The Magic of Tuacahn

The Magic of Tuacahn

Tuacahn Amphitheatre is a unique outdoor venue in southern Utah. Performers and staff share the spectacular experience of providing world-class family entertainment.


There’s a good possibility you’re reading this in the middle of the winter blahs—perhaps dreaming of a warm summer vacation? As you plan for your next warm weather getaway, look no further than the magic of the Tuacahn Ampitheatre. And if you think it’s a great place to visit, you may discover it’s an even better place to work.

Admittedly, I was not prepared for the stunning red rocks or midsummer heat in the desert of southern Utah. But after settling into my seat and indulging in a frozen lemonade, what surprised me even more was how a smallish town could not only attract such talent, but create a performance that easily rivaled Broadway. I had to learn more about Tuacahn and what makes it so unique.

I met up with two of the talented cast members—Gail Bennett, Mary Poppins in Mary Poppins, and Rendell DeBose, Tyrell Leggett/Caterpillar in Wonderland—plus the delightful Shari Jordan, an associate artistic producer and actor. The wonderful conversation that followed proved how being a part of the Tuacahn community might be pure magic.

First, a little about the theater: founded in 1995, it is an outdoor amphitheatre situated at the mouth of Padre Canyon, just outside of St. George, Utah. Audiences flock to sit under the star-studded sky and be surrounded by beautiful red mountains. Each year they produce three musicals that alternate nightly from May through August. The actors perform in all three shows. Tuacahn also hosts other performances and events throughout the rest of the year.

Starting at the beginning (a very good place to start—wink, wink), a fascinating casting process launches during the colder month of January.

Gail Bennett

“Typically, we do an audition tour to six cities–three in Utah,” Shari Jordan explained, “St. George, Provo, and Salt Lake City. Then we go to Los Angeles, New York City, and Las Vegas. It takes about 4 to 6 weeks. Since the pandemic, we’ve had to juggle things a little bit, so we begin with video submissions, which is huge for auditioners right now because they can audition from wherever they are. It’s got to be so hard to not be in the same room, but to be able to submit from wherever you are—like your bedroom in Ohio or wherever—it must be kind of thrilling. And we watch all of those videos. Every single one.

“We work with a casting agency in New York City called Wojcik Casting Team. They’re great. They help set up our open calls in both LA and NYC, where we typically see around 1,500 people audition for 36–40 slots available.”

Rendell DeBose

Jordan went on to explain that actors have to show how they can fit into three different shows at once and impress three creative teams: three different directors, choreographers, and music directors. There inevitably is a bit of negotiation involved, because sometimes one team wants an actor for a leading role who might not fit as well into the other shows, or more than one team wants the same person for a leading role and they can’t burn out their actors.

Shari Jordan

But how do the actors feel about alternating three different musicals throughout the entire summer? And how does someone feel after auditioning for that kind of possibility? 

Rendell Debose shared how he had been auditioning for several things at once, so he was very surprised when Tuacahn fell into place. “I’ve kept my eye out for Tuacahn for years . . . I’ll never forget, I was doing A Year with Frog and Toad and we had gone out for dinner or something, and I got a text from my agent saying, ‘Where are you? Why aren’t you answering?’ So I went ahead and called back.”

L to R: Lilly Pearson as Jane Banks, Neil Starkenberg as Bert, Gail Bennett as Mary Poppins, and Charlie Stover as Michael Banks in Tuacahn’s production of Mary Poppins, 2022

Debose thought he had booked another show, but when the good news turned out to be getting the role of Caterpillar, he was very surprised and excited. 

“I was literally blown away. Did not believe it. And now I feel so blessed and highly privileged to be working here with this talented group of people—definitely some of the most talented people I’ve worked with. The stage is absolutely incredible, and each of the three shows has an intangible specialness to it. I am amazed every night. I could not ask for more.”

Gail Bennett as the title role in Mary Poppins, 2022

And what advice do they have for the next generation of actors?

Gail Bennet said, “This used to not be the case, but you have to be able to do it all now: acting, singing, dancing. But I always approach all material from an acting standpoint first, because it doesn’t matter if you sound pretty if you’re boring. And singing well and technique will only get you so far if you’re not telling a story. And if you’re telling a story in your audition, you’ll get noticed. I very much believe in that. So, be well rounded but also trainable. Trust your instincts and tell a story. It can be very expensive, too, so if you have a passion for this, find a way . . . you know, we’ve found ways to make trades for lessons and training. But do what you love to do.”

Michael Carrasco as El Gato, Josh Strickland as White Knight, and Rendell DeBose as Caterpillar in Wonderland, 2022

Debose piped in, “It is work, too. You have to work hard. I know people who think all they need is to just be talented and the work will come to them, but that’s not the case. You have to go get it. For people who don’t have money, what do you do? We were very poor growing up, so I had to figure out things on my own. I had to watch movies and things and then say, ‘OK, I want to be as good as that. What do I need to do to get there?’ And then you have to work. You have to be willing and put in the effort.”

“Another thing,” Bennett added, “our lifestyle is very different from the rest of the world. You have to be willing to live a lifestyle that is atypical. And with my husband and daughter both in the industry, we don’t always know where our money is coming from. So, we had to get creative and shuffle life occasionally. My daughter has lived a very adventurous life, but sometimes she’s had to leave her friends and things like that. You have to live your life with a lot of faith when you’re a performer.”

Michael Carrasco as El Gato, Josh Strickland as White Knight, and Rendell DeBose as Caterpillar in Wonderland, 2022

That was made even more evident the past few years. Tuacahn went above and beyond to produce shows during the pandemic, using Plexiglass, masks, vaccines, regular testing, and especially extra understudy work. Being a swing or understudy has never been more vital.

“We even had the CEO pushing scenery one day,” Jordan laughed. “What’s great at Tuacahn is that everyone is a team player and everyone has range.”

When asked what else makes Tuacahn so special, all three of them started talking at once. Spectacle was something mentioned right away. They emphasized that Tuacahn can do really spectacular things. 

“The way they use the mountain as a part of the set is so special,” Bennett commented. “Our lighting designers use all of that,” she gestures out the large windows, “as a literal extension of the stage. It’s just breathtaking.”

On top of the natural scenery, they started listing the tech used in their shows: characters flying 40 feet into the air, multiple large LED screens, live animals (horses, goats, camels, or peacocks, to name a few), and fireworks fit for the Fourth of July.

But when the animals were mentioned, Bennett cut in, “Then there are the animals that we didn’t invite onstage, like bats and birds, tarantulas, and rattlesnakes . . . .”

Debose laughed, “And scorpions!”

“Yes, it happens!” Bennett exclaimed. “One night there was a huge grasshopper sitting on my shoulder during Mary Poppins, and all of the little kids in the audience were like this .. . .” She gave us a wide-eyed face, and everyone laughed.

“Another time, a swarm of moths landed on the stage—and we had roller skates on. We had to skate right through them. We were peeling out. It wasn’t pretty. But what’s great is that you really bond with people when you go through things that are hard. Hard, but worth it. It’s not easy what we do.” 

I asked them what else might be fun to share that audiences might not already know. “Oh, I’ve got one,” Bennett pitched in. “At the top of the second act, I fly in from the lighting booth down onto the stage. Sometimes there are stragglers up in the plaza, and occasionally I’ll interact with them even though I don’t have a ton of time. But one night, I was in a funny mood and there was a little kid staring at me, so I leaned in and said (using her Mary Poppins voice), ‘Are you minding your mother?’ He looked at me with big eyes and he shook his head ‘No’ and he pulled out from behind his back one of those plastic snakes they sell here in the gift shop. His mother exclaimed, ‘Did you steal that!?’ She grabbed his hand to walk back to the gift shop and yelled over her shoulder, ‘Thanks, Mary Poppins!’ I was thinking that for the rest of his life, this little kid will remember that Mary Poppins called him out for stealing from the gift shop and not obeying his mother!”

They all agreed that you never know what you’re going to get at Tuacahn. You might not expect to see Mary Poppins and Alice in Wonderland shimmying as go-go dancers in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, or for actors to be doing hilarious improv when an understudy has to step in at the last minute, but one thing you can count on is to be well entertained. So, whether you’re looking for your next gig or your next vacation, you might want to consider the dazzling Tuacahn Amphitheatre.

Mary Taylor

Mary Denton Taylor is CS Music’s Online Magazine Editor. She loves helping thousands of singers find their potential at the CS Music conventions and vocal competitions. She is a former librarian who writes young adult and middle grade fiction when she isn’t working or being a wife and mom to her four music-loving kids.