When Moab native Brendon Henderson went to Utah State University in Logan to study acting, it wasn’t everything he was hoping for—so he took his creative growth into his own hands. Now he’s bringing his dramatic energy back to his hometown with an original production called “What Went Wrong: Seussical the Musical,” debuting on Saturday, Feb. 22 at 7 p.m. at the Grand County High School Auditorium (608 S. 400 East).
The USU acting program requires that students audition for every production. That left Henderson no time for holding a job or studying for classes, and he was disappointed by the available roles.
“I’m 5 foot 7, 120 pounds,” he said. “The content they were doing for the shows—it was all 30-year-old, 6 foot 2 characters. I thought, ‘this is ridiculous. I’m going to do a play myself, and I’m going to do a play that nobody really talks about, or on subjects that nobody really talks about in society in general.’ There’s so much good theater out there, new theater that hasn’t been discovered yet.”
Henderson founded his creative studio company, called the Restless Observers, in 2016, and recruited a small group of students who also felt like outsiders in the USU acting program. That year the group put on a minimalist production of the play “Slipping,” a coming-of-age story about a gay high school student.
“The whole thing of the Restless Observers is to cast the ‘un-castables.’ That’s our main theme,” said Henderson. “When we’re judging resumes, we don’t look at who has the most work, we look at who has the least amount of credits and who could this really help out.”
“Sometimes the people that maybe have the least amount of experience, they surprise you the most when you put them on stage,” said Gillian Sanville, another member of the Restless Observers. “And you’re wondering, how have you not been cast yet, how have you not been found yet?”
Sanville is directing the production of “What Went Wrong: Seussical the Musical,” which Henderson wrote and will star in. The show is a light-hearted, entertaining-but-factual analysis of the 2000 Broadway musical “Seussical,” which was panned by critics and closed at a loss the following year.
The idea for the show grew out of the group’s YouTube channel, called Wait in the Wings, a series of video essays that perform a similar analysis on other failed Broadway productions. The live show will be recorded and posted on Wait in the Wings as the series finale. The live version will incorporate video as well, including clips of interviews and footage of people involved in the Broadway production projected alongside the stage.
“It’s a very theatrical TED talk,” said Henderson, referring to a popular lecture series.
That theatrical element is what distinguishes the live show from the video pieces. The production will include props, singing and dancing, all performed by Henderson.
It may sound obscure to some, but the group’s YouTube channel now has over 13,000 enthusiastic subscribers, a rapid recent bump that Henderson and Sanville say they didn’t expect. The channel reached its first 1,000 subscribers just this past December.
“From there it just kept going up,” Henderson said.
The show is a fundraiser for the BEACON Afterschool Program. Henderson and Sanville have also worked with BEACON for another project of theirs, a four-week afterschool program for middle school students called “The Importance of Play,” a master acting class in which students are refining scenes to be performed at 7 p.m. on Feb. 21 at Grand County Middle School.
“We’re trying to take all the information that we’ve learned and boil it down to give these kids the skills that they need to move forward and have an advanced level and understanding of acting,” explained Sanville.
“It’s so much fun!” added Henderson. “They’re giving it their all. They’re all doing so great.”
Long-term, Henderson envisions bringing regular stage productions to Moab. He was active in the now dormant Moab Community Theater Company before he left Moab for college, and is optimistic that the community still has a strong interest in drama.
“It’s a really art-centered community,” he said. “It’s a big part of what makes Moab Moab. I feel like there’s a theater community here—we just have to give them something different, that they haven’t seen, that’s true to us, and that’s consistent.”