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Pioneer Theatre Company: Playing the mystery card (and singing)

Published September 27, 2013 2:16 pm

Stage • Pioneer Theatre Company launches its new season by sending up the 'whodunit' genre with a musical.
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Karen Azenberg was in high school when she saw the original 1976 Broadway production of "Something's Afoot." Even then she loved theater that offered the simple pleasure of entertainment.

She was so charmed when she saw another production the next year in London, she thought she would someday like to direct the musical comedy. She didn't understand back then why the New York production was rather famously panned as a "Bicentennial flop" by The New York Times. (The reviewer went on: "The audience adored the show – they were misguided.") Or just why the musical had become popular fodder for summer stock or high-school productions, rarely making it to professional theater stages.

The potential trap of this musical comedy, written by James McDonald, David Vos and Robert Gerlach, with additional music by Ed Linderman, is when actors try to make it funny. "If you play it for the laughs, the joke is over quickly," says Azenberg, the artistic director of Pioneer Theatre Company, who is directing and choreographing the show.

Guessing whodunit • From the first big post-murder musical number, the title song, "Something's Afoot," the show invites audience members to play the genre game of guessing whodunit. "I want to be in the lobby at intermission and hear who everybody thinks it is, who is the murderer," Azenberg says. "I want them involved in that way."

Of course, it helps that the song's lyrics offer the audience an early clue by revealing that "the butler didn't do it."

The intrigue begins when wealthy British Lord Dudley Rancour is found dead at his country estate during a weekend party with 10 invited guests. The director and cast members tread carefully in discussing the plot in order not to give away major spoilers, such as how many characters are murdered during the course of the play.

Azenberg praises her cast, calling them an extraordinary ensemble of actors skilled enough to exercise the necessary restraint to bring their iconic characters to life. Several returning actors might be familiar to longtime Pioneer theatergoers, but what sets apart their appearances is how their careers have progressed.

Rebecca Watson, for instance, who played Wendy in PTC's 2002 production of "Peter Pan," has matured enough to play the grande dame, Lady Grace Manley-Prowe, in "Something's Afoot." Audiences might remember James Judy, who played the antagonist Javert in PTC's 2007 "Les Misérables" and is returning as Colonel Gillweather, the musical's bumbling male character.

Then there's actor Joseph Medeiros, who plays nephew Nigel Rancour in "Something's Afoot." Azenberg met the actor 16 years ago when he played the title character of "Oliver!" in a Sacramento production she directed. Medeiros has gone on to a Broadway career, with roles in "Wicked," "West Side Story," "White Christmas," "Guys and Dolls" and "Grease." While the director still remembers him as a little orphan, he's grown into a role she describes as "the leading-man bad guy."

One highlight of the show, Azenberg claims, will be Medeiros's song at the beginning of the second act, when the young man searches for his uncle's will. "It's the synthesis of an incredible physical actor who can do a hybrid of dance, comedy, movement, physical comedy, with absolute clear character choices that go from the beginning to the end, in a marriage with the set," Azenberg says. "He's searching, and he's uses the design to its fullness. Just when you think there's nowhere else to go, there's one more spot to look. It's like he's Errol Flynn on the stage — for anyone who's old enough to know who that is. It's magical."

Avoiding cheesiness • Azenberg's skill as a choreographer sets her apart as a director, says Laura Hall, 28, who returns to PTC to play the musical's ingenue, Hope Langdon, after portraying Emily in last season's "A Christmas Carol: The Musical." "She helps us bring that physical awareness to the non-sung parts and make them just as specific."

For the show not to cross the line into cheesiness, actors focus on making their stereotypical characters specific. "Everything has to be grounded in truth or authenticity before you can get big with it," Hall says. "And then you can go ahead and add all the funny parts. Everyone is playing very much to the archetype, but there are a lot of surprises along the way in terms of who does what and what is expected. The laughs start from the very beginning and don't stop until the end. I promise it's going to be a night full of belly laughs."

Her character's hallmark is her naivete. "Bless her heart," Hall says. "She thinks the best of everybody and is so excited to be invited to this weekend in the country. She is the sweetest, incredibly dumb thing, but within that depth often comes illuminating moments which contribute to the plot."

'Escapist entertainment' • Acting at Pioneer Theatre feels like a homecoming for New York-based Tia Speros, 54, who plays Miss Tweed. Speros was raised in San Francisco, but her father, Peter, and his siblings, John and Ann Speros Davis, were Bingham natives. Tia Speros spent many vacations in Utah, which often included family celebrations in the back room at Lamb's Grill, the downtown institution her uncle owned.

Her character is described as an "elderly amateur detective" who is bossy and likes her sherry. Miss Tweed also is an amateur painter who packs her easel along on her weekend in the country. As fate would have it, murder occurs, and "she is in her element," according to a song lyric. "She loves her Agatha Christie, and that passion carries into her life. The creativity, the unknown, the solving of the mystery. She has no time for personal relationships, please, and she's proud of it," Speros says.

Speros loves performing Azenberg's "clever" choreography, which draws upon the inspiration of traditional song-and-dance numbers and then adds a twist or two. "I go over it in my sleep, because it's very involved, and it makes you very out-of-breath," Speros says. "Just when you think, 'Oh, yeah, I've got it,' she adds another layer to the scene work or the choreography."

Both actors and the director agree that the musical should have appeal for Utah's arts-loving families. "It's a musical where you think you have it figured out, you think you have the answers, but you don't," Speros says.

Hall adds: "There's nothing political about this piece, nothing that makes it relevant to 2013, other than what is incredibly timeless about comedy."

Kicking off the season with a musical that Azenberg terms "escapist entertainment" is part of her strategy of mixing things up as head of the theater company, now heading into her second year.

"This is not a meaningful life-changing show. Absolutely not," she says. "Sometimes we should be going out just to relax and have a good time. What are all those reality shows? What are all those things that people won't admit they watch, the guilty pleasures? That's exactly what this is. It's a guilty pleasure. It's not going to change your life, but you're going to have a good time, and we all need that."


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The butler didn't do it

Pioneer Theatre Company opens its 2013-14 season with the musical comedy/murder mystery "Something's Afoot."

When • Sept. 20-Oct. 5: Monday-Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday matinee, 2 p.m.

Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $38-$59; $5 more on day of show; half-price for K-12 students on Monday and Tuesday; at 801-581-6961 or pioneertheatre.org.