Over a touch more than 14 days I attended four stage productions — two traditional main stage productions presented in a major, traditional regional theater complex and two non-traditional shows performed in more imaginative local performance spaces. These experiences suggest an interesting transition that appears to be developing in live theater.
Local, mostly small, theaters groups appear to be thriving and attracting audiences of experienced and novice theater-goers. While a distressing number of performing arts organizations are “greying,” with little sense for how to reenergize their attendee bases, local theater appears to have found a way to broaden their participant bases. Symphony orchestras are a regretful example of this dilemma. As a seventy-two year old symphony goer, I frequently feel like a “young’n” at a less than fully subscribed concert. Unmistakably, culturally and age-diverse programming is the problem. The solution is less apparent.
Local, community-based theater companies are able to employ young performing and staging talent, experienced local professionals and frequently Actor’s Equity and Screen Actors Guild performers. The financial concessions made by union talent are the subject of another discussion. Availability of such a diverse talent pool, however, allows local producers/directors to compete effectively with better established, less flexible companies and are thus able to mount outstanding, professional-quality productions.
The four shows I attended were diverse, to say the least. I will attempt to weave some of these observations into my comments on these productions.
“The Book of Mormon” dealt irreverently, disrespectfully and hilariously with the Mormon Church by focusing on its highly successful, and visible, missionary program. Interestingly, the sold-out performances included many Mormons as well as others whose interest in the LDS Church was stimulated by the current presidential campaign. If you like the TV series “South Park,” you’ll love “The Book of Mormon.” Mezzanine level seats for this touring Broadway blockbuster cost $125.00. In the Big Apple a similar seat would cost about $500.00.
The second main-stage production was a revival the “La Cage aux Folles” the 1973 French play that premiered in 1983 as a musical. For reasons I do not understand, tickets for this performance were priced at $84 for mezzanine level seats. The $125 seats for “The Book of Mormon” were a lot better value than the $84 “La Cage” seats. This show was artless — poorly staged, badly acted and featured the has-been (perhaps, never was) actor George Hamilton. Mr. Hamilton is the textbook theatrical triple threat — he can neither act, nor dance nor sing. Casting Hamilton in one of the show’s leading roles (Renato Baldi) was a cheesy trick to sell tickets to a less-than-mediocre production.
Two non-traditional productions saved the day (14 of them actually.) The first was a regional premier of an edgy drama about professional wrestling - “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.” This racially and culturally charged drama was performed on a simple set featuring a wrestling ring. The action was a series of metaphors that suggested that most of us are merely supporting characters for the action that goes on inexorably around us. This play was staged in a small converted church with plenty of free parking with top of the line seating starting at $25.00. Lighting, sound and set design were unique and excellent. The performance was followed by the “thinking person’s delight,” the “talk back.”
The final show was an original “musical” based on “The Scarlet Letter” — Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 romantic novel. Written by local playwright Melissa Faith Hart, this most unlikely “musical” has been performed by two local theater companies. Using “less-is-more” staging, sets and costumes this play wowed a varied age and culturally diverse audience in a shiny new and accessible community theater for only about $30.00 for mezzanine level seats.
These latter productions may be the prototype of “the very model of the modern theater” to paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance.” Creative use of talent coupled with agile, cost-sensitive production values and the willingness and ability to produce the new, affordable, accessible and unique subject matter. While there will always be a place for big theater productions, local theaters like Anchorage, Alaska’s Cyrano’s Theater Company will keep live, unique drama (and comedy) alive and well. New talent — actors, directors and writers — will flourish while performing for audiences hungry for original and thought-provoking subject matter.