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Infighting at Stage West leads to cancellation of January musical; revue will take its place

SPRING HILL — From time to time over the years, discord has simmered at Stage West Community Playhouse, something not all that unusual in theater, where feelings and emotions are often close to the surface and volunteers sometimes misunderstand, or overestimate, the limits of their authority.

It flared up 15 years ago, when two Stage West stalwarts left the theater and started raising money to build a $10 million performing arts center in Hernando County that could have been direct competition for Stage West customers. The project fell apart, but not until after the group dropped $220,000 in donations on public relations and architect fees, an amount that many at Stage West wistfully say could have gone far in wiping out the theater's debts.

More recently, two overeager volunteers forged ahead on projects the theater's board had just begun to talk about — new stairs from the theater floor up to the stage and a makeover of the weed-choked ellipse between the theater and the parking lot. Before the board had a chance to allocate money and draw up plans, the old stairs were in the trash, the new ones didn't meet county codes, and the ellipse had been turned into a park-like setting, with expensive lights, benches, brick paths and landscaping. All without board approval.

And now, the year 2016 will start with what might be a first for the 35-year-old theater: cancellation of a scheduled show, Cole Porter's High Society, a musical based on the Katharine Hepburn movie, The Philadelphia Story, set to run Jan. 14 to 24. And it's not for the usual reason in the loss of performing rights to another theater company.

Call it a kerfuffle.

There will be a show. But it's going to be a hastily-put-together musical, Bits of Broadway — "songs we have been doing" in previous shows, said Dalton Benson, president of the theater's board. Benson will write introductions for each number, and Lynda Dilts-Benson will direct it, said Kathy Capelle, the theater's marketing and publicity director.

It is unclear how it will all come together. As of early this week, it hadn't been written or cast. Many of the theater's regulars have other obligations during rehearsal and performance time, both personally and at other venues. And many familiar faces have left the theater because of personality clashes, Benson said.

"Unfortunately, drama doesn't stay on the stage," Capelle said.

The situation started eight months ago when the theater board chose the musicals and plays for the 2015-16 season. They lined up directors, including one for High Society — John Masterson, a seasoned, award-winning actor and director at both Stage West and Richey Suncoast Theatre, among others.

"The whole reason we did (High Society) is because John Masterson wanted to direct it," Benson said. "It's really a dog, in my opinion."

Indeed, although the 1956 movie musical starring Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly was mildly successful, the 1998 Broadway musical played only 144 regular performances, a number considered to be a flop. Even so, Masterson said he had directed the show before at other theaters to great success, Benson said.

Then three or four months ago, "John Masterson left the theater in a huff because he got into a (verbal) fight with David Hartley," a lighting designer and relative newcomer to Stage West, Benson said. "(Masterson) gave an ultimatum: 'Get rid of David, or I will resign.'"

Benson paused.

"David can be abrasive," he mused.

As for Masterson, "I call him a curmudgeon," Benson said.

A few weeks ago, the director of the comedy Don't Drink the Water, Rich Krasowski, volunteered to direct High Society. Krasowski boasts an impressive resume — degrees in theater, music education, speech and communications; voice lessons with theater professionals; and direction of three comedies at Stage West. But by the time he took over, it was late in the game, both for actors and for finding a musical director.

"Nobody really came out who could fit the lead (role)," Benson said.

So, Krasowski cast himself in the lead, a move not expressly forbidden at Stage West, but one that is frowned upon by the board and resented by those thinking about trying out for a part.

Actually, few people showed up for auditions, and most later dropped out, Benson said. Perhaps one reason, he said, was that Krasowski scheduled rehearsals for six nights a week. Others might have felt a lingering loyalty to Masterson.

"Rich called me (Nov. 15) and said, 'I don't think I can make this work for the theater,'" Benson said.

Benson called an emergency board meeting, and it's there that the idea for Bits of Broadway came up.

Benson said he is going to reach out to some of the actors who have left over personality clashes and ask them to be in the show. He said Hartley has "taken a leave of absence" and won't be at the theater, which could smooth some ruffled feathers.

"I'm trying to be a peacemaker," Benson said. "We have space and room for everyone."

Still, Benson plans to leave the board in June. "I'm very dedicated," he said, but he prefers to direct or perform in shows.

"I love performing; I work very, very hard at it," he said.

Meanwhile, Capelle is upbeat about the substitute show.

"Traditionally, our (musical) revue shows are well attended," she said. "And members will definitely get their money's worth."

Infighting at Stage West leads to cancellation of January musical; revue will take its place 11/26/15 [Last modified: Thursday, November 26, 2015 4:14pm]
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