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Theater abuzz in off-season

Normally this time of year, Richey Suncoast Theatre is as quiet as a sports bar after the NBA playoffs. The old season is finished, the new one has not begun and people are just catching their breath.

Not so this summer. Activity at Richey Suncoast has rarely been more frenetic.

One reason is that Friday was the last day members could retain their seats for the upcoming season, and many were scrambling to do so. Of course, some didn't get around to it, so the 200 or so on a waiting list for some of those choice seats will probably be in line this morning to get the best they can.

On top of that, the season-opening musical A Chorus Line has been cast and is in full rehearsal three or four times a week, with the associate sounds of music and dance.

Still another reason for racket is that tickets have gone on sale for the summer special, Broadway Tonight, a Musical Revue, set for 8 p.m. July 15 and 2:30 p.m. July 16.

To borrow a title from Broadway, The Bells are Ringing . . . and ringing . . . and ringing . . . in the Richey Suncoast box office.

Broadway Tonight is a reprise of the variety show Irv Clark and Friends that played to packed houses at Stage West Community Playhouse in Spring Hill in February. It started out as a one-night stand, went to two sold-out performances, but still left more than 200 people asking for tickets.

It's a showcase of a baker's dozen of community theater superstars from Tampa, Largo, Clearwater, Oldsmar, Spring Hill, Brooksville and New Port Richey.

I dropped in on rehearsal Wednesday night and was delighted to see some of my favorite players _ pixie-ish Betsy Glasson in her South Pacific sailor suit, tenor Irv Clark and soprano Monica Mills singing a medley from Showboat and singer/dancer/producer/director Ray Hill in a grass hula skirt. All have won coveted HAMI awards at Stage West _ Hill more than any other person in the theater's history _ and have been at Richey Suncoast before, so regulars should know to expect something good.

I was equally delighted to see several players new to Richey's stage, but well known and very much in demand in other venues.

One is Rodney Ritter, who wowed audiences as the lecherous old nobleman in the uproarious comedy The Amorous Flea at Francis Wilson Playhouse in Clearwater last season. I embarrassed myself by bursting into applause at the end of his rehearsal piece, Middle Age Blues from Bring Back Birdie, but I just couldn't help it. What a showman!

Ritter is just as good slithering around the stage as the Devil doing Those Were the Good Old Days, a paean to all of history's evils from the musical Damn Yankees.

You could build an entire show around this one actor, and I can only hope that since he has found his way to New Port Richey, he'll be coming back for a full-run production soon.

Meanwhile, Richey Suncoast's president-elect Chris Dunne says 1995-96 season ticket sales are going like gangbusters.

Besides the regulars, more than 300 new people have signed up for the Membership Season, the original five-show series of two plays and three musicals. Perhaps more impressive, more than 150 new customers have bought season tickets for the Encore Season, the so-called alternative series of shows started a few years ago to showcase new or unusual offerings.

The new Encore format of a very audience-friendly drama, musical and farce has no doubt boosted those sales. With tickets at only $25 for all three shows, I predict a scramble at the box office.

Incidentally, Dunne is directing the Encore musical, Sugar Babies, and his reputation should draw some outstanding talent. Dunne's two previous musicals set attendance records, 1994's Evita with 4,100 patrons and 1995's Camelot with 3,900.

Tickets for Broadway Tonight are $10; the five-show Membership Season is $40. The box office is open 2 to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Call (813) 842-6777 or go by during those same hours.

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