Every UTBA reader knows that 2020 was a tough year for Utah theatre. For over two months, we did not review any theatre productions because all theaters in the state were shut down in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Many of these companies are still not open. Those that are open are operating with reduced capacity and other constraints. But hope is on the horizon. Two vaccines for COVD-19 have been approved for use in the United States, and medical personnel in Utah have begun to receive it. The state health department anticipates that every Utahn could be vaccinated by July 2021, which will make it easier for theatre companies in the state to resume normal operations.

It is with this mood of optimism that UTBA presents its annual “Exellence” post, which allows the site’s writers to reminisce about their favorite productions they saw during the year. Although this year’s post is shorter than previous years, we hope that it is enough to remind you of the strengths of this state’s performing arts community—and maybe excite you about what the future will look like after the pandemic is over.

Excellence in live theatre on Utah stages in 2020

The Three Musketeers at the Parker Theatre.

The Three Musketeers at the Parker Theatre was so much fun, and my kids loved it! The actors and director Joanne M. Parker used every inch of that stage space, climbing up and around the audience, and performing well-timed fight scenes, and comic moments. I also thought Qui Nguyen‘s play, She Kills Monsters at the University of Utah was awesome! The real-life role playing felt so cathartic and put me into the fantasy world with the actors. I loved the monsters they fought and how they got more and more immense and difficult toward the end!—Sara Claverie, UTBA staff member

While 2020 has been anything but normal for the arts, An Other Theater Company has retained a strong presence in the Utah theatre community while adapting to a new pandemic landscape. AOTC opened the new year with SAFE, a new and timely play that featured an excellent script by Chelsea Hickman. Directed by Liz Whittaker and starring Laura Elise Chapman and Maddie Smith, SAFE was essentially a flawless production that I found to be deeply poignant. I am grateful this powerful and important show was given a life before the pandemic hit. Since the pandemic started, AOTC has offered three Covid-safe productions, including two streaming productions and one drive-in style production. I am impressed with AOTC’s efforts to continue to provide our community with theatre in these times where live arts are limited. While I enjoyed the streaming productions, I’d like to highlight the drive-in style production, Last Train to Nibroc, starring Laura Elise Chapman and Bryce Lloyd Fueston. Directed by Kacey Spadafora, the production was strong, affecting and very much needed. I left the parking lot feeling joyous and fulfilled from the energy of live theatre, something I had been craving for some time. While I long for the theatre to come back in full force, Last Train to Nibroc was a bright spot in my year. While continuously offering a message of hope and inclusivity along with quality theatre, An Other Theater Company has improved my otherwise lackluster year. Not only has AOTC produced Covid-safe theatre, they have also started a panel series discussing pertinent theatre related issues. These can be found on the company’s website and I have thoroughly enjoyed them as an addition to traditional theatre offerings. —Tara Nicole Haas, UTBA secretary

Bryce Lloyd Fueston as Raleigh and Laura Elise Chapman as May in An Other Theater Company’s Last Train to Nibroc.

Among that small pool of shows I saw this year, Hale Centre Theatre’s Strictly Ballroom stands out. Choreography by director Jennifer Hill Barlow left nothing to be desired, and I appreciated that Hale toned down their typically over-the-top stagecraft and let the dancing speak for itself. On a stage of fine dancers, Alexis Burton sparkled as Tina Sparkle and John Graham was unforgettable as Latin-dancing Rico. Not everything about the show worked (including some questionable scene change choices), but it was exhilarating and the best show I’ve seen at the Sandy Hale since Tuck Everlasting in 2018. Speaking of Hale Centre Theatre, in their production of Tarzan, Derek Smith and Toby Worland gave equally strong performances as Tarzan and Young Tarzan. While Smith’s entire performance was impressive, his physicality was truly exceptional: he made it look like he’d be walking on his knuckles his whole life. And Mark Pulham made the most of his role as Professor Porter—not over the top, just the right amount of doddiness. I appreciated his restraint and enjoyed his performance. Finally, I adored Jenn Stapley Taylor’s set design for Hale Centre Theatre’s Bright Star. The way the barn-style wooden slats let in the projection-lit backdrop was enchanting. And when it raised for “Sun is Gonna Shine Again”, I was emotionally rocked. —B. F. Isaacson, UTBA reviewer

Kelsey Phillips Harrison as Cinderella and Brendon French as Prince Christopher in the SCERA’s production of Cinderella. Photo by Rachael Gibson.

I know that I compliment the SCERA almost every year in UTBA’s year-end post. But this year, the company punched above their weight even more than usual. In addition to being superb pieces of theatre, their productions of The Music Man and Cinderella were safe and fun ways to enjoy some escapist entertainment when my family and I needed it most. And even when I didn’t fully enjoy a production, I felt compelled to praise the artists at the SCERA. If they can do such great work during the throes of a pandemic, I look forward to seeing what new heights of artistic excellence they can reach in more normal times. —Russell Warne, UTBA president

The national touring production of Fiddler on the Roof that Broadway at the Eccles hosted was a traditional production that reminded me of the foundation that theatre in this country. The performers and choreography was everything I had hoped for in a professional production of my personal favorite musical. —Darby Turnbow, UTBA staff member

Another notable production this year was SONDERimmersive’s The Carousel at the Dreamscapes art exhibit. The Carousel was a unique and dreamy Covid-safe immersive experience which was an exceptional treat during this pandemic year. With the backdrop of the art exhibit, the visual aspects of The Carousel were stunning and intriguing, adding to the thrill and surrealness of the dreamlike state. This production came at a time when I could not have needed live theatre more, and the experience energized me and provided me with hope for the future. —Tara Nicole Haas, UTBA secretary

Excellence in streaming productions from Utah theatre companies in 2020

The powerful message of Wasatch Theatre Company’s Girls and Boys, forthright direction, and shear guts displayed by the solo performance by Morgan Werder have stuck with me throughout this difficult year. I have reflected on it again and again in my personal relationships and in larger cultural conversations. I didn’t know this would be the last show I would see before the world turned upside down, but I couldn’t have chosen a better one. —Miranda Giles, UTBA reviewer

An image from BYU’s Manual for a Desperate Crossing.

One performance that stood out to me was Maria Angelica Sanchez-Carr in BYU’s Manual for a Desperate Crossing. The existence of that show strikes me as a miracle. The actors’ performances were stitched together live from their homes so seamlessly that it took me an hour to realize they might not be in the same room. And this show wasn’t just a Brady Bunch style Zoom meeting either—the video windows moved, merged and transformed during the performance. And it was all done live. Amazing. Hats off to the scenic and projection designers, Elisabeth Goulding, Erin Bjorn and Taylor Glad, and to director Kris Peterson. —B. F. Isaacson, UTBA reviewer

Man Cave at the Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival was an excellent sci-fi for our time, and performed so enjoyably by Timothy Mooney. His skilled writing brought awareness of what the future could look like without learning about and protecting our resources.  Phone Whore at the Fringe was extra edgy, and gave me such an important takeaway message about freedom of thought that I have to applaud its greatness. The show perfectly brought home the point that human needs of connection and community aren’t getting met effectively and how that is wearing our society down. —Sara Claverie, UTBA staff member

A publicity image for The Night Witches at the University of Utah.

The University of Utah production of The Night Witches was cleverly done via streaming. Despite performing in separate locations, the actresses created such a strong emotional and thought provoking production. This streaming production had excellent tech and directing that helped the entire production feel unified. Simple props and costumes also helped unify the visual aspects of this production. It was the best streaming production and and the best university production I saw this year because the cast and director Alexandra Harbold made the steaming situation their stage, not just a recording of a stage production. —Darby Turnbow, UTBA staff member

I would like to also commend Rachel Bublitz‘s The Night Witches at the University of Utah. It was such an excellent exploration of how to stream theater. I was worried that with so much sound design, and as many women as they had in one Zoom call, there would be a lot of technical difficulties, but I can only remember one mishap. All the actors played incredible, inspiring women, and it was a reminder (in a good way) that I try to avoid World War stories because they tug on my heartstrings too much and make me sad. —Sam Rust, UTBA reviewer

Other excellence in Utah theatre in 2020

Jesse Nepivoda as Taylor and Isabel Crews as Rain in Sackerson’s Cherry Wine in Paper Cups.

2020 started out so promising in theatre for me, and then Covid came crashing down on all of us. I had no idea what to think of Utah’s theatre scene when Covid hit, but I as I reflect back on the year, I realize that I needed to remember that I should have faith in Utah’s local artists and their abilities. There is a great deal of talent here, and this artistic community is not going to let a virus get us down. The very last thing I saw in March before the first major shutdown was Newsies at the Ziegfeld Theater in Ogden, which they had done with hearing and Deaf actors, in voice and sign language, a beautiful feat for any company. After the pandemic hit, the Zig found a way to offer this production streaming, a sign of things to come. Later, Utah theatre companies found ways to get content to audiences in their homes or safely in person. The Zig came back at Christmas time with their Fairly Potter Christmas in masks and with puppets, showing that they could roll with the punches. I was very impressed with the Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival this year going all online, and the new content they were able to showcase this way. I would like to also highlight Good Company Theatre in Ogden, from their creative Window Seat Sessions to their parking lot production of Catharsis Two, for providing innovative ways to keep theatre going while also highlighting not only local actors but local authors as well. Good Company also continues to be at the forefront of diversity in theatre here in Utah. CenterPointe Theatre in Centerville also offered good content while looking out for their cast with face shields and audience with social distancing. I found myself intrigued by Sackerson’s picnic-like Cherry Wine in Paper Cups and The Carousel by SONDERImmersive was a completely new take on theatre. While I wish Covid had never happened, 2020 left me with no choice but to experience theatre in an entirely new way, and I am likely a better critic for it, and certainly have learned more as a human. Our community wants to create, and we will be better as we work to do it. Thank you to all of you who found ways to do it safely. —Maren Swensen, UTBA vice-president

You can also read our previous posts about excellence in 201120122013201420152016, 2017, 2018, and 2019. We hope that next year’s post is bursting with excellence and is the most laudatory ever.