For a city of its size, Salt Lake has a remarkable number of quality theater groups. And the variety of dramatic offerings available to the play-going public is astonishing, especially when you consider that it wasn't too long ago that you could see any show you wanted in town - as long as what you wanted was written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe or Gilbert and Sullivan.

Following is a capsule look at Salt Lake City's eight major ongoing theater companies, with some thoughts on who does what, and who does it best.ALE CENTER THEATER

Address: 2801 S. Main, South Salt Lake

Telephone: 484-9257

Ticket Prices: $4-$6.

Type of Facility: The HCT is a 300-seat theater-in-the-round, with tickets sold on a general admission basis. The place is usually packed so you should plan on arriving at least 15-20 minutes before curtain or risk sitting by yourself on the back row. On second thought, parking is also a problem, so maybe you'd better get there 25 minutes early.

Length of Season: Year-round.

Theatrical Niche: HCT specializes in family theater, filling most of its schedule with frothy period comedies by founders Ruth and Nathan Hale and original musicals. Occasionally the company will pull out standard theatrical fare like "Curious Savage," "See How They Run" or "The Hasty Heart," and their annual Christmas production of "A Christmas Carol" has become a holiday tradition for many families.

Remarks: In just a few years' time, HCT has built an incredibly large and faithful following by catering to a specific audience and not trying to be anything more than it is: A gentle family company. While the Hales can't compete with PTC or Salt Lake Acting Company technically, their audiences always seem to have a good time and leave the theater feeling good. And many express surprise at just how good the theater has become aesthetically.

IONEER THEATRE COMPANY

Location: Pioneer Memorial Theatre, U. of U.

Address: 300 South and University, Salt Lake City.

Telephone: 581-6961.

Ticket Prices: From $8 to $18.50, depending on location, day of the week and whether the show is a play or a musical.

Type of Facility: PTC performs on PMT's Lees Main Stage, a spacious, state-of-the-art theater with seating available on the main floor, in the loge and in the balcony. There are good seats and better seats, but there are no bad seats in the house (unless they're doing "Singin' in the Rain" and you're sitting front row center). Sight lines are good throughout the house, and sound is almost never a problem.

Parking: There is ample parking available near the theater, but because of the sizable audiences involved you may have to walk a little ways.

Length of Season: Generally the PTC season runs through the school year, beginning in September and continuing through May.

Theatrical Niche: This is Salt Lake City's only Equity playhouse, and the only Equity house between Denver and San Francisco. That means it employs almost exclusively theater professionals and a few university students preparing to become such. As a regional professional theater, PTC seasons tend to include an eclectic mix of musicals, classics, contemporary successes and vintage theatrical standards. Resident artistic director Charles Morey seems to program PTC with an eye toward Broadway - if it's been hot there, he wants it here.

Remarks: PTC is the high rent district in Salt Lake City's theater community. There's a lot of money at work here, and it shows on stage with impressive settings, lavish costumes and a lot of New York-imported actors to go along with some of the finest local actors. This company functions professionally on every level, and its productions are almost always worth the price of admission - even if it is the most expensive ticket in town. You'll want to look elsewhere for a low-key, intimate evening of theater. But if it's excellence you want, you'll rarely go wrong here.

ALT LAKE REPERTORY THEATRE (CITY REP)

Location: Utah Theatre

Address: 148 S. Main, Salt Lake City

Telephone: 532-6000

Ticket Prices: $6-$12 - special rates for groups, seniors, children and students.

Type of Facility: This renovated movie theater is actually two theaters, with a large proscenium stage downstairs for general audience productions and a smaller children's theater on a thrust stage upstairs. Sight lines, lighting and sound are occasional problems in the big theater, as is downtown parking.

Length of Season: Pretty much year-round.

Theatrical Niche: Family-oriented musicals and musical concerts on the main stage and children's theater upstairs. In both cases, City Rep mixes classics with originals.

Remarks: Think of City Rep as a sort of advanced community theater. They do a pretty good job up front, but the shows generally lack depth both in terms of talent and substance. Still, in a town once dominated by musical productions, there aren't many other places you can go to see "Pirates of Penzance" or "South Pacific." And, until now, only Hale Center Theater and the U.'s Young People's Theater have done children's theater on a regular basis.

ALK-ONS INC.

Location: Center Stage Theater

Address: 3350 S. Highland Drive

Telephone: 484-9801

Ticket Prices: $5-$7

Type of Facility: Walk-Ons shares the Center Stage facility with Theatre 138. (Please see listing above for more information.)

Length of Season: Year-round

Theatrical Niche: Hard to say. Walk-Ons seems to still be looking for its identity, although they have a tendency toward serious, issues-oriented drama. (And as I write that I am aware that their last production was "Toad of Toad Hall" and their next one is a comedy/mystery called "The Mystery of Irma Vep.")

Remarks: This is a company that has had to survive a lot of adversity during its relatively brief existence. And as a result they have been very up and down in terms of quality. But they have proven that they are capable of excellence, and that makes every new production an adventure - and a possible triumph.

(BU) MENTION SHOULD ALSO be made of:

- The Lagoon Opera House, which presents from one to three musicals at the Farmington resort each summer. The quality is generally quite good; Lagoon's "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" several years ago may well have been the best musical in the state this decade.

- The Old Nauvoo Playhouse (4861 S. State in Murray) is just starting with its LDS family-oriented approach. It's too soon to know how good it's going to be. For now, it's temporarily located in the gymnasium of the Mount Vernon Academy around the corner on Vine Street, but will soon be moving into the former Vista Theater, a renovated moviehouse.

- Promised Valley Playhouse (1332 S. State) is generally used by LDS wards and stakes for their own productions. But twice each year - at Christmas and during the summer - it opens its doors again for general audiences. The aesthetic results so far have been mixed.

- The Utah Shakespearean Festival plays every summer on the Southern Utah State College campus in Cedar City. Only Pioneer Theatre Company can rival it for consistent quality and professionalism.

- Community Theaters: Utah is rich with community theater, with viable companies providing artistic opportunities to residents in Salt Lake City, Murray, Kaysville, Sandy, Magna, Vernal, St. George, Price, Bountiful, Orem, Brigham City, Park City, Riverton, Provo and Payson.