Those of us in the (unofficial) Matthew McGee Fan Club weren't at all surprised to learn that the longtime Show Palace Dinner Theatre artistic director has left the building, as the saying goes.
Earlier this week, Show Palace co-owner Nick Sessa told me that Matt has resigned, and in the wake of his and stage manager Susan Haldeman's decisions to leave, the 15-year-old venue is going to do a total revamping of its offerings (more on that below) once the current season ends May 16.
For the past few years, we've watched McGee wow the crowds at American Stage, St. Pete Opera Company and freeFall Theatre in St. Petersburg, spend summers in Georgia at the Peach State Summer Theatre, jet off to other venues to share his considerable talents, and pop up in numerous television commercials.
In between, he's written and directed several shows at the Show Palace, sat through endless auditions to find just the right person to play a part in a show and worked with the rest of the Show Palace staff to choose shows they thought their audiences wanted to see.
But through it all, we knew his heart and soul were up on a stage, doing what he does best: singing, acting, clowning, ad-libbing, vamping and gathering even more people for his (unofficial) Matthew McGee Fan Club.
And now that's what he'll be doing, only all the time.
Sessa, of course, was sad over the two departures. But, in the best theater tradition, he is using the big changes to make big changes at the theater so the shows can — and will — go on.
The biggest change is that he and co-owner Tommy Mara are getting out of the production end of the business and doing what other major venues in the Tampa Bay area do, which is to provide the venue and building staff, then contract with professional production companies to bring in shows.
Vicki Mara, who has managed her husband Tommy's career for decades, is forming Show Palace Entertainment, a production company that will put together the shows and sell them as a package deal to the Show Palace. This means that once the Show Palace Dinner Theatre decides what shows it wants, Mrs. Mara will choose the show director, who will, in turn, choose the performers and oversee the costumes. She's working with Actors Equity so she can get Equity performers for her shows and is already talking with potential directors, including McGee.
For their part, the theater will provide the stage, stage crew (led by Tom Hansen), the sets, the food prep and serving staff, the sound system (overseen by Gerald Michaels), and the ticket sales and marketing, similar to what the Straz Center in Tampa, Mahaffey Theatre in St. Petersburg and Eckerd Hall in Clearwater do.
The shows already on the schedule will be done by Mrs. Mara's company, right through DooWop Dreams that winds up June 16, 2013.
That's when the really big changes start.
Instead of doing back-to-back shows that run for up to eight weeks, the musicals and/or plays will run for four to six weeks each, with at least two-week breaks in between and a longer break during the summer.
During those breaks, the Show Palace will work with other production companies and performers to bring in a variety of shows — stand-up comics, children's shows, nostalgia acts, tribute shows, "ladies night out" acts, magic shows, big bands, comedies — anything that audiences say they want to see. Some will be "one night only"; others will play a weekend or week, perhaps more.
The pricing structure will be fluid, Sessa said. The big shows and big names will, of course, demand bigger prices. Smaller and less-known shows will go for less. Some shows will be a dinner and show package; others will be show only with a full bar and light menu at additional cost.
"We've done a few of those shows already and have been doing them at the Palace Grand for a long time," Sessa said. They've gone over well — most of them sold out, with audiences begging for more.
What the Show Palace is doing only makes sense. A constant program of musical after musical after musical appeals only to a certain audience. The new format will have something for every age and every taste. Some of the shows will work just fine at the Palace Grand, but many of the more complicated shows need the full theatrical system that only the Show Palace can provide.
"Once they get in here and see what we have, they'll want to come back for other things," Sessa said.
That's what they call growing your audience.