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BWW Picks of the Season: Pioneer Theatre Company's ELF THE MUSICAL Leads Salt Lake Theatergoers' Wish List


As Salt Lakers learned at Pioneer Theatre Company's ELF THE MUSICAL, there really is a Santa Claus. And he really does monitor our wish lists. They are all on his iPhone.

Theatergoers in this flyover state, with a surprisingly high level of enthusiasm for live theater, received early presents of tickets to the following productions -- if they are on The Big Guy's nice list.

1. Pioneer Theatre Company's ELF THE MUSICAL. As my colleague Tyler Hinton reviewed, "ELF is hands-down the best choice in Utah this year." Adding my input, ELF is among the very, very finest shows in the history of this Actors' Equity company, which sets the standard for large-scale area productions.

With outstanding direction by the Tony-nominated Dan Knechtges (Broadway's LYSISTRATA JONES, XANADU, SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM, 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE) and choreography by the highly skilled Liza Gennaro (Broadway's GYPSY, ONCE UPON A MATTRESS, MUSIC MAN), the production deeply impresses.

Consider the "Nobody Cares About Santa Claus" ensemble routine. In less proficient hands, it would be a throwaway song. With Knechtges and Gennaro at the help, it becomes an out-of-nowhere showstopper, with a generous mixture of AEU and local actors.

A bountiful Christmas stocking is guaranteed to Quinn VanAntwerp, a former Boy in Broadway's JERSEY BOYS. ELF THE MUSICAL rises or falls on the performance in the titular role. And VanAntwerp flies Santa's sleigh on his enthusiasm alone. He expertly makes the role his own, with a sky-high level of innate charismatic innocence.

As Santa, Daniel Marcus (Broadway's URINETOWN, 1776, WOMAN IN WHITE) is compelling from the moment the spotlight marks his entrance. And Libby Servais (Glinda in Broadway's WICKED, LYSISTRATA JONES) plays Jovie so charmingly that audiences are anxious to see her perform in a production with more than her four small scenes.

With ELF's sold-out performances and a post-Christmas extension, after PTC spins its dreidel, the company's coffers will be filled with precious golden coins.

2. For theatergoers more inclined to bah-humbug, Salt Lake Acting Company's staging of Dr. Seuss' CAT IN THE HAT is still seasonally appropriate. (And thanks, Jovie, for teaching us that phrase). This is children's theater at its very best.

As I reviewed, CAT IN THE HAT is a thoroughly delightful and wonderfully enchanting show and, as the gleeful, red-and-white-striped stovepipe hat-wearing mischief-maker guarantees, there is lots of fun that is funny. The strength of this production is the accurate representation of the author's fantastical drawings and the wacky dialog directly lifted from the text, director Penny Caywood enjoys for its "rhythm, rhyme, wit, wisdom, and humor." Page by page, we are transported into the whimsical universe of Dr. Suess' most famous book.

Playing the obstreperous feline at the center of this domestic maelstrom is the highly skilled, local favorite Austin Archer, who excels as the Cat in the Hat. With nimble skills and winning confidence, Archer easily connects with the audience, both the youngsters and their equally intrigued chaperones. Showing his boundless variety, Archer just finished performing as Mark in Utah Rep's RENT which was showered by enthusiastic reviews, which included: "Archer is exceptional; his singing and characterization are confident and consistent."

3. THE HALES' A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Neighboring Hale Centre Theatre in West Valley City and Hale Center Theater Orem are independently operated and stage separate productions, both strictly hewing to the author's original A CHRISTMAS CAROL prose -- yet they still are eligible to usurp Charles Dickens' name from above the title. The reason? Each theater has produced the classic story of Christmastime redemption of the misanthropic miser Scrooge since they were founded by Utah theater legends, Ruth and Nathan Hale.

Each CHRISTMAS CAROL is warmly embraced by local audiences, and the shows have become yuletide traditions. The two shows are double-cast, so you'd need to see each show twice to determine which production is best.

To make that judgment of CHRISTMAS CAROL, theatergoers would need four tickets. Adding the tickets to ELF and CAT IN THE HAT, we recognize there's no way Utah theatergoers are going to be on Santa's naughty list. There's still time to make the leap to the nice list!

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From This Author Blair Howell