KZMU Community Radio’s headquarters are roomier than the cruise ship stateroom where the stowaway Marx Brothers hid out as they made their way across the Atlantic to disrupt “A Night at the Opera.”
Still, the scene inside the radio station last weekend was not for the claustrophobic: To record the first live episode of the original four-part satire “Downtown Abbey,” KZMU General Manager and playwright Marty Durlin brought in most of the cast and crew, as well as a three-person band and an assistant director.
By the time that the recording equipment, instruments and sound-effects props were also in place, space was in short supply, and the KZMU team had to move their meeting table out into the parking lot just to squeeze everything – and everyone – in.
Fortunately, the present-day counterpart of a bewildered Margaret Dumont never barged in on them, so no one spilled out through the front door, a la Groucho, Harpo, Chico and friends. And while a thousand things could have conceivably gone wrong during the live broadcast’s 27-minute running time, nothing did, to Durlin’s pleasant surprise.
The cast and crew of “Downtown Abbey” are aiming to recapture that same magic during their next live broadcasts on Saturday, Feb. 27, and Saturday, March 5. Listeners can tune in to 90.1 FM and 106.7 FM at 4 p.m. on both days, or stream the first three episodes online at kzmu.org.
Later next month, they’ll take to the stage at Star Hall on Saturday, March 12, at 7 p.m., to perform the fourth and final episode in front of a live audience. Tickets for the performance are $15 apiece and benefit KZMU.
Durlin trusts that listeners will be following along each Saturday afternoon before the Star Hall performance, but as for those audience members who don’t, she tells them not to worry.
“We’ll recap the episodes, and we’ll introduce the characters, so hopefully it will make some ‘sense,’” she said.
She places air quotes around the word “sense,” because how much sense can a story that is set in a parallel universe actually make?
In this alternate version of Moab, aliens and doomsday cult members coexist alongside real-life landmarks like the Moab BARKery, while a fictional relative of the late Edward Abbey happens to be a major cheerleader for development.
“It’s based on reality, but it just takes off into fantasy,” Durlin said.
She found inspiration in the writings of Abbey, who predicted the rise of “industrial tourism” fueled by visitors drawn to Moab’s spectacular landscapes.
“I feel that has pretty much happened here,” she said.
While tourist dollars are most welcome, they come with impacts, such as the strains that more and more visitors are placing on the city’s wastewater treatment plant.
Those impacts might be one price that the title character is willing to pay.
Although actor Michael Ford Dunton’s character is supposedly the fifth cousin, twice removed, of the real-life Abbey, he seemingly has more in common with the late Calvin Black of Blanding: He loves real estate, business and commerce, and the sound of cashiers swiping credit cards is music to his ears.
The first episode begins with the opening lines from one of Abbey’s most beloved works, but Durlin twists the words around to embrace Downtown Abbey’s vision of Moab’s future.
“It’s inspired by ‘Desert Solitaire,’ but it’s a satire and a spoof, and it’s quite silly, really,” she said.
Since the title shares all but one consonant in common with a certain PBS series, it begs the question: Does it include any homages to Julian Fellowes & Co.?
“The only similarity is it’s episodic and it’s a bit over the top,” Durlin said.
After she thinks about it, she realizes that both Abbeys feature characters named Cora. But the overall tone couldn’t be more different than some run-of-the-mill melodrama involving Bates and Anna – unless, of course, Maggie Smith’s sharp-witted Dowager Countess of Grantham was running the show.
“This is a soap opera – a very high-class comedic soap opera,” Durlin said. “That’s what it’s going for.”
Entertainment value aside, it’s also a fundraiser for KZMU.
It takes about $140,000 a year to run the station, and after the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) discontinued its Radio Community Service Grant program funding, KZMU had to look elsewhere for help.
Local businesses who underwrite the station’s programming have stepped up by paying more, and a “Radiothon” last fall raised $45,000 – a success that the station needs to replicate from here on out.
“That’s the kind of fundraiser that we have to have twice a year in order to make it,” Durlin said.
“Downtown Abbey” was the kind of thing that KZMU could pull off at minimal cost, thanks to volunteers like Moab thespian Doni Kiffmeyer, who helped out in “a million ways,” Durlin said.
“It hasn’t cost us much to do it,” she said. “It’s just a lot of time and coordinated effort.”
In addition to Kiffmeyer and Dunton, the cast includes Christy Williams Dunton, Jenna Talbott, Keith G., Jim Saltsider, Melissa Graciosa, Zina Brown, Michaelene Pendleton, Brett Bentley and Marlene Mody. Then there’s Jeremy Lynch, who plays “Joe Smith,” a largely unemployed thespian who has taken a job preaching doom and salvation on the streets of Moab.
His cohort, Doomer, is the “brains” behind Joe’s preaching, but truth be told, he said, neither one of them is especially forward-thinking.
“In my opinion, their role is one of many in the drama emphasizing the lack of vision and ethic we encounter in rapidly developing rural communities,” he said.
Lynch last embodied the foul-mouthed Mensch on the Bench during Community Rebuilds’ “Miracle on First North” fundraiser in December 2015. Before then, however, he hadn’t been on the stage since he was in preschool.
“Moab is my first, as it were, and I hope she doesn’t leave me for the next willing suitor because I’m in it for the long haul,” he said.
Lynch said he’s excited about the radio performances because of everything that goes into them, from the ambience of created sound to the coordination of live music and song, and the energy in a room where the performers cannot see their audience.
The fact that it was written for the community, by a local resident who has a keen awareness of social realities and a sense of humor, also appealed to him.
“In the larger conversations we are engaged in as a community, humor and satire are essential,” Lynch said. “It is, in part, how we (defuse) tension and get down to the grits of seeing a thing for what it is and what we want, here at home.”
Four-part on-air broadcast culminates in March 12 live performance fundraiser at Star Hall
It’s inspired by ‘Desert Solitaire,’ but it’s a satire and a spoof, and it’s quite silly, really.
Tickets for the March 12 performance and gala with cast and crew are available at KZMU, 1734 Rocky Road, and Back of Beyond Books, 83 N. Main St. For more information, go to kzmu.org.
What: KZMU presents “Downtown Abbey”
When: Saturday, March 12, at 7 p.m. Live radio broadcasts of next two episodes at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 27, and Saturday, March 5
Where: Star Hall, 159 E. Center St.
Cost: $15 for Star Hall performance; $40 for performance and gala with cast and crew at Moab Valley Inn. Tickets are available at KZMU and Back of Beyond Books