Up Close and Personal: The Pioneer Theatre Company Prepares an Intense and Engaging Season of Plays and Musicals

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Up Close and Personal: The Pioneer Theatre Company Prepares an Intense and Engaging Season of Plays and Musicals

By Alison Myers

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Live theatre offers an authenticity that we can truly appreciate in the light of polished television and movies. To be sure, the experiences are unique enough to hardly be comparable and the contrasts have already been discussed ad nauseam. It’s worth remembering the incomparableness of professional theatre though, especially as students. The temptation most free nights comes from Netflix: rather than go out, cue up another episode — there’s artistry here, too, after all. We forget the suspense of seeing a story play out in real time, of the magnetism of performers right in from of you. We forget that theatre is not exclusively for the old and rich. Cue the latest season of the Pioneer Theatre Company.

The theatre has been shaken up recently by the retirement of the Managing Director Chris Lino, who a little over a month ago had his position filled by Christopher Massimine. Massimine, sincere and amiable, looks at this position with enthusiasm. He had his fingers in many pies before joining the theatre, his work as a producer led him to become a two-time Tony nominee and advance the National Yiddish Theatre with a production of “Fiddler on the Roof” done completely in Yiddish. Poetically, it was a production of “Fiddler” that brought him back to theatre in college. He leaves the company with a full heart, as one of the aspects of working with something you care about is “not only to meet your goals” but know that they can manage “effectively without you” when you leave. He expects to be part of Pioneer Theatre for “quite some time,” he said. He spoke highly of the company and his delight about being part of such “a committed group of people.” 

Karen Azenburg the company’s artistic director, “is a terrific partner,” he said. While he functions mostly on the business side and the art is her wheelhouse, he also has his artistic qualities, just like she has her business qualities. They can have conversations in each other’s language. He said that she’s always “thinking several seasons ahead.” Even still, the fact that they solidified the program in a week boggles the mind. The season features shows ranging from well-established to debuts. 

Another aspect Massimine admires is “commitment to versatile work,” something you cannot miss at the theatre. You may have heard of “Once On This Island” (Feb. 21 — March 7, 2020) or “Something Rotten!” (May 8 — 23, 2020). The first of these musicals follows a girl in the Caribbean pining after a grand homme and the four island gods that lend their aid. “Something Rotten!” takes its title from a line from “Hamlet” and does, in fact, take place at the same time as the Bard, but this comedy follows two rivals of his who set out to write world’s first musical. This one uses some bawdy humor but could easily make for a good family night. The season will also include “Lifespan of a Fact,” (Nov. 1 —16, 2019) based on a charged essay. The show follows the real-life account of the editor John D’Agata and his fact-checker, Jim Fingal. The show will be bound to resonate with contemporary conversations about media and what counts as truth. If you can’t stomach strong language, you may want to avoid this, but if that’s the case, it will be worth some anti-nausea medicine. 

Another well known Broadway hit will be playing around the holidays. “The Play That Goes Wrong” (Dec. 6 — 21, 2019) is a play within a play, and, as the title implies, everything goes wrong. Actors fumble and a corpse looks far from dead, but on purpose. On the opposite end of the genre spectrum, “Mary Stuart” (Jan. 10 — 25, 2020) is a biographical drama following Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. Their struggles speak to a modern audience, too, as religion and power still come into debate often. 

Massimine is excited for two shows in particular, including “Ass” (March 27 — April 11, 2020). The world premiere of the production is written by Ellen Simon, daughter of the renowned playwright, Neil Simon. The play represents the potential for the theatre, standing as an example of a play they have been with from conception to being fully developed. “There’s a trajectory for growth,” Massimine said. Salt Lake could be a place to try out new work, a space for experimentation and development as the theatre continues to add to its “reputation for excellence.” Having big titles makes for room for smaller titles, giving them permission to experiment and bring the next big title into the world.

The other show he looks forward to is “Cagney,” (Sep. 27 — Oct. 5, 2019). This first show of the season chronicles James Cagney, an imposing, tap-dancing presence from early Hollywood. Christopher McGovern is one of the three creators of the show who is staying in Utah to continue to tinker lyrics and rewrite in their “top-notch facility.” They’ve doubled the cast size from its early days, which he said is “very freeing,” and even now they are still making changes. He will come back to watch the production which feels different with an audience, they act as the final input. He too is grateful for Azenburg. “She’s an old school theatre pro,” McGovern said, “She understands how these [productions] are created.” He thinks that “really great regional theatre is so necessary” because it “keeps theatre alive.” The smart take on this season, according to him, has to do with the fact that she and Massimine have something for everybody. This guarantees that everybody will be satisfied but that they will be challenged to see something not familiar. 

“Arts and education go hand in hand,” Massimine said. Not all universities have the privilege to be associated with a professional theatre company. All students, not just those studying theatre, can take advantage of the University of Utah’s unique connection and utilize their Arts Pass to see and experience art up close.

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