular twist — and a semi-legendary rock’n’roll bassist. On the first night of our 2011 road trip, we made the winding drive through breathtaking scenery to see Disney’s The Little Mermaid. That’s right, Disney’s The Little Mermaid: Hans Christian Anderson penned the famous fairytale hundreds of years ago, but Team Rodent grabbed the copyright. The show we saw was sensational, sanitized technological simulacrum, just as Walt would have wanted it.
“The Little Mermaid in the desert — that’s a fish out of water, isn’t it,” my spouse quipped as we neared the venue. Sure enough, in Andrew Lloyd Webber-worthy fashion, as the sun set behind the mountains and the spotlights came up, a frothing river poured forth from the parched boulders behind the stage. It cascaded down the hillside to oohs and ahs, overflowing one level, then another, then one more, then lapping the back of the stage, then spilling across the black tarpaulin, then, amazingly, flowing right up to the front of the stage. The stage became a pond, and for the first act, the actors slid across it, as if on an ice rink.
The river provided the first of a night of staging exclamation marks. My favorite device was the rain curtain, which periodically wet the tarp. The curtain also served as a screen for shadowy projections of fishy silhouettes, artsy and dramatic.
Ironically, a real downpour caused the show to be delayed in the second act. Be careful what you wish for.
Alan Mencken and Doug Wright’s musical has a hokey script and score, and it was not particularly well acted or directed at Tuacahn. Some of the youngest thespians provided the strongest performances, as Flounder and the Electric Eels. But it was disturbing to see what may have been the only black faces in the entire 2,000-seat theater cast as singing, dancing fools. Apparently, the Mormons still love minstrels.
We were there mostly because the bravura orchestra included Peggy Foster, who played bass in the Runaways for a month in the fall of 1975. The then-teenager went on to have a successful career as a professional studio and live musician, a rare accomplishment for a woman of her generation. She looked and sounded great Wednesday — a musician not damaged by her youthful interaction with Kim Fowley.
In a recent phone interview, Foster had talked to me about her brief stint in the band. “Kim used to send out for cheeseburgers for us everyday, because we were hungry after school,” recalled the woman who superceded Micki Steele and preceded Jackie Fox. “One day he said. ‘You girls are costing me $10 in cheeseburgers. Why don’t you bring sack lunches from home?’ And I stood there and folded my arms and said, ‘We don’t play until we get cheeseburgers,’ and the other girls kind of stood there. He glared at us for a few seconds and then he said, ‘Alright, now you’re acting like Runaways, I want you to be mean, bad, and nasty. I want you to get arrested in every town you play in…Cheeseburgers for everybody!’”
Foster, who already had chops, wanted to be taken seriously as a musician, not marketed as bad girls. Like other would-be members of the all-girl almost-hit rock band, the erstwhile Valley Girl has regrets about having quit. “Sometimes I wish I had stayed with the Runaways because some of the bad things that happened to the girls wouldn’t have happened…because they were afraid of him, and I wasn’t,” she said.
Nowadays, Foster lives in St. George, Utah, and plays “Part of Your World” under the stars.