If you think you saw a rosy glow coming from central Spring Hill last Sunday night, be assured it wasn't a nuclear attack. It wasn't a house fire; it wasn't even a wiener roast.
It was the glow coming from Stage West Community Playhouse, where the cast and crew of the musical Chicago were throwing a spirited postproduction party celebrating the astounding success of their show. Even though the theater added a performance Saturday afternoon, every single seat, including a couple of plastic lawn chairs, was sold out for the last six performances.
"It was totally amazing," said Paulette Hess, the production coordinator. "Even with the extra performance, we still turned people away. It was a fabulous run." (Do the math — almost $50,000 in ticket sales.)
Now comes the big question: What can Stage West do to keep the momentum going? The rest of the season includes three serious dramas (A Streetcar Named Desire on the Main Stage, with Proof and Doubt, A Parable in the Forum) and what is arguably one of the stalest, lamest comedies in theater, Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park, as well as the old chestnut The Music Man.
Are all five of those productions likely to keep the Chicago lovers happy? And, perhaps more important, will they send them into the lobby to buy tickets for future shows, as Chicago did?
I've often said that the toughest job in theater belongs to the people choosing the shows. You can have the best musicians, singers, dancers and actors in the business, but if the show doesn't make people flock to the ticket office, it's all for naught.
Of course, every show can't be a Chicago. Just ask the folks at Show Palace Dinner Theatre, where the musical's 2004 attendance record still stands.
Even so, there are lots of terrific shows out there that people want to see: The Producers, La Cage aux Folles, The Full Monty (the book and music are so good, it doesn't really need the nude scene), Monty Python's Spamalot, Mamma Mia, Cats, Rent, Wicked, Les Miserables, even Mary Poppins, to name a few.
Chicago proved that Stage West can do them all, and that the audiences are sophisticated enough to hear and see raunchy language and situations without walking out. And with Hernando Symphony Orchestra making its home at Stage West starting next year, music directors will have a terrific pool of performers at their fingertips.
As far as for nonmusicals, the quirky Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks in Stage West's Forum this year proved that even relatively unknown shows can pull 'em in once the word gets out how good they are. In fact, the unknowns often do better at all theaters than the so-called tried and true, which shall go unnamed to protect the innocent. In this economy, people don't want to pay to see something they've seen … and seen … and seen.
The challenge is to find more Six/Six's or musicals that sell. Sure, dramas are fun for the actors and for those of us who worship at the altars of Eugene O'Neill, Henrik Ibsen, Tennessee Williams, et al. But unless a theater has a huge endowment or lots of government support, this market won't support a program dominated by serious drama. Or by over-the-hill, shopworn comedies.
It has been said that critics are the people who go down on the battlefield after the fight to shoot the wounded, so I'm not really in the business of giving advice in advance. But if I were, I'd advise the board of directors at Stage West to hold a confab and reconsider their final Main Stage show. It's six months away, and I truly don't think anyone would cry — or turn back their tickets — if the board changed the show from Barefoot to a rollicking farce, fresh new comedy, or even a classic like Blithe Spirit, which packed 'em in when Avenue Players did it at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art a few seasons back.
Speaking of success, film fest was fantastic
I love good movies as much as I do live theater, but I rarely go these days, not because there aren't good films — there are — but because of the awful behavior of the patrons. Cellphones, text messaging, loud talking, smelly food, howling kids, latecomers, early leavers — they all conspire to ruin the whole experience.
Perhaps this is why I enjoyed the inaugural edition of the Thomas Meighan Film Festival at Richey Suncoast Theatre in New Port Richey on Nov. 12. The 200 to 250 people in the beautifully redecorated 1930s movie house were true film fans and as respectful and appreciative of the nine short films from all over the world as any audience listening to Renée Fleming at the Metropolitan Opera.
The founders — Robert Mateja, Deborah Pentivolpi, and Charlie and Marie Skelton — were positively giddy throughout the evening, delighted they were realizing their longtime dream of a locally produced film fest.
Many in the audience were veterans of the beloved Black Maria Film + Video Festival, which will make its third appearance at Richey Suncoast in the spring, but some were simply movie buffs who had read about the festival in the newspaper and came to check it out.
The films were first rate from beginning to end. Some were documentaries, like Hollywood East: Florida's Silent Film Legacy, the 29-minute history of the film industry in Jacksonville, once home to more than 30 movie studios. It made me want to jump in my car and drive up there to see Norman Studios, which is being restored to its former glory and will open as a film museum within the next few years. The other eight included the story of the largest shopping mall in the world, the South China Mall in southern China that was built far away from any airport, highway system or population center and now stands almost empty, its indoor amusement park rides and upscale shops devoid of people; a two-minute warning about the diminishing amount of metals in the world; and the sorrowful tale of Titusville, the east Florida coastal town that blossomed with the space industry and is now wilting.
Other films were filled with whimsical images, parables and political questions that made me wish for a postshow talk-back to see what others in the theater thought they meant. Beauty for beauty's sake? A call to action? A new way of showing an old subject?
The enthusiasm was high, and I can only hope it translates into more locally produced films and videos for next year's Thomas Meighan Film Festival.
Oh, yes, indeed. The backers assure me there will be a next time.