DRAPER — The Off Broadway Theatre has been known for its spoof comedies and improv since the 1990s. The “Off Broadway” part of the name comes from the location of its original venue, which was off Broadway Street (300 South) in downtown Salt Lake City. Decades later, the theatre company is still owned and operated by Eric Jensen, who also writes most of the parodies, including their current production, and frequently acts onstage as well. The OBT has since moved into the Historic Draper Theatre, a nice, clean theater with comfortable seats. And it smells like popcorn. The backbone of the company is improv, which is apparent in its comedies. They feature a certain looseness and occasionally feel more on the lightly rehearsed side, like Saturday Night Live. Sometimes, characters even stand in lines and step forward to deliver their lines, improv style.
The appreciative audience on the opening night of “It’s a Wondrous Life” laughed throughout. I was even laughing before curtain thanks to Jensen’s quick-witted welcoming remarks (“You can tell they’ve been married 35 years, because they’re not sitting together,” he quipped about a couple celebrating an anniversary.)
It’s a Wondrous Life is obviously a parody of the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life and follows the original plot. George Bailey was played by OBT mainstay Clarence Strohn, doing a convincing and tastefully restrained Jimmy Stewart impression. Jensen pitched in as a cranky and somewhat lascivious Uncle Billy. The duo’s decades of experience performing together was apparent with their sharp timing and command of the stage. As George’s wife, Mary, Alisa Woodbrey gave a strong, confident performance with excellent stage presence and delivery. Jill Stark was plucky and likable as Angel Second Class Clarence Oddbody, and Boston Smith turned in some strong work as Potter’s stooge, William Knott Jr.
The simple set (designed by Jensen, Emily Mouritsen and Chris Kennedy) featured a Bedford Falls sign, giant candle, candy cane and lamp on stage right, and what looked like a snow palace on stage left—which turned out to actually be heaven.
The OBT sticks to a unique formula which includes an overwhelming amount of puns. Historically, about one-third of the jokes are genuinely funny, one-third are funny based if you are in the right mood mood, and one-third are just plain terrible — a ratio no worse than Hollywood. While character writing is not an expectation at the OBT, I did feel that Clarence was a bit inconsistent. One minute he is piously protesting immorality, and the next he is fantasizing about Chippendale dancers?
The show was directed by Chris Kennedy, with Viveann Godwin and Robbie Dalley providing sound and lights. Microphone problems did arise a few times. Both George’s and God’s mics were out for a scene, and popping marred yet another. The bridge made of empty Coke bottles was amusingly budget-friendly, although a higher music volume could have benefited the Les Miz gag of George jumping off it, Javert-style.
The best gags were Uncle Billy bathing in a utility sink and his shadow puppet show which climaxed in a Yoda/Darth Vader showdown. Also always amusing was the “Go to the Lobby” song, which is performed at the end of every Act I at the OBT and always brings a smile to my face. The popcorn hats were entertaining, and I like the fact they forced a giant popcorn box over Strohn’s head.
While there is no cursing, the show’s dirty jokes felt unnecessary and would probably put the play in PG-13 territory. Knott punching himself in the crotch was so anti-funny, it sucked the air of the room. And George walking in when Potter and Knott seemed to be having sex on a desk was absolutely tasteless, even if Potter’s flustered explanation — “He’s a part-time chiropractor!” — was admittedly clever.
UTBA has written some scathing reviews of The Off Broadway Theatre. Which reminds me of the SNL sketch where Bobby Moynihan as Guy Fieri responds to a mean-spirited New York Times review of his tourist-friendly restaurant with: “If you come in expecting Le Cirque, then you’re a le jerk.” Tickets to The OBT are $18 and shows feature titles like “Dracula vs. Henry Botter.” It ain’t high culture.
The fact is, The OBT is a Utah institution and has been entertaining audiences for 29 years. Owners Eric and Sandy Jensen deserve all the praise in the world for putting affordable entertainment on-stage. Families who cannot afford to mortgage their home to see a show at Hale Centre Theatre in Sandy can see one at The OBT for one-fourth of the price. Season tickets are the price of singles at other theaters. It is community theater through and through.
It’s a Wondrous Life features plenty of good jokes and strong acting, and The OBT’s enduring appeal speaks for itself. Set your expectations accordingly, turn off your brain, and enjoy.