Pioneer Playhouse starts season with Elvis murder mystery

Published 3:16 pm Friday, June 2, 2023

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Pioneer Playhouse kicks off its 74th season on Friday, June 9. The outdoor theater’s 10-week season will feature a murder mystery with Elvis Presley, followed by two comedy shows and a standup comedy weekend.

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The theater is premiering for the first time “Blood Suede Shoes: A Sergeant Elvis Presley Murder Mystery,” written by Robby Henson, artistic director for Pioneer Playhouse. The show will run from June 9 to July 1, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8:30 p.m. and a dinner at 7 p.m.

The play is set in 1960 during the cold war, when a plane carrying a young Sergeant Elvis Presley has to make an emergency landing during stormy weather over Scotland. He ends up near a spooky castle where guests from London have gathered for a séance.

They soon have a murder to solve, and Elvis must use his common sense and military training to catch the killer.

Robby Henson came up with the idea for this play after audiences loved performances of “Clue: On Stage” two years ago. He’s previously written another Elvis-themed play, and wanted to mash those two ideas.

“What if you put Elvis Presley in a British Agatha Christie murder mystery? That just sounds like a fun combination,” Robby said.

He explained that there’s one truth to this story, which is where the plot originated. Elvis Presley served in the military in 1960. On his way home from Europe that year, Elvis actually changed planes at an airport in Glasgow, Scotland.

“I took that idea and said maybe he got waylaid in Scotland on a stormy night, and he walks into a seance where people are getting killed in a Scottish mansion and he has to solve the murder,” Robby said.

Pioneer Playhouse Managing Director Heather Henson said Robby wrote the play very quickly after the success of “Clue: On Stage.” She said audiences also loved Robby’s play “Breaking Up with Elvis” about four years ago, which is about Elvis’ death and the concert he never got to play.

“Elvis always does really well for us, our audiences just really like Elvis, so it was like, let’s do a ‘Clue’ with Elvis thrown in,” Heather said. “I think people will like the mystery, the comedy, the fact that it has Elvis, and it’s a young Elvis.”

Robby has written other plays, including “The Wonder Team” about a famous sports game at Centre College; and “Good Blues Tonight,” which celebrates Black culture and historic Black businesses on Second Street in Danville.

This season is featuring seven veteran Pioneer Playhouse actors, including Erika Lee Sengstack, Pat Hammond, Daniel Hall Kuhn, and Peyton White; and six new people including

Lissa Pope, Ariel Zoromski, and Daniel Bird Tobin, who is a new Centre College theater professor.

“I think that’s what I’m excited about for this season, we have this great mix of new people and old,” Heather said.

“Blood Suede Shoes” stars Jack Giglia as Elvis, who’s also a veteran actor. The show welcomes Kevin Hardesty playing a cruel psychologist. Heather explained that Hardesty has had a successful movie career and recently moved back to Kentucky. She said he has always wanted to work with the playhouse.

The playhouse will serve optional dinner at 7 p.m., and this year has a new menu. Heather said they usually serve BBQ, but wanted to offer something different in addition. They are serving a beef au jus French dip sandwich and a BBQ chicken breast, baked potato, cole slaw, and fresh vegetables.

This season is the third year of doing three plays instead of five. Heather explained that up until Covid, they did five shows in 10 weeks, but decided to rethink their schedule, as a three-play format is much easier on everyone.

“Honestly I cannot believe we used to do five shows,” Heather said. “So now we do three weeks instead of two weeks of a show, and that gives actors longer with their performances, and it gives people who are on vacation longer to come and see the show.”

Heather doesn’t think they’ll go back to four or five plays per summer; however, they end each season with a special guest weekend.

The next show will be “Farce of Nature” by Jamie Wooten, Jessie Jones, and Nicholas Hope, and will run from July 4 to July 22.

The comedy show centers on a fishing lodge in the Ozarks where business has been slow, until a gangster from Chicago shows up. He’s followed by many surprise guests, each with something fishy up their sleeves.

“Kosher Lutherans” by William Missouri Downs will go from July 25 to Aug. 12. In the show, an LA couple who want to have a baby of their own, but can’t, meet an unmarried 18-year-old runaway named Alison who’s pregnant. They agree to adopt Alison’s baby, but Alison doesn’t realize the couple are Jewish, which leads to some funny and heartwarming twists.

The season will end with a Stand-Up Comedy Weekend starring Lee Cruse from August 18-19. Cruse is the co-host of the popular ‘The Lee and Hayley Show’, airing locally on Channel 36. Heather said that Cruse has performed at Pioneer Playhouse three times before, but it’s been four years since they had him last.

Heather said they’re looking forward to the season, and are thinking about ways to celebrate the playhouse’s 75th anniversary next year.