It’s everywhere. It’s in the Facebook message from someone you haven’t spoken to since high school, trying to sell you a dubious-sounding essential oil blend. It’s in the online post from an influencer promising a foolproof, lucrative way to start your own business. It’s on NBA dancers, amphitheaters and university buildings.
Multilevel marketing companies, or MLMs, are basically inescapable in Utah. These companies rely on direct sales, which means ordinary people try to both sell products to family and friends and recruit others to join as salespeople. (If that sounds a lot like a pyramid scheme, well…) Seemingly countless MLMs hawking dietary supplements and beauty products are headquartered here, and the biggest names—NuSkin, Younique, Young Living—are billion dollar companies (yes, that’s with a “b.”) Despite plenty of media coverage warning against these businesses, their allure remains.
So, too, does the opportunity to satirize these ubiquitous companies. The second iteration of SLACabaret, now at Salt Lake Acting Company, is set at OilCon, a convention for an essential oils MLM that closely resembles a local company that starts with “D” and ends in “oterra.” Through song parodies and an increasingly ridiculous plot, SLACabaret: Down the Rabbit Hole follows a group of very different Utahns at the convention as they search for bottled and diffused enlightenment. (Or at least some cash.)
Guiding these lost souls are The Cheshire Cat (Annette Wright) and Caterpillar (Sarah Shippobotham). Yes, for some reason, these Alice in Wonderland creatures have traveled from one nonsensical land to another, teaming up to provide these characters some-much needed spiritual counsel. There’s Matt (Aaron Linford Allred), who hopes that essential oils can salvage his marriage with Marjorie (Kim Handa Brown), a skeptic who brings their depressed, heavy drinking friend Dorian (Sean J. Carter in the performance I saw) along to make fun of the true believers. Religious Provo grandmother Debbie (Kelsie Jepsen) trusts essential oils more than vaccines or modern medicine, but her daughter Alice (Daisy Ali All) is ready to break away from her cloistered upbringing. BYU students Ryker (Danny Borba) and Stryker (standout Joseph Paul Branca) just want to make some extra money, but their time at the con sparks an unexpected crisis of faith for Ryker. The undisputed queen bee of the convention is @queenofhearts (T Anthony, joyously bitchy fun), a social media influencer (actually, she prefers “content creator”) who harnesses her followers to climb to the top of this “not-a-pyramid” pyramid scheme. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Trudy (Niki Rahimi), who has spent all of her money to launch her oil sales with no success.
The music ranges broadly, drawing on a few decades of pop and Broadway, from Alanis Morisette to Hamilton, Lizzo to Disney’s Tangled. The first song, a parody of the title number from Into the Woods, is a strong start, cleverly and efficiently introducing the large cast of characters and their conflicts. The cast seems most comfortable vocally with the musical theater songs, and these numbers gave the writing team—head writer Olivia Custodio, Emilio Casillas and musical director Michael Leavitt—the most room to move the story and characters forward.
The characters may start out as stereotypes, but the cast’s performances are specific and, most importantly, funny enough that the production never feels overly broad. Sure, it ain’t Shakespeare, but Custodio ensures each member of the large cast has some sort of arc, and the script strikes the balance between mocking the ridiculous worlds of MLMs and alternative medicine while remaining sympathetic to the characters.
Enjoying SLACabaret requires a certain tolerance of corniness. The combination of simple, karaoke-bar-ready choreography, goofy humor and earnest callouts to progressive politics can be jarring. Though this production has a more coherent narrative than last year’s inaugural cabaret, the Alice in Wonderland theme doesn’t always register. (Every character is designed to have a parallel to one in Lewis Carroll’s novel, and I was only able to catch a few. My memory of the source material, though, is admittedly spotty.) Still, thanks to some legitimately clever dialogue—many of the biggest laughs come in between the songs—and the strong cast, SLACabaret succeeds as a loving send-up of Utah culture, which will always provide plenty of fodder for jokes. Any show that ends its first act with a Diet Coke-fueled bacchanal is the exact kind of stupidly inspired (or inspiredly stupid?) fun I’m looking for.
SLACabaret is playing at Salt Lake Acting Company through Aug. 21. For tickets and more information, visit SLAC’s website.