Coming off a previous season that produced several momentous takeaways highlighting Salt Lake City’s enviable status as an important and discerning cultural destination, Pioneer Theatre Company (PTC) is offering seven productions for its 62nd season which not only celebrate canonical contemporary classics but also inflect them with just enough twists to stimulate fresh perspectives for audiences.
“This season acknowledges a satisfying level of comfort food for the theater,” Karen Azenberg, PTC’s artistic director says in an interview with The Utah Review. “We’re still building audiences back from the pandemic, by focusing on why they love theater but also to make just enough room for them to be challenged, all while realizing that they enjoy coming to and being entertained, first and foremost.”
PTC’s newest season also will encompass the opening of its newest staging venue, the Meldrum Theatre in the Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse on The University of The Utah campus. Still in construction, the new theater, which will be christened with the Utah premiere of Steffano Massini’s Tony Award winning play The Lehman Trilogy, will have 380 seats — perfect for chamber theater staging.
One of last season’s biggest developments was the production of Shucked, a new musical which received its audience bench test in Salt Lake City, before its Broadway opening last spring. Its Broadway premiere has been successful, including one Tony Award (when cast member Alex Newell became one of the first two openly non-binary performers to be nominated for and win a Tony Award, with their win for Best Featured Actor in a Musical).
Based on the SLC audiences responses, the show was tweaked for its transition to New York City and many of the cast members that appeared at PTC transferred to Broadway for the run. Azenberg says she was pleased by the results that demonstrated why off-the-road shows can provide just as solid feedback in SLC as if the show, say, was given its chance to prove its grounds in markets such as Philadelphia or Boston.
“With a show like Shucked, we’re a city that probably is more reflective of the larger country than New York in that regard,” she adds. Indeed, a congested mindset obsessed with how a creative property might test on metropolitan markets on either coast of the U.S. is more likely to miss a 360-view of its potential. Shucked, for instance, was scheduled to have its test run at the National Theater in Washington, D.C. in 2020, but that was scrapped because of the pandemic. By the time it came to SLC last year, the show had gone through several cycles of rewriting.
This week’s opener, directed by Melissa Rain Anderson, features one of the murder mystery genre’s greatest iconic stories in Ken Ludwig’s new adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (Sept. 22—Oct. 7). James Prichard, great-grandson of Christie and the executive chair and CEO of Agatha Christie Ltd., gave the estate’s blessing for proceeding with the adaptation by Ludwig, who is well known for Lend Me a Tenor and Crazy for You.
Forty-seven years after her death, Christie’s stories which featured variously either Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple as detective remain immensely popular around the world. Murder on the Orient Express, which was published nearly 90 years ago, features Poirot who steps in to investigate the fatal stabbing of Samuel Ratchett, an American business executive, on a train that has been stopped during a heavy snowstorm.
The story is a pop culture fixture, which has been adapted twice for the cinema: a 1974 version, directed by Sidney Lumet, which garnered a half dozen Academy Award nominations and a Kenneth Branagh-directed version in 2017.
Just in time for Halloween, PTC will present its third production of The Rocky Horror Show, which is marking its golden anniversary. While the company presented concert versions in 2014 and 2015, the newest version (Oct. 20-31) is geared toward audience interaction, the show’s most popular ritual. Azenberg says that prop kits with the classic Rocky Horror items will be available for audience members who wish to immerse themselves fully into the experience.
A Rocky Horror production undoubtedly will pack the house. While the most familiar version today is far more lavish and glamorous than the version that premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre in front of approximately 60 people, the original story frame created by Richard O’Brien. The film version came out in 1975. In an interview published elsewhere earlier this year, O’Brien, now in his eighties, mentioned that the show’s title was originally set to be They Came From Denton High. “I liked the play on words, as if they’ve [Brad and Janet] been smoking dope or something or other, but Rocky Horror is better,” O’Brien said. “It describes what’s on the tin.” Alert listeners and avid fans will pick up the brief high school reference in the show.
Last year, PTC offered the musical version of A Christmas Story for the holidays but this year the company is turning to something less canonical in the seasonal offerings with a new musical adaptation of the excellent 1945 film Christmas in Connecticut (Dec. 1-16).
For those who enjoyed the experience of being a test audience for Shucked last year, Christmas in Connecticut is another opportunity. Premiered in 2022 at Goodspeed Musicals in 2022, the musical, still in development, will have its second staging at PTC, the only such staging anywhere in the U.S. this year.
The 1945 film was by Peter Godfrey, a filmmaker whose roots were in the theater, and it has the feel that it had started as a stage comedy but it was an original screenplay, written by Lionel Houser and Adele Commandini. The new adaptation features the book by Patrick Pacheco and Erik Forrest Jackson, with music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Amanda Yesnowitz.
Unlike It’s A Wonderful Life, Christmas in Connecticut was pure comedy in the screwball sense with a nice bit of sexual innuendo tossed in the mix. The film, which starred Barbara Stanwyck, came out just months after WWII ended and audiences loved the chance to see something that was pure entertainment. Its pacing is well suited for the transition to the stage.
The 2024 portion of the season will highlight some of the most popular contemporary theater productions in the country, all of which will be receiving their Utah premieres. Native Gardens by Karen Zacarias (Jan. 12-27) leads off, in a comedy about two couples who are neighbors who are disputing the boundary line between their properties.
From January 12—27, 2024, PTC will present the Utah premiere of Native Gardens by Karen Zacarias. The contemporary comedy—recently one of the most-produced plays in the country— sees two sets of well-intentioned neighbors in a hilarious downward spiral over a property line dispute.
Zacarias uses the story to focus on identities of native origin, immigration, border walls and how poor communication has done nothing but inflame and embed negative rhetoric about the issues. “The plat feels more current now than it did four years ago,” Azenberg says, adding that it effectively portrays how misunderstandings can happen, even when neighbors are talking across the fence.
Bonnie & Clyde (Feb. 23—March 9), the second Frank Wildhorn musical to be produced on the PTC stage, brings a bluesy vibe to the story of the famous outlaw robbers. In 2016, PTC presented the U.S. premiere of The Count of Monte Cristo.
Wildhorn shows often produce sharp divides in audience and critical reactions but that makes the experience more exhilarating. The show premiered in 2009 at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego and it recently had a restaged version in West End, ahead of a forthcoming tour in tne U.K. and Ireland.
The musical is based on the 1967 film directed by Arthur Penn, which film critic Pauline Kael said was the “most excitingly American American movie since The Manchurian Candidate.” Kael’s summary nicely explains the story’s appeal: “If the story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow seemed almost from the start, and even to them while they were living it, to be the material of legend, it’s because robbers who are loyal to each other—like the James brothers—are a grade up from garden-variety robbers, and if they’re male and female partners in crime and young and attractive they’re a rare breed. The Barrow gang had both family loyalty and sex appeal working for their legend.”
For the formal opening of the new Meldrum Theatre, PTC has secured Stefano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy (March 29—April 13) for its Utah premiere. Azenberg says the play, which has won Tony Awards including Best Play honors, is awe-inspiring for the intelligent discussions it undoubtedly stirs, following its conclusion. “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,” she adds.
The 2014 play, which has been translated into more than two dozen languages and was adapted as a novel, spans 164 years of history. Three Bavarian brothers arrive in New York in 1844 and they eventually establish the investment firm that bears their name. In 2008, during the Great Recession, the firm went bankrupt. The three actors represent individuals through every generation covered in the timespan.
Concluding a musical-driven season will be the Utah premiere of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 (May 10-25), which is written by composer/lyricist Dave Malloy. Based on a seventy-page chunk of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Malloy crafted an electropop opera that had its first production a bit more than a decade ago. Azenberg says the staging for this production will involve creating spaces around the audience as well, to amplify some of the bohemian and circus vibes that arise in the show.
“The score is heavily influenced by Tolstoy’s all-encompassing vision of humanity, celebrating everyone from the most humble troika driver to the Tsar and Napoleon. Taking that holistic view of humanity as a cue, the score pulls from a wide range of genres, from Russian ballet and opera to golden age musical theater to contemporary indie rock and electronica, each genre suggested by a specific character or scene,” Malloy said in an interview published elsewhere. “My own musical tastes are wide-ranging as well, so in all of my musicals there is an interest in pulling from as many sources of inspiration as possible, trying to avoid any stock ‘musical theater sound’ and instead pursuing a sound that is eclectic and unpredictable.”
Seating for The Lehman Trilogy, which will serve as the inaugural production in the new 380-seat Meldrum Theatre at the Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse, will be extremely limited, so audience members are encouraged to purchase tickets early. More information about PTC’s season productions can be found here.