BYU’s US premiere of ‘Chariots of Fire’ immerses audience in Olympic experience


From left to right: Stephen Moore plays Sam Mussabini, Peter Lambert is Eric Liddell, Alex Diaz is Harold Abrahams, and Meg Flinders is Sybil in BYU’s upcoming production of “Chariots of Fire.” (Photo by Nate Edwards/BYU)

On your marks, get set, if you go …

When: March 31 – April 15 at 7:30 p.m., Saturday matinees at 2 p.m.
Where: Pardoe Theatre, BYU
Cost: $8–$16
Site: byuarts.com

BYU Music Dance Theatre director Tim Threlfall has helped build a legacy at BYU.

Over the past few years, Threlfall along with other staff members in the BYU Department of Theatre and Media Arts have helped produce six new works or regional premieres on BYU’s stage. BYU was the first university to perform “Phantom of the Opera” in 2013. Then, in 2014, BYU was honored to work with Tony-award nominated composer Frank Wildhorn to premiere the English version of the musical, “The Count of Monte Cristo,” in the United States. 

Now, just a few years later, BYU once again is premiering another play in the U.S. — “Chariots of Fire.”

“I think (‘Count of Monte Cristo’) helped us get this one,” Threlfall said. “The fact that we had had a noted Broadway composer like Frank Wildhorn premiere a show at a university here in America, I think it gave us some negotiating clout with the people that own ‘Chariots of Fire.’”

It took five years to obtain the rights to perform “Chariots of Fire,” which Threlfall originally saw at the Roundhouse Theatre in London during the 2012 Olympics. Threlfall was leading a BYU study abroad when he saw the play. Following the performance he phoned home and asked BYU Producer Jeffrey Martin to immediately begin work on securing permission for rights to the play.

“Chariots of Fire” follows the same story as the 1981 Oscar-winning film about two British athletes who train to compete in the 1924 Paris Olympics. Despite being outsiders, devout Christian Eric Liddell and immigrant Lithuanian Jew Harold Abrahams race against the odds to fulfill their dreams.

“I think this is a piece that Utah Valley audiences will resonate with immediately because of the religious themes within it and also the themes of the indomitable human spirit, and there is a love story tied in there,” Threlfall said. 

“I think this is a piece that Utah Valley audiences will resonate with immediately because of the religious themes within it and also the themes of the indomitable human spirit, and there is a love story tied in there.” — Tim Threlfall, BYU director

Despite the odds stacked against him and his cast, Threlfall has a knack for working on new pieces.  In fact, he seeks out the opportunities to delve into the unknown.

“Working on new things is really exciting,” Threlfall said. “It’s a lot of work also, because it’s not like doing the umpteenth production of ‘My Fair Lady.’ If a scene isn’t working in ‘My Fair Lady,’ it’s your fault. That show works. It’s been working for 60 years. Whereas this one, you’ve got a scene and you’re trying to figure out what has to be fixed in it. It could be what you’re doing and it could be something inherent to the script itself.”

One of the odds was producing a play that takes place on an outdoor track indoors. When Threlfall saw “Chariots of Fire” in London, the stage included a treadmill, a built-in turntable and a track around the perimeter of the theater for all the running sequences. Threlfall was told he could have one of those options.

“Because we can’t afford the others, I opted for a track through the middle of the house so they can run all the way around,” Threlfall said. “The show really demands real running and nothing looks more fake on stage than pretending to run, so we needed to have a space that running was full-throttle and full-out.”

Stephen Moore as Sam Mussabini helps train Alex Diaz as Harold Abrahams in BYU’s U.S. premiere of “Chariots of Fire.” Director Tim Threlfall calls the cast “actor-athletes” because they trained for their roles by meeting at 6 a.m. twice a week to run. (Photo by Nate Edwards/BYU)

However, solving the running problem led to a new issue — it limited the number of seats for the audience as the track was built over a row of seats. But Threlfall found his answer in an uncommon, though not unused, solution. Since the show calls for spectators at the Olympics, Threlfall opted to add bleachers on the stage, which will seat 100 audience members.

“I wanted the audience to have as much of a visceral experience as they can to make them feel like they’re at the Olympics,” Threlfall said.

With the track in place and fans in the stands, the “actor-athletes” are ready to take to the stage and to the blocks. Since the script required running, the actors have met at 6 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays throughout the semester to prepare for the physical demands of their role. BYU track coach and former Olympian Ed Eyestone helped prep the actor-athletes for their roles.

“There is full-out running, but there are also what I would call abstract versions of running,” Threlfall said. “So there is some slow-motion sequences and there is some stuff that really borders on dance. We’ve got some pretty good gymnasts in the show that can do lots of standing backflips and that’s really exciting. It’s kind of a celebration of athleticism — period — as well as the acting and storytelling.”

“Chariots of Fire,” a play with music, premieres at the BYU Pardoe Theatre on Friday, March 31 at 7:30 p.m. The show also runs on Apr. 4-8 and Apr. 11-15 at 7:30 p.m. with matinees on April 8 and 15 at 2 p.m. Tickets to the show cost $8–$16 and can be purchased at byuarts.com. If you want tickets on the stage, ask for the stage seats by calling (801) 422- 2981.

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