SALT LAKE CITY – Theatre in America has reached one of those critical transitions that redefines how we approach art. Recent cuts by the NEA have led to numerous (and heated) discussions about whether or not we can cultivate a larger audience to support the body of theatre already in production.
Pioneer Theater Company is one of the most professional theater companies in our state. Granted we only have three to four (and many will argue five) Equity Houses in Utah, but still, the financial support towards a handful more of companies places additional productions next to what the standard Utah patron sees as professional level.
Pioneer, however, is definitely at the top. The quality of performance is often impeccable. Design elements are always strong and the audience is rarely left wanting more. Thankfully, they staff a live orchestra for their musicals (it’s so sad more companies don’t or cannot afford to do this nowadays). Sunset Boulevard, now playing at Pioneer, is certainly no exception to the reputation Pioneer has built.
This tremendously strong ensemble presents the story of Joe Gillis (played by Benjamin Eakeley), a screenwriter who has nearly given up on creating the kind of film that ought to be made and is settling for the scripts he knows will sell. He’s placed in a powerful conflict between the disappearing silent film genre to the epic talkies entering the movie houses: Norma Desmond (played by Lynne Wintersteller) embodying the tragically dying silent film era and Betty (played by Vanessa Reseland) inspiring our young Joe to write the next great film that will change the cinema.
The vocals were delightful, the set extraordinary, choreography suited the show, and the lighting literally brought the film to the stage. I’m not going to comment much on each of those elements because, while this was a musical and while most everything indeed was sung, the heart and weight of this show lies in the tragedy of one dying art and the hopeful yet callous adoption of the next. By this count, Wintersteller was divine in her portrayal of Ms. Desmond. And Mr. Eakeley was superb in his respect towards the meat of this script. However, what captivated me most about this show, was that battle ensuing on the stage and how it relates to both the national arts scene, Utah theater, and most specifically, Pioneer Theatre itself.
The evening opens with a welcome to the audience and an introduction to Pioneer’s next season of shows which I anticipate will be stellar. Upon hearing the titles, though, instantly my mind went back to a comment one frequent Pioneer theatergoer made one evening months ago, “They’re great shows and the quality is fantastic, but I really have no idea how they pick their season. None of the shows seem to have anything to do with the others.” Interestingly enough, during Pioneer’s introduction of their season the only phrase that tied the titles together was “there’s something for everyone.”
That phrase, while certainly appealing, is a high stakes decision for a theatre company. Most small companies attempt to take on that mission, yet they spread their audience too thin and are unable to gain a strong and devoted (and action-oriented) following. Pioneer, however, has been in this business a good deal longer than those small theater companies. Perhaps having “something for everyone” is a wise decision for such an established company. It may just be how things have always been done, or it may be a soft tactic towards cultivating a new audience.
If Sunset Boulevard exemplified the type of audience that Pioneer is attempting to grow, I would be worried. The show appeals strictly to an older generation accustomed to the grandiose musicals of the 1980’s, or the strict theater fanatic and industry member (which is a good crowd, but it’s not growing fast enough in Utah). Younger audiences will be bored by Sunset Boulevard. There’s not enough flash, nor speed to get you through that first act. The second act is significantly more approachable, but still I affirm that I doubt this show will build audiences. I certainly hope Pioneer proves me wrong.
They’ve been in this gig longer than I have. They just might do that.