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THEATREWORKS WEST PREMIERE: SHOWDOWN

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I could be guessing, but I'll bet many of the best scripts and concepts for both stage and screen probably began as "What if . . . "

You know, "What if there was this mythical town in Scotland that only appears once every 100 years?" . . . and "Brigadoon" was born.Or "What if we set Shakespeare's `The Tempest' way off in the future in a distant galaxy?" . . . and "Forbidden Planet" evolved.

Well, what if TheatreWorks West wanted to jump into the 1995-96 season with its own world premiere of an ingenious parody - something that would fit right in with the upcoming centennial celebration of Utah's statehood?

How about a Western musical with a feminist spin - set in the mythical frontier town of Forever, Utah ( . . . just a few miles north of another bustling town with a big "Y" stenciled on the mountain . . . that's right, Yesterday, Utah).

Then, what if playwright Aden Ross and composer Audrey Terry decided to pull all the stops and play around with some off-the-wall role-reversals?

Well, if they did - and, of course, they have - you'd end up with "Showdown!" which premieres this week at the Jewett Center.

"As a teacher, I often just have my playwriting students reverse roles. I have them turn things around 180 degrees just to see how dialogue sounds from the other side. That's basically the inception for this project," the prolific Ross said during a recent interview.

"I thought, what if everything in this little Utah frontier town is reversed? This is not cross-dressing. Only the roles are completely reversed," she noted.

Some unwary hombre sauntering into Forever, Utah, might be in for a bit of a surprise.

Instead of the guys hanging out at the saloon, caught up in a serious poker game and drinking whiskey while the genteel womenfolk are at home quilting and churning butter and tending the kids - the visitor will find the women are in charge here and the men are taking care of things at home.

Matty Killem is the sheriff (that's SHE-riff, buster). Her young deputy is a tough little cookie named Spike. Together, Matty and Spike maintain the town's peaceful ways and protect Forever from Outside Influences.

That is until Butch Castaway, one of the West's most notorious gunslingers, pays a visit. Which means there'll be trouble brewin' down at Mr. Kit's (no . . . not "Miss Kitty's") Last Chance Club - a private watering hole where the gals hoot 'n' holler and have one wild time, especially when the gorgeous dancehall guy struts his stuff.

Playwright Ross, who is also in the middle of three additional Utah Centennial projects, points out that "Showdown!" is the "first play where I have conscientiously worked to keep the language G-rated."

The title of one of the show's 11 songs does sound a bit more into PG territory: "Zero to Bitch." These lyrics focus on Butch Castaway's rapid mood changes and unpredictable temper.

Also, Ross notes that because the show is a comedy and is set in a pioneer Utah town, theatergoers will find quite a bit of LDS Church humor.

"But it is not `Mormon bashing' and there are probably more Catholic jokes than Mormon jokes," she said.

Ross initially began tinkering around with the basic concept for the play several months ago, then, quite late into the process, thought it might be more fun as a musical.

"I had been working on an opera (`Dreamkeepers,' a commissioned work for Utah Opera), and wanted to write something funny and fun for the Utah Centennial. I didn't know Audrey Terry well, except for her previous work with `Eden Creek' and `A Child's Christmas in Wales,' so I approached Fran Pruyn (of TheaterWorks West, who is directing the show) about the project."

Ross had listened to the soundtrack music from "The Magnificent Seven"and has also watched videos of everything from the John Wayne version of "Stagecoach" to the spectacular "How the West Was Won" in order to capture the feel of life and times on the Western frontier.

Ross' friends are all very much aware that, despite her answering machine and word processor, she usually eschews such modern conveniences as television sets and VCRs.

"I had to borrow a friend's TV set and VCR and rented old Western movies. Mostly I went back to my own childhood - a time of `The Lone Ranger' and `Gunsmoke' - for ideas," she said.

"Audrey's music is just fantastic. It's very hummable. This is a traditional, old-fashioned musical. The action stops and you throw in a hummable tune," Ross added.

Both Ross and Terry appreciate Stephen Sondheim's approach to musicals, but Terry's songs cover a broad range of diverse, ethnic styles. Most of the cast will have at least one solo, duet or trio.

The first song in act one, "Our Country," draws on Copland's "Fanfare" for a motif in which the stanzas modulate for each character. It's sung by Matty, Kit and Spike (Marcia Dangerfield, Jim Pitts and Annie Draper).

Ace Reno (Karen Nielsen) will attempt to seduce the demure Mr. Pleasance (Rett Neale) in "Gamble With Me," while Tonta (Toni Byrd) pokes fun at ethnic stereotypes in "My Name is Tonta," a derivative blend of Latin, Oriental and American Indian rhythms and harmonies.

Kit will turn up the heat with a "Come to the Cabaret"-ish song titled "The Last Chance Club." The score also includes an old country waltz, a wistful pop piano ballad and even a rap song, "Dress for the Part," in which Butch (Molly Cameron), Kit, Spike, Tonta and Reno address the whys and wherefores of "power dressing."

In the community of Forever, Utah, the women's bonnets - even harshly squared off - are the symbolic "power hat."

Ross and Terry said the show's costume designer, Steve Rasmussen, has been having quite a time coming up with Western attire that fits the role-reversal concept.

Again, Ross made it clear that "Showdown!" is not about cross-dressing. The women do wear dresses and the men wear pants . . . except the women's clothes take on a decidedly masculine tone and the men's outfits, even the pants, are slinky and stylish (while remaining functional enough to allow the men to tend the babies and do the cooking and mending).

"Showdown!" will have matronizing attitudes instead of patronizing ones, and the males, frustrated with their menial lot in life, have become activists in the National Organization of Men. The reversal approach can be found in more than just the roles and the dialogue. The rival town of Yesterday is considered Forever's "brother city" - rather than sister city.

"I hope it stays consistently funny," said Ross, adding that Audrey Terry's music is ebullient . . . or should that be e-cow-lient?

Set design will be by B.K. Henrie, with lighting by Kiyono Oshiro.

Performances of "Showdown!" will be Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. from Aug. 31 through Sept. 23 in Westminster College's Jewett Center for the Performing Arts, 1250 E. 1700 South.

Tickets are $12 for adults and $10 for students and senior citizens. To reserve tickets in advance, call TheatreWorks West at 583-6520.

- AUDREY TERRY is a native of Utah and has been working as a free-lance musician in the Salt Lake area for many years.

She composed the underscoring for Dance Theater Coalition's productions of "The Diary of Anne Frank" and "Gertrude Stein and a Companion," TWW's adaptation of Dylan Thomas' "A Child's Christmas in Wales" and After the Overture's "Eden Creek."

Terry recently composed a piece for chamber orchestra titled "Dolce Nobilissima," which will be premiered by the Intermountain Chamber Orchestra this fall.

Her music has also been featured in several locally made films and videos.

In performance, Terry has conducted and is also proficient on a number of instruments, ranging from cello and electric bass to harmonica and penny whistle. She has conducted and performed with many local organizations, including Ballet West, Children's Dance Theater, Pioneer Theatre Company, Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, Salt Lake Acting Company, the Contemporary Music Consortium, Utah Opera, Utah Flute Association, Park City Performances and Desert Aire (live radio program), among others.

- A NATIVE of the Great Plains region, Aden Ross has moved 44 times, literally from coast to coast.

She hasn't always been a writer - although with 12 of her plays being produced from Oregon to New York City, and dozens of poems and articles in college textbooks and anthologies, it would be easy to believe that she was born with a keyboard in her crib.

The only thing she hasn't written is a novel.

Before taking up writing full time, she was involved in such varied pursuits as teaching piano lessons, assisting in primate research and selling Ferraris.

In addition to TWW's "Showdown!" and Utah Opera's "Dreamkeepers," other projects coming from Ross for the Centennial are a script for Hansen Planetarium's "Spacetime Utah" and "Meeting of Minds," a play using the old Steve Allen concept (and, yes, another "What if . . . " idea) about Leonardo, Bach, Virginia Woolf and Einstein, for the Utah Art/Science Center.

- THEATREWORKS WEST is jump-starting the 1995-96 season with "Showdown!" The new season kicks into high gear in mid-September with the regional premiere of the Maury Yeston-Arthur Kopit version of "Phantom" at Salt Lake Community College's Grand Theatre, and the mystical "Secret Garden" at Pioneer Theatre Company.

The rest of TheatreWorks West's season will include:

- The twin bill of two one-act productions, "A Child's Christmas in Wales" and "Cinderella, or The Shoe Must Go On," Dec. 14-30.

- Athol Fugard's "Master Harold and the Boys," Feb. 15-March 2.

- Paul Rudnick's hit off-Broadway comedy, "Jeffrey" (being staged April 5-27 at The Sun, a private club).

- Craig Lucas' acclaimed "Prelude to a Kiss," May 23-June 8.