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Utah state Sen. Jim Dabakis gleefully takes on 'Rocky Horror'

Published August 22, 2014 7:48 am

Stage • Politician calls role a chance to cross an entry off his bucket list.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah Sen. Jim Dabakis will add another bit of drama to his political résumé when he makes his stage debut at Pioneer Theatre Company in October.

Dabakis will be juggling his re-election campaign with rehearsals as he prepares to play the Criminologist, referred to as the "no-neck narrator," in a three-performance staging of "The Rocky Horror Show" on Oct. 24 and 25.

"That's where I am in this stage of my life, I'm kind of a no-neck narrator," says Dabakis, who is facing off against Republican challenger Jacquie Nielsen for the Senate District 2 seat.

With a dramatic flourish, Dabakis says the performance will be a chance to cross an entry off his bucket list.

"My whole life, I have been entranced by theater," he says. "For me, it's magic. Unfortunately, I have absolutely no talent, and I have been told that regularly."

As an example, he offered his memory of joining a Massachusetts Mormon church choir as a youth where the director welcomed him to the group, but asked him to just move his lips.

The Democrat jokes he often has the same experience in the state Senate, where his Republican colleagues tell him there's no need for him to speak.

"I always take that in the spirit it is intended," he says, which is why he has jokingly asked theater management to ban Republicans from the audience, so they won't throw toast at him.

The theater company plans to sell prop bags, including glow sticks and hot dogs, which are expected to be thrown during the show that's noted for audience participation, at least in its popular cult midnight-movie version, circa 1975. To encourage the audience to throw things at the stage is considered something of a first at one of the state's oldest professional theater companies.

Another first?

"We have cleared his rehearsal schedule with his campaign manager, something our stage management staff has never had to do in the past," says PTC artistic director Karen Azenberg.

The narrator role, which is often filled by a local celebrity, requires someone to play the square yet have the sensibility to be in on the joke. "I think the piece itself is the celebrity," says Azenberg, who is planning for the narrator to be involved in the show's wackiness. "You could be seeing Sen. Dabakis doing the 'Time Warp,' if you look carefully. I think he's on board for whatever it is."

"Rocky Horror" will be staged as a concert — "a different animal than our regular shows," Azenberg says — with a minimal set and a live band onstage, and the company hopes it will be the first in a series of concert stagings. After a shorter rehearsal period, the cast of local and New York actors will perform with scripts in hand, which should keep Dabakis on track. If he happens to go off script, cast members will have permission to go over and turn the page for him, Azenberg jokes.

Many people suggested Dabakis for the part, and then Azenberg says she was charmed by the politician when she first met him for lunch. After all, he wore a suit jacket, instead of all-black clothing, and sported a traditional haircut. "For us theater types, what's up with that?" she says.

Besides, the senator is an art dealer and Pioneer season ticket subscriber who expresses a fan's love of theater. "He's sort of gushy and in awe of what it is we do in just a really wonderful supportive way," she says.

As Dabakis says: "I can't wait to get to rehearsals and meet the people in the cast. I can't wait to stand onstage on opening night. I can't wait until the cast party."

Azenberg isn't worried about what Dabakis termed his lack of talent, skill, experience, dance ability or acting. As depicted in a marketing video of his audition, the politician underscores he only got the part by bullying around his senatorial credentials.

In the video, Dabakis is being coached by Utah actor Anne Cullimore Decker, a former University of Utah professor, and Cynthia Fleming, a choreographer and co-executive producer at Salt Lake Acting Company.

"Decker may be the greatest actor Utah has seen since Loretta Young, but as a coach? I was in tears through her lessons," says Dabakis, who was told that crying wasn't in the script.

Still in character as a theatrical grande dame, Decker says: "I hope he was acting, because if not, he is really going to need work."

"A big part of talent is to be able to be comfortable in front of people," says Azenberg, referring to the Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre's 932-seat house. "He speaks in front of lots of people all the time."

That brings up another concern for Dabakis. What if he mixes up his roles? What if, when he's giving a campaign speech, he suggests jumping to the left and a pelvic thrust? Or perhaps equally worrisome, what if while playing the narrator he launches into an argument for Medicaid expansion?

Performing outside his genre might be an offbeat political strategy, but Dabakis has built a career out of juggling a variety of campaigns. In March, he stepped down as chairman of the Utah Democratic Party. He's a founder of Equality Utah and the Utah Pride Center, who in December married his partner at the Salt Lake County Government Center, and most recently started the Save The Salt Lake Tribune group.

Campaign manager Matt Conway thought Dabakas was joking when the candidate first brought up the idea of auditioning for "The Rocky Horror Show," especially since the show's run is just a week and a half before the Nov. 4 election. Yet Conway says voters should know performing in the comedy won't cut into Dabakis' serious campaign strategy. "No honk-and-waves will be canceled for this Pioneer Theatre production," Conway says.

ellenf@sltrib.com

facebook.com/ellen.weist I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey

Single tickets are on sale for Pioneer Theatre Company's concert staging of "The Rocky Horror Show." Producers hope the season add-on event will be the first of a series of staged concerts.

When • Friday, Oct. 24, 8 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 25, 5 and 10 p.m.

Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $40 ($20 balcony); at 801-581-6961 or pioneertheatre.org