Provocative comedy is an underappreciated, underutilized art form in Utah. The state’s social character and pop culture are sufficiently peculiar, offbeat and unusual to produce spot-on satires and farces. Some segments of Utah’s independent film industry (think of the HaleStorm comedies, for example) have aspired to achieve crossover appeal by highlighting weird, quirky aspects of the local culture but yet they often fall short of embracing the generous magnitude of how they can be amusing while being provocative in the best sense of still being able to laugh at themselves. Meanwhile, Salt Lake City’s independent theater companies seem best suited to the creative task, primarily because they already have proven the artistic merits of their socially conscious brands.
#SLACabaret, Salt Lake Acting Company (SLAC)’s summer debut, its first live stage production since before the pandemic, shows plenty of examples about leveraging the comedic punch celebrating Utah’s peculiarities. Powered by a solid cast and a band with all of the essential musical and dancing chops, the show is a worthy successor to SLAC’s long-running Saturday’s Voyeur, which was retired after 41 years. Saturday’s Voyeur most robust elements came from its reliably effective satirical takes on the state’s political peculiarities. But, #SLACabaret wisely shifts the comedic perspective to sociocultural quirks. Utah’s politics are now so extreme and dysfunctional that even well-conceived satire would not produce the healing salve so desperately needed. Happily, there is plenty of other source material, as shown in SLAC’s latest venture.
The setting for the new show, directed by Cynthia Fleming, is the recently expanded Salt Lake International Airport and its writing team (Martine Kei Green-Rogers, Aaron Swenson and Amy Wolk) play up its size and scale for humorous impact. Any regular observer of local social media likely will have seen complaints about how long one must walk to get to a gate for their flight (it is worth noting that if one is on a Delta Airlines flight, a passenger is more likely to have a much shorter trek than those flying on other airlines) or about how easily lost they are in navigating its enormous layout. Hence, Nia (a role with the bonus of magnificent vocals by Mack), who has just landed and is on her way to an interview for a job in the city.
Nia eventually meets three other main characters who embark on a journey that the writers cast as a plotline that would have been worthy of the classic disaster movies of the 1970s They include Parker-Avery (Jae Weit) who seeks to be liberated from the suffocating constraints of living in Utah; Hudson (Michael Hernandez), the airport manager who arrived in Utah by accident, and Kavin (Aathaven Tharmarajah), a young man returning to Utah after traveling abroad. In their journey, which includes trying to find their way after a blackout has cut off all power to the airport, they meet a curious assemblage of characters, some of whom precisely hit the right notes in embracing Utah’s oddest features. They include Caren (Olivia Custodio), the poster woman for the obnoxious, uncompromising Karens whom have disgusted and delighted viewers on social media; athletes from the 2002 Winter Olympics who are apparently trapped in a time warp, a pioneer woman who collects a most unusual array of cultural artifacts, and, the reality television personalities of Bravo’s Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, which is set to air its second season this fall.
The show’s first half is charmingly funny but lacks the full satirical bite of the comedic potential. The characters are likeable, warm and empathetic but the oddities also could be amplified. But, the second act really pops, evidencing that this new #SLACabaret format could really hit its musical comedy mark in the near future. The strongest moments include a scene with Olivia Custodio as the pioneer woman showing Kavin her bizarre display of curious artifacts, and that’s putting it mildly. As noted in several reviews published previously in The Utah Review, Custodio is a triple threat in the performing arts: an accomplished singer, a playwright who has a brilliant knack for comedy and an actor with impeccable comedic timing. Her creepy peculiarities as the pioneer woman are so finely honed to manipulate the momentum of her movement on stage and her script lines toward the heftiest comedic impact. Also, the full-on chintzy glamor of the Real Housewives bit is the appropriate commentary on this particular brand of reality television, which suits the plasticity of some of Utah’s so-called social elites.
Brimming with sharp performances, the show is a refreshing tonic for theatergoers who have waited patiently to return as patrons for live stage performances. SLAC also responsibly is requiring all patrons to show proof of vaccination and to wear masks during performances.
Rounding out the cast with solid performances are Pedro Flores, Wendy Joseph, Niki Rahimi, Mina Sadoon and Matthew Tripp. Framing the cabaret format with excellent musical and choreographic results is the team with Michael G. Leavitt as music director and Jordan Maria as choreographer and assistant director. Others include Julie Silvestro, assistant music director; Nick Fleming, guitar, and Spencer Kellogg, saxophones.
Michael Horejsi’s set design achieves the familiar effects of the airport’s new design. Other production team members include Justin Ivie, props; Heidi Ortega, costumes; Jesse Portillo, lighting; Emily Chung, sound; Jennie Sant, production stage manager and Sam Allen, assistant production stage manager.
The show, which runs through Sept. 12, closes out the company’s interim season (49 ¾), with live and streaming options available. In collaboration with the David Ross Fetzer Foundation for Emerging Artists (aka The Davey Foundation), Kenny Riches engineered the production’s virtual capture). The production is available to stream on SLAC Digital through Sept. 12, at a cost of $20 per household for a 48-hour viewing window.
SLAC is set to formally celebrate its golden anniversary season, beginning this fall. For more information on #SLACabaret, SLAC’s Amberlee Fund (the theater’s ongoing capital campaign), and the company’s season slate, visit the company’s website,