When Ryan Shirar announced that he was leaving Paragon Music Theatre earlier this year, colleagues Diana Evans Pulliam and Robyn Peterman-Zahn knew that was the end of the company.
It had been founded and guided by Shirar, whose musical brilliance was well known in Lexington and had landed him a too-good-to-refuse scholarship at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.
But Pulliam and Peterman-Zahn knew something else.
"We weren't finished," Peterman-Zahn says, with quick affirmation from Pulliam. "And we wanted to do something different than Paragon."
Never miss a local story.
This weekend's production of Smackdown for the Christmas Crown will be the inaugural production of The Rep, the company that Pulliam and Peterman-Zahn are launching with music director Brock Terry and Peterman-Zahn's husband, Steve Zahn, who will be executive producer.
"When they said they were going to do this, I said, 'I want to play,'" says Zahn, a versatile actor whose roles have included the dad in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies, a prisoner of war in Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn and volatile DJ and bandleader Davis in the HBO TV series Treme. "I wanted to contribute."
Zahn, who met Peterman-Zahn when they were on the national tour of Bye, Bye Birdie together, said lending a hand on Paragon productions and seeing their kids get involved in shows took him back to his youth on stage.
"Some of this is a selfish fulfillment, an artistic fulfillment, which is valid and good," Zahn says. "I'm also at a point in my career where I find as much fulfillment teaching improv to 9-year-olds as I do working in New Orleans in the show that I'm in.
"And that show in New Orleans completely fulfills me as an artist. It's not like it's become stale or boring. But it's so good to give back because we live here and love this community."
Zahn and Peterman-Zahn, a Lexington native and daughter of clothier John Peterman of The J. Peterman Co., moved back to Lexington in 2004, when they started having children. In the past year, they both have taught acting classes at Pulliam's dance school, Diana Evans School of Dance, where Peterman-Zahn took lessons when she was a girl. The intention with The Rep is to make it both a teaching and a performance organization.
"We don't want to get in over our heads," Peterman-Zahn says. "We don't have a building yet, we don't have warehouses full of sets. We're not married to any kind of mortgage or anything like that. We wanted to keep things at a level where we could still deal with it and have a lot of fun without a lot of pressure."
It's not that they don't have ambitions. The Rep's leaders want to establish a physical and an artistic presence in Lexington. But right now, they are putting together a brand-new show written by Peterman-Zahn.
Zahn describes his wife as a voracious reader who began writing after becoming disgusted by bad books.
"She said, 'I love reading these books, but now I'm getting down to the bottom of the barrel, and she was like, 'I'm going to write one,'" Zahn says. "And she literally walked out of the room, and cut to six months later, it's done.'"
That book has not yet been published.
When it came time to create a first production, Pulliam suggested Peterman-Zahn write something.
"I said, 'Yeah, I'll lightly script a show,'" Peterman-Zahn says. "Then I discovered, you don't 'lightly script' a show."
Pulliam says, "She called me and said, 'I've written a little something,' and she emailed it to me and it was 26 pages long."
Zahn says, "She kept sending me these pages, because I was working, and they were awesome."
The show, filled with time-honored Christmas music, is set in the present day but centers on two 1950s-style vocal groups, the Billies and the Bobbies, that are vying for the coveted Christmas Crown at the local variety show.
Having directed a number of Paragon productions, including The King and I and The Sound of Music, Peterman-Zahn says she wrote the show with numerous local actors in mind, although she and Pulliam say only a few of them got matched up with their parts.
Mixed in with the story are big dance numbers and vaudevillian routines.
"It's an eclectic mix of stuff, and somehow it all kind of works," Zahn says.
And after the big changes this year, it reaffirms the time-honored adage that the show must go on.