Pioneer Theatre Company set to christen new Meldrum Theatre with Utah premiere of The Lehman Trilogy

A new chapter for both the The University of Utah’s 85-year-old Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse and Pioneer Theatre Company opens this week with the Meldrum Theatre, Salt Lake City’s newest venue for chamber theater, being christened by the Utah premiere of the Tony Award winning The Lehman Trilogy. The run opens March 29.

“It is the yin to the yang of the Simmons Pioneer Theatre,” Karen Azenberg, artistic director, said. “It is an opportunity to show off intimate contemporary theater at its best while it also celebrates a historic building on campus.”

The Fieldhouse was home to the university’s basketball program for 30 years, until 1969. Also, many students took physical education classes there and during World War II the building was adapted for use by soldiers.

Jeff Talbott, The Lehman Trilogy, Stefano Massini, adapted by Ben Power, directed by Karen Azenberg, Pioneer Theatre Company. Photo Credit: BW Productions.

With 387 seats, the new theater has a thrust stage design, with the audience sitting on three sides, an arrangement that emphasizes an intimate setting for every person to feel the emotional breadth and depth of the actors performing on stage. In comparison, Pioneer Theatre’s larger venue has 932 seats. One thing both venues share is generous leg room, Azenberg added.

With a $4.5 million gift from the Meldrum Foundation, the new theater — named in honor of the late Peter Meldrum, who established Myriad Genetics — will also benefit the university’s theater program, by expanding collaborative opportunities between students and professional theatrical artists.

While there are black box and studio theaters available in the metropolitan Salt Lake City region, the opening of the Meldrum Theatre as an elegant space for chamber theater is a significant development, especially for how its design intertwines nicely with the building’s original purposeful design. “There are thoughtful touches in the core infrastructure of the building that inspired the design for the theater,” Azenberg said. One example is the installation of a catwalk system for overhead lighting of the stage.

Seth Andrew Bridges. The Lehman Trilogy, Stefano Massini, adapted by Ben Power, directed by Karen Azenberg, Pioneer Theatre Company. Photo Credit: BW Productions.

She added that the company had passed on plays they considered staging, with the belief that they could be produced with more impact in a smaller space. One play that the company had hoped to stage in the more intimate theatrical space but couldn’t do so because of construction delays was Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me. Instead, the play was produced last year in PTC’s larger venue.

One play emerged quickly in Azenberg’s mind as the ideal work to christen the Meldrum Theatre: Stefano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy. The play, which debuted in 2015 and has been translated into more than two dozen languages as well as being adapted as a novel, spans 164 years of history. Three Bavarian brothers arrive in Montgomery, Alabama, beginning in 1844, then move to New York City and they eventually establish the investment firm that bears their Lehman name. In 2008, during the Great Recession, the firm went bankrupt, triggering a severe recession that reverberated around the world. 

Meldrum Theatre (March 14, 2024). Photo Credit: BW Productions.

Messini’s original script, written in Italian, takes five hours to perform, but Ben Power pared it to three hours for the English version, which PTC will present in a production directed by Azenberg.

She saw the production in 2021 at the Nederlander Theatre in New York City, which, incidentally, has 1,232 seats. In an earlier interview with The Utah Review, Azenberg said,  “We’re watching a giant sweeping story unfold with three actors, which is essentially true, going from its humble beginnings to the pinnacle of success and finally to its tragic ending.”

“When I saw it in New York, I was sitting in the back and the performances were spectacular but I also realized that anyone watching it still had to be close enough to the office and the dry goods store in Montgomery, Alabama where the business started, in order to do full justice to the story,” Azenberg recalled.

William Connell, The Lehman Trilogy, Stefano Massini, adapted by Ben Power, directed by Karen Azenberg, Pioneer Theatre Company. Photo Credit: BW Productions.

As intimate as The Lehman Trilogy might seem at first glance, its narrative is as epic as any could ever be for a theatrical production. From the German Jewish immigrant brothers’ humble beginnings in the Deep South, where they ran a rural store in the midst of the era of slavery to their remarkable reinvention as middlemen, which catapulted them to enormous wealth, the play traverses every major period of U.S. history since the 1840s. 

The three actors not only portray the brothers but are instructed to shift themselves ever so subtly in voice and their body movement and posture to become, collectively, 47 other characters highlighted in the script. They include store customers, financial clients, competitors, colleagues, spouses, loved ones, children and the descendants of every generation of the family that followed. It should be noted that the last Lehman family member (Robert) to work for the firm died in 1969, well before the events that led to the disintegration of the business which sparked the great financial crisis of 2008.

Meldrum Theatre (March 14, 2024). Photo Credit: BW Productions.

For casting, Azenberg turned to three actors who have appeared previously on the PTC stage: Seth Andrew Bridges (Mayer Lehman), William Connell (Emanuel Lehman) and Jeff Talbott.(Henry Lehman). 

For a production of The Lehman Trilogy to be successful in a new theater with the hallmark of intimacy integrated in every element of its construction, ensemble chemistry must be wholly evident throughout the play’s three hours. “Casting went smoothly because these actors were people I have worked with before and I knew that we could,dive in quicker to polish the nuts and bolts in this work,” Azenberg explained, adding that this experience has been “a lesson in the art of collaboration where all of us are coming together in obvious and not so obvious ways.” 

Composer Will Van Dyke, who is music supervisor, orchestrator and arranger of the current hit revival of Little Shop Of Horrors Off-Broadway, and who previously worked on PTC’s i, Ass, and The Messenger, has written original music for this PTC production. 

The production runs through April 13. For tickets and more information, see the PTC website.

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