Stage & Dance

Pioneer Playhouse opens season with a Broadway crowd-pleaser

The 39 Steps at Pioneer Playhouse stars Dustin Bronson, left, Madison Humes and Kimberly Shepherd.
The 39 Steps at Pioneer Playhouse stars Dustin Bronson, left, Madison Humes and Kimberly Shepherd. Courtesy of Pioneer Playhouse

For more than six decades, Pioneer Playhouse has entertained Central Kentucky audiences with a unique blend of Southern hospitality and fun-loving outdoor theater.

The theater was founded in 1950 by the late Colonel Eben C. Henson, and his family preserves its legacy — dinner and a show — while maintaining his pioneering spirit.

This year, Henson's widow, Charlotte, daughter Holly and son Robby are the architects behind a more expansive Pioneer Playhouse experience. The village has been expanded to include a fabric arts boutique, new dishes have been added to the menu and two theater outreach programs have been funded.

Perhaps what is most exciting for audiences, though, is that the theater is launching its season with the Kentucky premiere of the recent Broadway smash hit The 39 Steps.

A farcical adaptation of the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock adventure film, which itself was based on the 1915 novel by John Buchan, playwright Patrick Bigelow's The 39 Steps debuted in the United Kingdom in 2005 before enjoying a lengthy and wildly popular run on Broadway. It was nominated for six Tony Awards in 2008, winning in light and sound-design categories, and it won a 2008 Drama Desk Award for unique theatrical experience.

The play is a fast-paced comedic mash-up of spy novel action, conspiracy theories and Hitchcock references turned upside down. There are car chases, dangerous femme fatales, a sinister espionage gang, and romance.

Director Robby Henson dubs the play "50 percent Hitchcock and 50 percent Monty Python."

"The play is really about the magic of theater and how the mysterious setting of a film-noir movie can be transposed and recreated on a stage," Henson says.

"It's the longest-running Broadway comedy in New York right now," he said, "This is the first chance many will get to see this awesome play."

One of the main differences between the Broadway production and the Pioneer Playhouse mounting will be cast size. Bigelow's script calls for four actors to play dozens of parts, but Robby Henson is opening up his version to an expanded cast.

"We opened it to a larger cast for two reasons," Henson says. "First, we have a 10-day rehearsal process, and if only four characters were playing all 30 roles, you would need a week just to rehearse the quick-change costume changes, and we don't have that kind of rehearsal time. And also, we are an ensemble company of 20, and it allows more of our cast to be creative when we expand the number of actors in the show."

Charlotte Henson, 80, who serenades diners on her guitar each night, can be credited with adding The 39 Steps to the theater's season. She picks the lineup of plays each year and had been waiting for the play to become available.

"In the fall, she will read hundreds of scripts and then decide our season for us," says Holly Henson, who also is the theater's artistic director.

"She has been trying to get the script to The 39 Steps for a while now," she says, "and as soon as it became available we jumped on it."

Holly Henson says this kind of show is what Pioneer Playhouse is all about.

"This is exactly what my father set up Pioneer Playhouse to do: to bring Broadway to the Bluegrass," she says. "He started his career in New York City and always had a fondness for it. In that sense, I think we are being more true to our roots this year than ever."