Strike up the band. Well, strike up the piano anyway.
The Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre has announced it is emerging from a yearlong COVID pandemic hiatus to perform four “intimate” stage productions this summer.
Because of concerns about placing a large number of musicians in an orchestra pit and risking spread of coronavirus, the theater company this spring decided to forego the elaborate musicals it is best known for and move from Logan’s Eccles Theatre to the smaller Utah Theatre on Center Street.
“You know, when we first started planning all of this, things were a little different than they are now,” UFOMT Managing Director Gary Griffin said. “Back then masks were required and everything so we couldn’t really use the orchestra. As a result, the shows that we decided to do are smaller shows more suited to a smaller theater like the Utah. We’d be lost in the Eccles, but we’ll be back there next year.”
The renovated Utah Theatre seats 320 on its main floor and balcony, while the Eccles seats more than 1,100. Since Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has now lifted all COVID restrictions, the UFOMT is planning to launch the season with no mask or social-distancing requirements.
This summer’s small-cast musicals and plays will be “I Do, I Do,” “The Fantastics,” “Souvenir,” and “33 Variations.”
“What we’ve done is found some of our very favorite actors and singers over the years, people who have been popular with the crowds, and we’re bringing them back,” Griffin said.
These cast members include Joy Hermalyn, who 15 years ago played the role of Annie Oakley in “Annie Get Your Gun,” and Stefan Espinoza, who has played a number of local roles for both the Utah Festival Opera and Lyric Theater in Logan, including the Cat in the Hat for “Seussical.”
UFOMT founder Michael Ballam and his daughter, Vanessa, also have roles in the season. Perhaps most notably for Michael is a part in “13 Variations,” which depicts a true story about a musicologist’s quest to get in the mind of the great composer Ludwig van Beethoven.
“Yours truly will play Mr. Beethoven. Who else?” said Ballam in a video recording announcing the season on the UFOMT webpage. “He’s been my hero and mainstay since I read my first biography of him and bought my first recording of his 9th Symphony when I was in the 9th grade.”
Ballam, seated at a piano, introduced his online announcement with a rendition of “Without a Song,” a hit number from the 1929 musical “Great Day.”
“That describes the last year for us,” Ballam said. “We’ve been without a song. We tell stories through songs, and it’s been a very difficult year for us, but that’s going to change July 7th through July 31st at the Utah Theater. We’re going to have a season the likes of which you’ve never seen. It’s going to be wonderful.”
Ballam assured fans the 2021 season will include all of the traditional satellite events put on by UFOMT, such as Breakfast with the Stars, “Informances” and Late Night Cabarets.
“Everything that has been before will be returning. It’s going to be a glorious way to come out of this challenge we have all experienced,” he said.
Griffin said the past year has been a rollercoaster for the UFOMT, and after cancellation of the 2020 season due to COVID restrictions, financial stability became a critical concern. But COVID relief funding, along with continued support from the Cache County RAPS Tax, which routes restaurant and hotel tax revenue to local cultural programs, helped keep the music theater company afloat.
“Ah, it was heartbreaking. We just never knew from one minute to the next whether we would be out of business,” Griffin said. “When you don’t have a show, it’s hard to get people to support a show that doesn’t exist. So that all dried up, but we were saved by all those government programs.”
The festival opera’s return coincides with the revival of the USU-sponsored Summer Seniors Program, which was also forced to cancel last year due to the pandemic. The opera has always been a big draw among the hundreds of “sunbirds” coming to Logan each summer from Arizona.
The Lyric Repertory Company — which performs right next door to the Utah Theatre in what’s been billed as Logan’s “Theatre District,” is also back with a lineup of small-scale performances for the summer of 2021.