Chasing Space & High Profiles
In D.C., an eviction brings out the best in the theatre community. In Atlanta, producers promote bringing their best to New York.
Space is, indeed, the final frontier for many small theatres in the Washington area. Without some fancy footwork, it could also be the final curtain. While problems always exist for many companies, two of Washington's most established groups are facing immediate problems. The Washington Stage Guild, long a producer, with some exceptions, of classic drama from the late 1800s to the first half of the 20th century, is losing its space. The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington will be taking the beautiful Carroll Hall theatre that has been the Guild's home for many years, and subdividing it into offices.
While the Stage Guild's future is anything but secure, for the coming season it has been the beneficiary of the kindness of one of Washington's other theatres, the Source Theatre Company. Source Artistic Director Joe Banno came up with the idea of offering his group's space to the Stage Guild for several productions and, with the enthusiastic support of the Source Managing Director Lisa Middleton, presented the idea to a willing board. "What they did was great," enthused Ann Norton, one of the guiding lights of the Washington Stage Guild. "They called us out of the blue, unsolicited."
"We feel like the members of the Stage Guild are old friends of ours," explained Banno. "The Stage Guild was really born out of Source many years ago with a production of Heartbreak House, and we have shared wonderful actors over the intervening years." Banno also pointed out that having the Stage Guild in for two full productions and filling two of Source's After Shock slots (a late-night production series) will give his theatre a breather on what had been shaping up as a packed season. "We can now do a five-show main-stage season plus our annual festival at a civilized pace," said Banno.
Meanwhile, the Washington Stage Guild is keeping its collective fingers crossed. It is aligned with a developer bidding on a multi-use space in prime real estate on Seventh Street, across from the Shakespeare Theatre. The property, currently owned by the Government Services Administration, has a clause in the bidding proposal requirements for a theatrical space to be included in any plans submitted. The final selection will be announced shortly.
Another contractor is affiliated with The Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Arena Stage, once considered a front-runner, recently dropped out of the project based on audience response that indicated the current space was acceptable and that the money should focus on the artistry-proving, once again, the audience is (usually) always right.
Several Atlanta shows are busting box-office records, attracting out-of-towners who may take these local hits on tour or Off-Broadway. The late and fabled songwriter Harry Chapin collaborated with Atlanta's Tom Key on Cotton Patch Gospel, whose revival at Key's downtown Theatrical Outfit had already reaped a record $270,000 in the month after its July 14 opening (closed Aug. 29). Carolyn Rossi Copeland of Madison Square Garden Productions has seen this latest Broadway-style incarnation of Gospel, directed by and starring Key; the two huddled in New York on Sept. 1 about a tour.
Across town, at Actor's Express, an original comedy-drama Rescue and Recovery, by indigenous movie critic-playwright Steve Murray, is extending its sold-out run to Sept. 26 (opened July 9). It's also pulling in artistic directors James Nicola (New York Theatre Workshop) and Douglas Carter Bean (the Drama Dept.) for talks about future Gotham stagings. The most fully realized of Murray's many scripts, Rescue gradually forsakes its rapier one-liners for passionate introspection by newly gay protagonist Cameron (Brad Sherrill). Cameron finds gay men as confounding as wife and family in this uproarious but contemplative odyssey. At times pat and peculiarly class conscious, Rescue nevertheless satisfies a yen for humor and for soul. Chris Coleman's broad and tender direction is buttressed by actor Jeff McKerley as a clown who can ache.
Two original shows recently premiered at leading experimental theatres-at Dad's Garage successfully so, in creator-director Mike Katinsky's musical parody Viva Los Alamos: The Lost Elvis Movie (Aug. 4-28), which put Michael A. Schneider in a star-making role, was enhanced by Hope Mirlis' sly choreography. The adventurous Push Push Theatre workshop again took chances in Cary Bynum's aspiring thriller The Festival (July 30-Aug. 28). This was absolutely a work in progress that was piquant at best and incomprehensible at worst.
Horizon Theatre garnered lush box-office returns from what Artistic Director Lisa Adler calls its "first commercial run" outside of its home space. Cowgirls played July 16-Aug. 29, at the 14th Street Playhouse, a brighter venue which virtually doubled the troupe's usual seating capacity (up from 180 to 375). Smartly directed by Heidi Cline, this sendup of classics and bluegrass showcased firecracker-sharp Beverly Blouin, Rebekah Baty, and Keely Brown.
The New Jersey Theatre Group has published its calendar for the upcoming season, running through July 2000. It lists shows for all 19 members, plus 11 affiliates, and is available by calling (973) 593-0189. The best buy is the Sampler Series-a choice of one show from three different theatres, for $60.
McCarter Theatre, Princeton, received an $800,000 challenge grant from the Kresge Foundation, Troy, Mich., for the construction of a 350-seat second stage and the creation of an endowment fund.
Michael Stotts, managing director of the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival in Madison for the past nine years, is joining the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick in the same capacity. He had been thinking about a change, he said, when the Playhouse job opened after the unexpected departure of Tom Werder. Stotts is leaving a company that last season opened a new 308-seat theatre at a cost of $7.5 million and has an annual budget of $1.8 million. He starts, in October, at a 380-seat LORT theatre with a $3.5 million budget. The Shakespeare Festival, which begins performances Sept. 7 of the American premiere of the musical Enter the Guardsman, has launched a national search for a replacement for Stotts.
Other staff changes in Jersey include: Leon Denmark, former executive director of the Apollo Theatre in Harlem and producing director of the Negro Ensemble Company, is the new vice president for programming at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark. He replaces Stephanie Hughley. Two River Theatre Company Founder Robert M. Rechnitz assumes the new position of executive producer of this Red Bank-based company devoted to the classics. He will focus on funding and overseeing construction of a 250-seat, $4 million theatre. Jonathan Fox, now managing director, becomes the artistic director. Robert Ihde, former producing director of StageWest in Springfield, Mass., assumes Two River's managing director position. Back at the George Street Playhouse, Allison Sussman, new associate director of education and outreach, replaces Rachel Resinski.
The Forum Theatre Company, Metuchen, has announced its 17th season: Mating Habits of the Urban Mammal, Oct. 9-31; The Last Night of Ballyhoo, Nov. 13-Dec. 5; Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Feb. 5-27, and a TBA musical, May 6-28.
Gretchen C. Van Benthusen
The Publick Theatre finished its season-just barely-with a production of the musical Nine that received generally favorable reviews despite unfocused (albeit energetic) direction and an embarrassing central performance by the company's artistic director, Spiro Veloudos.
The cast comprises one man and 21 women, and some of the latter were fine, particularly Elaina Vrattos as the bawdily inspirational whore Sarraghina, and Maryann Zschau as the long-suffering wife of Guido Contini, a film director with career and woman problems. Kathy St. George had her moments as producer Liliane la Fleur, but her constant mugging got old fast. The show belongs to Guido, though, and Veloudos, in his first public performance in seven years, was simply inadequate. His Guido bellowed and gestured and sweated without actually creating a character, and his singing was appalling. Most of the local reviewers said much the same thing but gave him a pass, citing his many services to Boston theatre.
Halfway through the show's run, Veloudos announced that his theatre had run out of money and might have to close down. A successful plea for contributions, along with a reduction in the musical accompaniment and a deferment of pay for company staff, saved the day, and the production closed Aug. 29, as scheduled-but the Publick's future is in question.
Last year, the Worcester Foothills Theatre presented The Great American Backporch Vaudeville Revue, about which this column waxed enthusiastic. The author, retiring Foothills Founder Marc Smith, has slimmed down cast (to five), length (to just over an hour), and title (to Backporch Vaudeville), and produced it all this summer at the Seven Hills Country Inn in Lenox, Mass. The show is still completely entertaining, the cast is first-rate, and Smith hopes to make this production an annual event.
A new theatre company, Second Stage, presented the New England premiere of Neil Simon's most recent play, Proposals (Aug. 4-15). Even subpar Simon has its moments, and this tale of relationships at a summer cottage is definitely subpar Simon. The set was convincing, though, and the performances-considering that the characters are nothing but stereotypes-were generally good, particularly Joseph Zamparelli, Jr., as the brash outsider Vinnie Bavasi, and Joylette Porlock as the family maid who narrates the play. Nancy Curran Willis directed.
Theatre Works is presenting the west coast premiere of Douglas Carter Beane's As Bees in Honey Drown. This cutting-edge satire is perfect for director Danny Scheie, whose genius for stylish theatrics is most evident in this splendid production-with settings by Iva Walton, costumes by Ardith Ann Gray, and a droll sound design by Robby MacLean. Of course, the success of this comedy relies on the actress playing Alexa Vere de Vere (a hilarious m lange of Holly Golightly, Sally Bowles, and Auntie Mame), and Rebecca Dines is a remarkable delight. Michael DeGood, as Alexa's vulnerable victim, creates a perfect foil. As Bees in Honey Drown plays Mountain View Center's Second Stage, through Oct. 3.
The Plush Room in the York Hotel is celebrating its 75th anniversary as San Francisco's leading cabaret (arguably, one of the finest in the country) and the York's administrationPhillip A. Wach, general manager, and Cabaret Manager Trevor Logancontinues to book a stunning line-up of cabaret's finest.
Currently, multi-award-winner Rita Moreno is performing her first-ever cabaret act, through Sept 26. After which she takes her show to the Oak Room at New York's Algonquin Hotel. Paula West, the hot jazz singer, is booked Oct 5-17, and Lanie Kazan follows Oct. 19-31. Local favorite divas will usher out the year: Sharon McNight (Nov. 3-14) and the incomparable Welsa Whitfield, with Mike Greensill. That duo also rings in the new century with a 2000 Millennium Celebration, Nov. 16-Dec. 31.
Andrea Marcovicci, who began her singing career at the Plush Room, returned to San Francisco for a limited engagement (Sept. 8-2) in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, by Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner. Presented by 42nd Street Moon, which produces "Lost Musicals," the concert version co-starred Michael DeVries and played San Francisco's The Gershwin Theatre.
San Francisco Opera's new season opened Sept 11 with Verdi's The Masked Ball, followed by a new production of Charpentier's Louise, starring Renee Fleming, Samuel Ramey, and Jerry Hadley (Sept. 13-Oct. 2).
Offstage plans for the next century loom as large as those onstage for the coming season in the Midlands. Kansas City members of Actors' Equity and AFTRA have formed a committee to advocate the hiring of minority actors and those with disabilities. The group has based its mission on the unions-backed Non-Traditional Casting Project.
In St. Louis, the Black Repertory Company hopes to play New York with Pearl Cleage's Bourbon at the Border, which it presented in St. Louis last season and at the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C., during the summer. Ron Himes, producing director, is looking to the New Federal Theatre to produce the drama; he and Linda Kennedy will reprise their leading roles.
At the same time, the theatre is planning a major capital campaign to remodel the long-vacant, decrepit movie house across the street from its current home in midtown St. Louis. Built in 1913 and known variously as the Liberty, the Victoria, the Lyn, and the Sun, it would house a small theatre, a black box, and rehearsal, shop, and office space for the Black Rep.
Himes also announced the 1999-2000 season, its 23rd, beginning with Ruby Dee's My One Good Nerve, in October at the St. Louis Community College at Forest Park. The season formally begins in January with August Wilson's Fences, continues in successive months with Ain't Misbehavin', Steal Away, The African Company Presents Richard III, and The Wiz.
The Kansas City-based Missouri Repertory Theatre, in the curtain-call season for George Keathley as artistic director, opens Sept. 10 with Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile, and will stage Ronald Harwood's Taking Sides, Mois s Kaufman's Gross Indecency: the Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, Chekhov's The Sea Gull, and Terence McNally's Master Class, in addition to its annual presentation of A Christmas Carol.
And the Kansas City Coterie Theatre, which often celebrates midwest roots, opens in October with The Little Tommy Parker Celebrated Minstrel Show, set in Hannibal, Mo., in the 19th century and written by Carlyle Brown-author of the above-mentioned The African Company Presents Richard III. The New Theatre Restaurant begins with Ken Ludwig's Moon Over Buffalo, starring Jamie Farr and Dodie Brown, Sept. 2-Nov. 7.