Utah stages: If you build it, patrons will come

Year-end arts • Feisty productions, a big new theater, news of expansion in West Valley City and Pioneer Theatre Company's change of the guard marked 2012.
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What was all that talk about live theater fast becoming an outmoded form of entertainment? Local policymakers and politicians apparently aren't bothered by naysayers; instead, they seem to believe if you build it, ticketholders will show up.

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker rallied hard for a new downtown theater. "The Book of Mormon," the "South Park" comedians' hard-edged but sweetly satirical musical, broke sales records in Denver, with Salt Lake City audiences salivating at the possibility of landing the production in our neighborhood. Then, this fall, Hale Centre Theatre's announcement that its audience had outgrown its West Valley City theater pitted the city against Sandy for a chance to host a new facility.

Here were some of the year's most notable developments, productions and other events across Utah's collective stages.

Farewell, and hello • Artistic director Charles Morey stepped down after 28 years at the helm of Pioneer Theatre Company, making his final curtain call by directing a revival of "Man of La Mancha." With actor and singer William Michals in a stunning lead, the strains of "The Impossible Dream" sounded somehow more poignant in light of Morey's invaluable impact. There to pick up his lead was incoming artistic director Karen Azenberg, a lauded New York City choreographer, director and president at Stage Directors and Choreographers Society. "In the Heights," the opening production of her inaugural season, showed she was ready to respect, but also challenge, the expectations of Utah audiences.

Downtown theater • Becker's plan for a $110 million "Broadway-style" theater sparked a variety of reaction from the local arts world. Some argued a large theater was unnecessary, begging for more black-box spaces, which the mayor and City Council have added to the facility's wish list. MagicSpace Entertainment, the locally based Broadway presenting company, countered that audience demand has outgrown the confines of Capitol Theatre. Meanwhile, Hale Centre Theatre declared that demand for tickets for its family-friendly productions was bigger than its cozy theater-in-the-round space in West Valley City could accommodate. Stay tuned: West Valley City and Sandy are fighting to host a proposed 220,000-square-foot facility, with multiple theater spaces that would triple Hale's capacity from 613 to more than 1,900 seats.

To be actors or artistic directors • At the Utah Shakespeare Festival, new co-artistic directors Brian Vaughn and David Ivers make the switch from stage work to office work appear as easy as the character transformations in their hit revival of "Stones in His Pockets." Their versatility has given the theater company a shot of theatrical adrenaline, apparent onstage in the standout fall production of "Hamlet," directed by Marco Barricelli. Danforth Comins in the lead sometimes recited the play's renowned soliloquies at or near the boiling point, but it was all in the service of shaking the scales from our eyes. Next up for the festival: After announcing in November a $5 million donation from the Engelstad Family Foundation of Las Vegas, leaders hope to break ground in 2013 for a new outdoor theater, combined with the campus' Southern Utah Museum of Art.

'Bloody' good theatrical times • You could have traveled to Broadway in late 2010 to see Benjamin Walker play Andrew Jackson in the raucous rock musical "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson." Or you could have waited strategically for a company like Salt Lake Acting Company to take the risk, and in this case waiting paid off handsomely. J.C. Ernest in the lead role, backed by a stellar ensemble cast, played up the show's emo-core soundtrack, laugh-out-loud intelligent dialogue and salty language. The script unfurled with one eye on history and the other squarely fixed on a good time. More like this, please.

Revive me, please • Prominent revivals showcased two of Salt Lake City's strongest musical performers: Aaron Swenson in Plan-B Theatre Company's "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and Dee-Dee-Darby-Duffin in Pygmalion Productions' "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill."

Small companies, big work • Throughout the year, up-and-coming alternative theaters showed off big ambitions: Dark Horse Company Theater's stylish production of "Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical," Pinnacle Acting Company's powerhouse "The Lion in Winter" and Meat & Potato's clever sci-fi spoof "Aliens (The Puppet Musical)." And local stages continued to spotlight work by female Utah playwrights. Plan-B premiered Debora Threedy's "The Third Crossing" and Jenifer Nii's "The Scarlet Letter," while Salt Lake Acting Company staged Kathleen Cahill's "Course 86B in the Catalogue." Pygmalion's pitch-perfect rendering of Sarah Ruhl's "In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)" offered date night for adults by making a period piece about female desire play with fresh relevance for contemporary audiences.