Last year, when Karen Azenberg announced her first season lineup as artistic director of Pioneer Theatre Company, she marked it with selections ranging from the traditional and classic to cutting-edge.
For her second outing, that mix prevails once more, but with altogether different flavors.
“People want to know what they’re going to see when they walk into a theater, but I’ve also learned that everyone wants what they know and are comfortable with in the abstract. In reality, and in the back of their minds, they also want to be surprised,” Azenberg said. “ With this season I want them to get here and say, ‘Wow!’ And that’s a reaction you get only with plays and musicals people haven’t seen a million times. I like comfort as much as everyone else, but seeing something you don’t know is pretty fabulous.”
To that end, Azenberg said she selected plays and musicals Utah audiences most likely have never seen before. The likely exception is the inclusion of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” a comedy last seen locally at the 2010 Utah Shakespeare Festival.
The season starts with “Something’s Afoot,” a “musical-comedy murder-mystery.” The 1972 musical that debuted in Atlanta before making it to Broadway in 1976 mixes Agatha Christie plot elements from “And Then There Were None” with the music, lyrics and book of James McDonald, David Vos and Robert Gerlach with a comic bent. It plays Sept. 2 through Oct. 5.
“We all know Agathie Christie and the murder mystery,” Azenberg said. “We also know those fun, charming and slightly spoofy musicals that are a great dose of entertainment. There’s something familiar here, but you haven’t seen this version.”
The second offering of PTC’s season is the Utah premiere of “Other Desert Cities,” playing Oct. 25-Nov. 9. Perhaps the most cerebral drama on the lineup, Jon Robin Baitz’s Outer Critics Circle Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist for Best Play of last year has been hailed by The New York Times as “the most richly enjoyable new play for grown-ups in many seasons.” It follows a writer’s journey home for the Christmas holiday, where she comes to terms with her parents’ political leanings and the legacy of an older sibling.
“It’s a very contemporary family drama, with a little politics thrown in,” Azenberg said. “Depending on who you are, you will recognize the parents, or the children, or maybe both. It’s no less wonderful a play than [last year’s PTC production of] ‘Clybourne Park.’”
The Will Ferrell-featured 2003 film “Elf” becomes the basis of PTC’s holiday musical, “Elf—The Musical,” with book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, music by Matthew Sklar and lyrics by Chad Beguelin. The musical played two seasons on Broadway, with a limited release to regional theater companies. Azenberg said PTC was lucky enough to secure license to. It plays Dec. 6 through 21, with additional shows Dec. 23 and 24.
“The creators are pleased to give us first crack at it,” she said. “It’s a Will Ferrell movie, but stands well enough on its own as a charming holiday story.”
Fans of Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing” can look forward to a rare production of “A Few Good Men,” a riveting stage drama Azenberg said she was surprised to learn has been rarely produced in Utah, if at all. A drama about the court martial of two U.S. Marines, Sorkin’s 1989 Broadway drama became a household name after Rob Reiner’s 1992 film adaptation. It plays Jan. 24-Feb. 8.
William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” follows Feb. 21-March 8, with its quartet of lovers Benedick and Beatrice, and Claudio and Hero, as they fall in and out of love. Set in Sicily, and with most of its dialogue in prose, Azenberg said it’s one of her favorites of the Bard.
“It’s the first Shakespeare I remember seeing. This will probably age and date me, but it was a New York Shakespeare production in Central Park. Sam Waterston, whom people now know from ‘Law and Order,’ played Benedick with Kathleen Widdoes as Beatrice. I was completely taken in, and been a fan of the play ever since.”
Ira Levin’s “Deathtrap,” about a playwright who goes to desperate lengths to find his next big stage hit, marks the company’s penultimate season production. Levin, the author of Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, filled this 1978 play with his almost trademark mix of satire and suspense. It plays March 28-April 12.
“There are moments when the audience will audibly gasp, but you have to do that very skillfully now that audiences are so savvy,” Azenberg said.
The Neil Simon musical “Sweet Charity,” with music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields based on a Federico Fellini original screenplay, wraps up Azenberg’s second season as artistic director. It features Charity Hope Valentine as the dance hall worker holding out for the ideal man, with generous dance numbers and beloved songs such as “Hey Big Spender!” and “If My Friends Could See Me Now.” The musical has never been produced before at PTC, and Azenberg said she’s eager to add it to the company’s repertoire history.
“I really strive to make each time people come into PTC a different kind of experience,” she said. “We start casting in May for the first show of the season, then it all begins again.”
Pioneer Theatre Company’s 2013-2014 season
Sept. 20-Oct. 5 • “Something’s Afoot”
Oct. 25-Nov. 9 • “Other Desert Cities”
Dec.6-Dec. 24 • “Elf—The Musical”
Jan. 24-Feb. 8 • “A Few Good Men”
Feb. 21-March 8 • “Much Ado About Nothing”
March 28-April 12 • “Deathtrap”
May 9-May 24 • “Sweet Charity”
Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East on the University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City
Info • $84-$307 for season tickets. Call 801-581-6961 or visit http://www.pioneertheatre.org for more information.