IYKYK. The writers, cast, musicians and production crew deliver fully on the premise of the title in Salt Lake Acting Company (SLAC)’s SLACabaret: Down the Rabbit Hole — pleasurable, scintillating, invigorating and chic like a brand new pair of white sneakers😉😈.
Indeed, 2022 is the year that SLAC’s summer production has successfully cemented itself as the company’s newest tradition. For more than 40 years through 2019, SLAC had enjoyed the fruits of its summer production with Saturday’s Voyeur, a cherished blend of political satire and musical parody. Then last year, after the pandemic hiatus, SLAC launched a different summer show with SLACabaret, which wisely shifted the comedic perspective to Utah’s sociocultural quirks. That show, drawing upon some tropes of 1970s disaster movies, was set at Salt Lake City International Airport and revolved around a young woman who arrives for the first time in Utah for a job interview and eventually meets a cast of characters who captured the delightful idiosyncrasies of Utahns.
Written by Olivia Custodio, Emilio Casillas and Michael Leavitt, the 2022 show blossoms magnificently as a cohesive musical parody with a heartfelt storyline transporting an epiphany which the motley ensemble of characters share. A deft blending of one of Broadway’s most popular Stephen Sondheim musicals (Into the Woods), Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Utah’s predilection for multilevel marketing enterprises focusing on essential oils and natural beauty products, Down the Rabbit Hole sets the benchmark for SLACabaret as a proven platform for the company’s summer productions, at least for the foreseeable future.
The fictitious ōilCON is rendered with unstinting credibility. The writers translate their keen sociological observations of essential oil conventions (think dōTERRA) into stock characters they enrich with emotional substance and stories that are grounded in events and relationships, which resonate as familiar and accessible to audience members. Each character’s name also has a parallel identifier, taken from Carroll’s classic stories. Trudy Smith (Mock Turtle), played by Niki Rahimi, is the show’s ingénue, hoping to find her big break at the convention, but, of course, she must contend with a formidable rival, Holly Wood (@queenofhearts), played by T Anthony. Holly is a mega-successful Instagram influencer. Rahimi captures first doe-eyed innocence and then subtle sexual appeal in her lyric soprano range while Anthony practically stops the show with her unfettered twerking and grinding.
Other convention attendees include a married couple — Matt Hatch (Mad Hatter) and Marjorie Hatch (March Hare) — who are joined by a curious third wheel, Dorian Mayes (Dormouse). The Hatch marriage is on the verge of collapse because the two are at odds about the paralyzing effects of behaving according to the safe expectations of proper Utah society, at least as how the dominant culture prefers to see it. Meanwhile, Dorian relies heavily on liquid courage (alcohol) to live and act on his true gay identity. Aaron Linford Allred and Kim Handa Brown make the convincing case that they could be married in real life, as their marital crisis strikes right at home in its realism. Sean J. Carter proves to be more than just a lovable drunk, especially when he believes that he finally has found someone at the convention who could be the basis for a genuine relationship. Then there is the cute adorable pair — Ryker (Tweedledee) and Stryker (Tweedledum) — Mormon college students who finally are coming of age, as they attempt to reconcile their budding sexual desires with keeping their fidelity to their religious upbringing. Danny Borba and Joseph Paul Branca, as Ryker and Stryker, respectively, charm the heck out of audience members, who might be easily persuaded to believe these actors could be fraternal twins in real life.
There are Debbie Smith (Duchess) and Alice Smith (Alice), mother and daughter. Debbie is the definitive Utah County mother, unabashed about her pride in conservative politics and culture, who worries that her daughter has decided to establish her independence, by moving into Utah’s liberal bastion of downtown Salt Lake City. Kelsie Jepsen and Daisy Ali All excel in their respective roles as mother and daughter, by ensuring their characters are not cartoon cutouts but are unconditionally loving individuals who confront their own insecurities and realize that taking risks is worth the opportunity to find their own corner of happiness and satisfaction.
Overseeing the convention with the intentions of helping these troubled convention goers in resolving their various personal crises are the Cheshire Cat and Abe Tomlinson (Caterpillar). Sarah Shippobotham is brilliant as Abe, the narrator who is a master of contortion dance, and collaborates with Annette Wright, who appears on a video screen throughout the show. Wright is a natural comedian who always makes the most of her roles. For example, the image of the Cheshire Cat working the mixer board as a DJ sparkles, as Wright relishes every generous comic bit the writers have given her. The pair of spicy-tongued characters knit the storyline perfectly, which lands on the hilarious, naughty spot-on innuendo that punctuates the climax in the second act.
This is a wonderful cabaret. Cynthia Fleming, as director and choreographer, ties the package together with smart dance breaks that flatter the musical parodies, which draw on pop, Broadway and Disney tunes, among others, including a fabulous take on Amy Winehouse’s Rehab. The minimalistic onstage instrumental combo fulfills the expectations nicely, which includes Leavitt as musical director as well as Nick Fleming and Spencer Kellogg.
The show’s production elements heighten the blended pleasures which comprise Down The Rabbit Hole, with Gage Williams, Heidi Ortega and Jesse Portillo syncing up with the script details in set, costumes and lighting, respectively. The Cheshire Cat’s appearances are made possible with the work of Michael Francis, projection designer and Kenny Riches, film director and editor. The video introducing the convention’s major product announcement precisely captures the tone and content one would expect to see in a real life essential oils event. Again, the script is a bona fide rendition.
Down The Rabbit Hole effectively whisks in sharp political comments without letting them overwhelm the gifts of social and cultural insights, which shape the characters as approachable, lovable, insecure, humble and good-intentioned individuals. The writers poke at the idea of the essential oils convention without being mean-spirited or merciless in the comedic portrayals of the individuals who typically are lured in by the promises of wealth, status, and respect by organizers of multi-marketing events who see such individuals as easy prey. Jokes about Diet Coke, the right wing’s favorite fast food chicken franchise, local cultures, anti-vaxxers and other Utah peculiarities are astutely served up as side dishes. But, they do not take away from the centerpiece of the offering — an ensemble of sincerely affable individuals, all of whom resemble ourselves in one way or another, trying to find their own comfort zone while making sense of the Utah zeitgeist. And, yes, there is no reason to ever feel ashamed about indulging a little pleasure, in whatever form you might find appealing.
The show’s run continues through Aug. 21. For tickets and more information, see the SLAC website.