In May, the movie “Aladdin” released a looming — and charming — blue genie onto theater screens in the computer-enhanced form of star Will Smith. At the same time, Salt Lake City’s Eccles Theater welcomed the touring company of “Aladdin,” a glittering production that has been wowing Broadway audiences for more than five years.
And the Off Broadway Theatre offered “A Lad ’N’ His Magic Lamp” — its singular take on the tale of a young man, a princess and a genie.
“Can’t you just get a lamp at the D.I.?” Polly the parrot gripes to the villain, Safar, as he plots to get the magic lamp out of the Cave of Marvels. “They’re, like, two for a dollar.”
That’s after Princess Yasmina rejects Prince Amal and he snipes, “You are without a doubt the snobbiest person I’ve ever met. And I’ve met Hale [Theatre] season ticket holders.”
“From the Millcreek area!” his servant adds.
And in the dramatic moment when the young hero, Ali Bobba, falls off a balcony, a guard tells Princess Yasmina not to hold out hope.
“That’s a 300-foot drop,” he intones. “That’s deader than a career at The Trib.” (Ouch!)
Off Broadway’s modus operandi is musical-comedy parody with a Utah twist. Its productions are generally filled with puns and broad humor, but they’re the furthest thing from mean-spirited — the cast is poking fun at things they love.
“We’re not trying to be mean, we’re just laughing at things we enjoy,” said Eric Jensen, OBT’s artistic and technical director. “And you have to figure out how to take it seriously so you can make fun of it.”
“Downton Abbey” fans are eagerly anticipating the September release of the movie — and the visit of the king and queen to the Crawley estate. Season 10 of “The Walking Dead” won’t air until 2020. But Off-Broadway’s audiences are already snorting at “Downton Dead” — in which prim-and-proper members of an English noble family are chased by zombies who want to eat their brains.
Jensen is primarily responsible for the theater’s scripts, but it is “oftentimes” a collaborative effort with cast and crew members. It doesn’t hurt that, in addition to its stage productions, the Off Broadway Theater is home to Laughing Stock improv comedy on Fridays and Saturdays at 10 p.m.
“We’re a bunch of improv comics. And improv comics, all they do is talk about comedy,” Jensen said. “Their minds are so creative and just crazy.”
There’s even the occasional improvisation during a performance. “We keep them kind of loose so we can react should something happen. Those parts are really fun,” Jensen said. “We hope that keeps people coming back. It won’t be the same every single night.”
Jensen is “writing down ideas all the time.” At home, he sticks notes to the wall. Everywhere else, he types funny bits into his phone. He’s always listening for inspiration — to the radio, the television, even to people being unintentionally funny in the grocery store.
Like the time he overheard a couple of University of Utah football fans talking. “One guy said, ‘The Utes just absolutely smoked ’em last year!’ And the other guy said, ‘Yeah, they smoked a lot of stuff.’
“I thought — that’s really funny. And I could work that into a show.”
‘Let’s go see that!’
One of OBT’s seven productions this season was a revival of “Little Shop of Horrors” in March and April; the other six are all originals. And coming up with that many ideas requires “trying to keep your finger on the pulse of what’s happening,” Jensen said. “What’s coming in movies, on TV, even on Broadway.”
With a new “Addams Family” movie set to hit theaters on Oct. 11, Jensen figured, “it will get a lot of coverage. There will be a lot of stories about all the previous versions” — the 1964-66 TV series; the 1973 and 1992 animated TV shows; the 1991 and 1993 live-action movies.
“And we hope people will say, ‘Oh, there’s a parody down at the Off Broadway Theater called ‘Dracula vs. the Addams Family.’ Let’s go see that!’” Jensen said.
“Dracula vs. The Addams Family” will run Sept. 20-Oct. 26.
Jensen and the cast and crew are always tossing ideas back and forth, trying to come up with enough shows to fill out a year’s worth of performances.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever do this, but it would be a great idea to have a ‘Lion King’ parody and call it ‘The Zion King,’” Jensen said. He’s also kicking around the idea of “Seven Brides for One Brother.”
“In Utah, that would be a really funny idea,” Jensen said.
UPCOMING PRODUCTIONS AT THE OFF BROADWAY THEATRE
“Downton Dead” • Through July 20
“Hamleton” • Aug. 2-Sept. 7
“Dracula vs. The Addams Family” • Sept. 20-Oct. 26
“It’s a Wondrous Life” • Nov. 15-Dec. 28
OBT shows certainly don’t lack for Utah references. “A Lad ’N’ His Magic Lamp” (which closed June 1) was full of them:
• The narrator described “a hot, dry desert. The towns are poor and rundown. It’s a veritable wasteland. It should be named southern Utah.”
• Later, the narrator spoke of a “bleak desert and ugly place of desolation, forgotten by the populous. It was — Tooele.”
• “Your body is a temple,” said Safar. “And you don’t have a recommend,” Princess Yasmina shot back.
• “May your drinking water be bottled in Magna,” cursed a soothsayer.
If you’re doing a parody of “Aladdin,” you pretty much just have to watch the original, 90-minute animated movie. If you’re parodying “Downton” and “Walking Dead,” there’s considerably more to get through.
Jensen was a fan of the former; he saw most — maybe all — of the 47 episodes (not including specials). And he’s seen a few of the 131 episodes (to date) of “Walking Dead.”
“But you don’t have to see everything. You have to highlight the most important things, and get as much comedy and irony in as you possibly can,” he said. “We’ve got it figured out to a science, almost.”
OBT productions also are replete with pop-culture references, and not all of them are contemporary. There’s a Carnac the Magnificent bit in “A Lad ‘N’ His Magic Lamp” — Carnac is an old Johnny Carson character, and Carson left “The Tonight Show” 27 years ago.
But they generally shy away from political humor, though there are shout-outs to current events in non-political ways — jokes about Donald Trump’s hair, for example.
“In today’s political climate, you have to be careful with your comedy,” Jensen said.
‘I’m young and really hunky’
Sometimes inspiration comes in the form of a title. And sometimes the title comes before the show. That’s the case with “Hamleton” — a merging of “Hamlet” and “Hamilton,” which debuts Aug. 2.
Jensen takes Shakespeare’s story of the Danish prince whose uncle killed his father, married his mother and stole the throne and sets it to the music of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning score.
So instead of Alexander Hamilton singing, “I am not throwing away my shot. Hey yo, I’m just like my country. I’m young, scrappy and hungry. And I’m not throwing away my shot,” Prince Hamlet sings, “I am not throwing away Den-mark. Hey, yo, I love this country. I’m young and really hunky. I am not throwing away Den-mark.”
Instead of King George III singing to colonists, “You’ll be back, soon you’ll see. You’ll remember you belong to me,” the late King of Denmark sings to his son — urging him to kill the new king — “Get him back, just for me. You will find how sweet revenge can be.”
“Just don’t come expecting it to be done in perfect iambic pentameter,” Jensen said with a laugh. “It’s something we hope kids are going to enjoy. It’s the story of Hamlet, but we do it in a comedic way so it should be funny and lively.”
You’d expect nothing less of the Off Broadway Theater.
— This coverage of downtown Salt Lake City arts groups is supported by a grant from The Blocks, a cultural initiative of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County. The Salt Lake Tribune makes all editorial decisions.
THE OFF BROADWAY THEATRE
Where • 272 S. Main St.
Showtimes • Fridays, Saturday and Mondays at 7:30 p.m.; occasional Saturday matinees
Tickets • $10-$16, available online at theobt.com or at the box office Mondays and Thursdays, noon-6:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, noon-10:30 p.m.