For those planning to attend Salt Lake Acting Company’s (SLAC) Summer Show: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, it would be wise to be up on all dimensions of Utah’s contentious, quirky, even bizarre, news cycle.
Written by Olivia Custodio and directed by Cynthia Fleming, augmented by excellent dramaturgical material provided by Latoya Cameron, the musical comedy showcase’s bristling pace takes audiences through the usual territory of Utah’s zeitgeist of extremism politics. Stops included book banning, cultural censorship, drag shows, unaffordable housing costs and concerns about the Great Salt Lake’s viability. Yet, some of the show’s best moments are nonpolitical sendups.
As expected, Custodio’s comedic chops rise to the challenge, with the premise being a fundraising telethon for public television. It is the springboard to parody some of public television’s most famous programming, including The Antique Roadshow, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Bill Nye the Science Guy, Sesame Street, LeVar Burton’s Reading Rainbow and, a pleasant surprise, Zoom.
Thus, all eight members of the ensemble take on anywhere between six and eight characters each. Utah’s talent bench is so deep, which means that SLAC’s summer show cast is well suited to the demands of switching characters quickly and delivering the punch lines while belting out sendups of classic and contemporary pop and rock tunes. The bonus highlights are the puppets — Mike Lee the Trash Person and the Cookie Creature — designed by Linda L. Brown and Steven Glenn Brown. With Michael G. Leavitt as musical director, the ensemble includes Zach Hansen on keyboards and Spencer Kellogg on soprano, alto and digital saxes.
The telethon emcees are Subaru Sorensen (Madison Archibald) and Tesla Hale (James Wong), who are credible caricatures of the hosts one would expect to see in a fundraising telethon. The scripted banter and color commentary sound realistic, with asides such as Tesla’s pointed barbs about his husband’s numerous shortcomings. Incidentally, Tesla wins the show’s choreographic crown, with great acrobatics and splits.
Custodio drops a lot of background and statistics into some scenes of the lampooned shows, perhaps a bit more than needed, considering the momentum of the comedy. Nevertheless, the sendups pop with the right vibe. Sagebrush Street is prominent in three scenes, which include an appearance by Bob Nood the Science Dude (played with relish by David Knoell). In a fantastic bit late in the second act, Custodio deftly fuses two recent legal disputes — one involving competing cookie makers and the other, the ski collision trial with actor and Goop purveyor Gwyneth Paltrow (Akina Yamazaki).
Indeed, Utah’s cookie war continues to be prosecuted on social media as well as in the courts, pitting Crumbl and Dirty Dough against each other. Crumbl contends that Dirty Dough was started by a former Crumbl employee who had access to all of the company’s proprietary recipes. Meanwhile, Paltrow’s case, which she won along with a symbolic $1 judgment, received an inordinate amount of media attention. And, one wonders why the wheels of justice turn so slowly when they are clogged with matters of cookie rivals and celebrities.
Brigh Bird (so Utah appropriate) is rendered with all of the right touches by Trevor Bird (who also takes a turn as Rita Book in the Reading Rainbows scene). Wendy Joseph (who has some of the show’s best musical moments as vocalist) fits perfectly as Eleanor. Trevor Dean recreates the magic of the Muppets, tinged with appropriate sarcasm, in handling the show’s two puppets: Mike Lee the Trash Person and the Cookie Creature.
The actors shine in their caricatures. Knoell does a fine job as Mister Roberts, leading the ensemble in Fucked Up Price, a biting number about hyper inflated real estate valuations. Sean J. Carter has a wonderful take as Lamar Burgess in the Reading Rainbows scene, which ignites the impassioned counterpoint against book censorship and the irrational outrage over reading events led by drag performers.
Knoell also steps in as Ken Sunders (a parodying homage to Ken Sanders, Utah’s pre-eminent rare books expert) who hosts Junk in the Trunk. This is a smart lampooning of those who bring LDS items they believe to have unique archival value, to determine if they could command a substantial price at auctions. The items being examined are suitably preposterous but they strike the lampoon target that Custodio intended — love letters between Brigham Young and Joseph Smith (with hearts over the i’s) and photos purporting to be the first images of Smith ever captured on camera (featuring actor Robert Scott Smith, who was script consultant for the show).
A video commercial for the telethon with rapper Post Malone (a home run by Archibald) is among the show’s finest moments and hits its source material perfectly. Malone designed a Raising Cane’s chicken franchise, which opened this spring in Midvale, Utah. He also designed four collectors’ cups for customers to “Post Up.”
There are two scenes featuring Zoom sessions featuring office workers (played by the company ensemble), which are rightly absurd, raunchy and juvenile. In the 1970s, Zoom ran for six seasons, featuring a cast of kids who were the younger version of another contemporary classic comedy sketch show on television — Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. Who remembers the language of Ubbi Dubbi?
SLAC’s summer show staple’s identity has evolved rather quickly over the last several years. For more than 40 years, Saturday’s Voyeur was the company standard, which focused extensively on the politics of Utah’s quasi-theocratic nature. After the pandemic hiatus in 2020, the summer show returned in 2021 and 2022 as SLACabaret. Both editions — one set in the Salt Lake City international airport during an earthquake and the most recent one using an essential oils convention as its premise — worked very well, especially in leveraging more provocative comedy opportunities along with layering their character depths.
Now rebranded as SLAC’s Summer Show, the trajectory appears to point toward raising the bar in the bite of provocative humor. This would be welcomed in a state where even both sides of the partisan aisle prefer euphemistic civility or their weird penchant to be liked even by those whose politics they oppose, as if this was a Saved by the Bell high school community.
It appears that the creative foundations for a SLAC Summer Show have yet to fully ripen. If indeed, the aim is to hew toward more politically-oriented comedy, some considerations are due. Utah’s brand of conservatism is consistent and unfailingly predictable for its capacity of generating eyerolls, ridicule and disbelief. But, what is to be said about other factions of the state’s political scenery? Regrettably, we are in an age where bipartisan political humor, especially when it has a satirical yet elucidating punch, is damned difficult to find. Two of the best television comedies in recent decades excelled at this approach — Veep, which starred Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Mike Judge’s animated classic King of the Hill.
Currently, the formula is working nicely but as the company envisions what a summer show staple could become, casting the net for source material that provides the edgiest and most challenging humor is a pursuit worth considering. Utah needs a vigorous shakeup in its political landscape and comedy always is a great place to start.
The show runs through Aug. 20. For tickets and more information, see the SLAC website.