PROVO — Utah Repertory Theater has undergone a lot of changes in five years.
The company that first started performing in a converted storefront in Provo is now preparing to open the Utah premiere of the Tony Award-winning musical “The Bridges of Madison County” — the final show of its fifth season and its 27th production since 2013 — in the Regent Street Black Box at the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater on Nov. 25.
“I think that’s a huge step for a company that has been pushing forward and growing … over these past five years,” said Chase Ramsey, co-director of the show.
Johnny Hebda, founder and artistic director of Utah Rep and co-director of “The Bridges of Madison County,” said the musical aligns with Utah Rep’s mission, which is to stage Utah premieres and overlooked classics with professional quality.
“(‘The Bridges of Madison County’) is our most ambitious production we’ve done to date,” Hebda said. “Now that it’s in the Eccles (black box) theater, I believe audiences are going to see that we’ve upped our artistic elements by being in this new space.”
When Hebda had a problem, creating Utah Rep was the solution.
In 2012, Hebda was enrolled in a remote master’s program through Roosevelt University in Chicago and needed to direct a few local theater productions to fill a requirement. But as he went around to different theaters offering his services, he wasn’t able to find the right fit.
“The type of shows that I wanted to direct that I thought were challenging and I was passionate about, I was having a lot of difficulty finding theaters in the area that were willing to allow me to tackle some of those shows,” he said. “I just felt like a lot of the theaters wanted to stick to your more traditional community theater type shows.”
He continued the process of finding opportunities to direct shows to fulfill the degree requirements and quickly found that there were other local artists who were interested in doing the same type of shows he was.
“One thing led to the next, and we formed a full-fledged theater company and have been continuing ever since,” Hebda said.
With 13 regional premieres, three first-in-state stagings, three “neglected classics,” five classics and four original productions under the company’s belt, according to information from the theater, Hebda still seeks to remain true to his original goal: to stage thoughtful productions that Utahns might not see otherwise.
“Not only is it shows that personally impacted me or I know probably aren’t going to come to Utah unless I do them, but the reason I love theater and the arts is because I feel it has the ability to impact people in a unique way, and I feel it’s important,” he said. “So we always select shows that have the audience walk out thinking, that are thought-provoking.”
Hebda said his goal is not to just entertain but to educate as he seeks to expose audience members to different perspectives through sometimes difficult subject matter, including shows such as 2015’s “Bare,” which addressed LBGT issues and suicide, and this year’s “Blackbird” about a woman who confronts a man who sexually abused her as a child.
It’s an approach many in the theater community appreciate, including Erin Royall Carlson, a local actress who has starred in shows at multiple theaters, including “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “The Last Five Years” at Utah Rep.
“I love that (Utah Rep is) willing to do the edgy, the deep, the unexpected pieces, the pieces that people don’t know every tune to before they come,” she said. “It makes it really interesting for the actors in the valley because we dig deep into what’s out there. A lot of time the patrons don’t (dig deep), per se, so I love that Utah Rep will represent new and interesting pieces to help introduce things and educate our audiences.”
Hebda, Carlson and Ramsey all pointed to Utah Rep’s five years of ambitious lineups as the primary catalyst for the company’s growth.
“No matter how small or big (a theater company is), it’s the shows that are selected that bring such an awe,” Ramsey said. “I think Utah Rep has such attractive shows, and I think that’s why people are drawn to it.”
One example of an “attractive” show was the 2015 regional premiere of “Ordinary Days,” a musical that “tells the story of four everyday people discovering that their dreams, their passions and their struggles are anything but ordinary,” according to Utah Rep’s website.
The musical’s composer, Adam Gwon, came to Utah to see the show and conduct a master class, which Hebda said was both a sign of Utah Rep’s growth up to that point and a launching pad for further opportunities.
“Once the show was over, Adam came up and said, ‘I’ve seen this show about 60 different ways, and this is easily in my top three favorites,’” said Ramsey, who directed the show. “And then he went on to explain why it worked and what we did right, so for me as the director, it was fulfilling to see.”
“Things like that have helped us gain credibility and have been kind of a pat on the back that we’re accomplishing our mission statement,” Hebda said of the experience. “As we’ve gotten that momentum, it’s become easier and easier to land those big Broadway musical premieres a lot easier than it was in the beginning stages.”
What the company has planned for its 2018 season is an example of those increased opportunities. According to information from the theater, next season is slated to include a first post-Broadway staging of a to-be-announced musical from a Tony- and Grammy-winning composer, as well as the first post-New York City production of “Straight.”
‘The Bridges of Madison County’
Thanks to Utah Rep, Carlson has had the chance to star in two shows she thought she’d never be able to in Utah: “The Last Five Years” in 2015 and the upcoming production of “The Bridges of Madison County,” both by Tony Award-winning musician Jason Robert Brown.
“The Bridges of Madison County” — based on a movie and novel by the same name — tells the story of an Italian war bride named Francesca living in Iowa who has a four-day affair with a National Geographic photographer while her family is away. Carlson plays Francesca in the Utah Rep production and hopes audiences are able to learn a thing or two about love, regardless of their view of the morality of the affair.
“… of course there’s always going to be the moral compass of our patrons,” she said, “but by the end, I want people to take away that whatever relationship you’re in, it’s important to give and to love that person with all your heart in the way they need to be love.”
“The Bridges of Madison County” will continue the Utah Rep tradition of using live accompaniment instead of a recorded track — a standard the company has maintained as it has moved from the Provo storefront and through various venues to finally land at the Eccles.Comment on this story
“It’s been pretty exciting to move from a little storefront property in Provo all the way to the Eccles,” Hebda said, “which is a full, state-of-the-art theater that has everything we could hope and dream for in terms of theatrically presenting what we want to do.”
If you go ...
What: Utah Repertory Theater's "The Bridges of Madison County"
When: Nov. 25-Dec. 10, dates and times vary
Where: Regent Street Black Box at the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater, 144 S. Regent St., Salt Lake City
How much: $20