Critic's journal: Pioneer Theatre creates its shows from ground up

All costumes, sets, backdrops originate from its U. premises

Published: Sunday, Dec. 12 2004 12:00 a.m. MST

Max Robinson, left, as Lady Bracknell and Michelle Six as Cecily in a scene from Pioneer Theatre Company's 2004-05 season opener, Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest."

Robert Clayton

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During a recent "talk-back" question-and-answer session following a student matinee, an audience member asked where "The Importance of Being Earnest" was going after it closed at Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre.

It seems that some folks believe — wrongly — that Pioneer Theatre Company's shows are touring productions that simply stop in Salt Lake City en route to other cities across the country, according to managing director Chris Lino in the most recent edition of Pioneer Theatre Company's "Backstage" newsletter for subscribers.

I didn't think much about it until the next weekend, when PTC's production of "Disney's Beauty and the Beast" opened, and two members of my immediate family were surprised to find that it was not the Broadway touring show but had been produced entirely at PTC.

It's probably not too surprising that even audience members get PTC and Broadway confused. After all, Pioneer Theatre Company consistently produces Broadway-caliber shows, and the theater itself is situated at the top of 300 South, which is literally Salt Lake's Broadway.

In the case of "Beauty and the Beast," some aspects of the production — most notably the scenery — even surpassed the touring company.

But readers should be aware that Pioneer Theatre Company creates all of its productions from the ground up — costumes, backdrops, etc. — on its University of Utah premises. The only "touring" involved is when some of the guest artists — directors and actors — come here from New York or Los Angeles or elsewhere.

Many guest artists I've interviewed over the years agree that Pioneer Theatre Company has a solid reputation in the New York theater community, not only for the high standards of its productions but for the way actors are made to feel at home here in Utah. Many actors who come here (and for the Utah Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City as well) are anxious to return.

IN REVIEWING roughly 50 to 60 plays each year, I've noticed a rather disconcerting trend lately among the smaller, semi-professional theaters around the Wasatch Front.

Although most of them hold open auditions, drawing fairly good numbers from the region's large talent pool, it seems that the same directors all too frequently tap into the same actors.

Granted, audiences have their favorites. It's always fun to see such stalwarts as Anne Cullimore Decker or Tony Larimer or Scott Holman in a production.

OK, Max Robinson also appears frequently at PTC, but he is certainly not typecast. Already this season he's gone from a frock to a clock — from Lady Bracknell in "The Importance of Being Earnest" to Cogswell in "Beauty and the Beast."

But, more and more, in other theaters, I've noticed the same actors playing similar roles from one production to the next — almost as if directors are afraid to try fresh, new talent, resulting in ensembles that have "typecast" stamped all over them.

Maybe it's the ho-hum casting in other shows that makes such extraordinary talent as Erica Hansen in the Grand's "Always . . . Patsy Cline" and Justin Lee in Rodgers Memorial's "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" stand out as two of the hot finds of the season.


E-mail: ivan@desnews.com

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