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Saturday, May 18, 2024

‘The Prom,’ ‘SpongeBob the Musical’ among 7 premieres coming from local theater companies

Theater companies, including Opera House Theater Company and Thalian Association, often rent the main stage for their musicals, while Big Dawg Productions accesses Thalian’s second-floor Ruth and Bucky Stein Theater for more intimate plays throughout the year. (Courtesy Thalian Hall)

WILMINGTON — New year, new entertainment — at least that’s how it’s shaping up among three local theater companies that are bringing new works to audiences through the next year-and-a-half.

Among the 23 productions that Thalian Association Community Theater, Big Dawg Productions and Opera House Theatre Company will present in their new seasons, one-third will be Wilmington premieres.

READ MORE: ‘The Wedding Singer,’ ‘Something Rotten!’ premiere as part of Thalian Association’s 2022-2023 season

“I think last year we applied for over 30 titles,” OHTC executive artistic director Justin Smith told Port City Daily. 

The company received the greenlight for just over half, yet still had to whittle it down to shows that aligned with the company’s creative goals. The executive director said obtaining royalties is only one step in curating a season.

“Then you start checking the boxes for each of the shows,” Smith said. “Is there a director in mind? A good vehicle for one of the actors? When was the last time [this show] was done? How did it do last time? If it’s a premiere, how did it do on tour? On Broadway?”

“The Prom” was a musical that debuted on Broadway in 2018 and thereafter moved into film and TV writer Ryan Murphy’s hands (“American Horror Story,” “Pose”); it debuted on Netflix in 2020. The musical has not had a stage performance in Wilmington yet and is slated to end Opera House’s season this fall.

“Like ‘Kinky Boots,’” which closed Jan. 16, “it is such a fun and poignant show,” Smith said. “Great music, fun choreography.”

Yet, “The Prom,” a Drama Desk winner in 2019, also comes with a message of inclusion. It follows four Broadway actors who travel to Indiana to offer advocacy and help to a lesbian student who is banned from bringing her girlfriend to the high school rite of passage. The local PTA members cancel the prom when they hear a same-sex couple wants to attend.

Smith has cast Wilmington actor Jeff Phillips as Barry Glickman, whose character in the play has won a Drama Desk Award and is “a narcissistic Broadway actor,” Phillips described. It’s his first time returning to the stage since he performed in “La Cage aux Folles” a month-and-a-half before the Covid-19 pandemic shut down the world.

Phillips said he was drawn to “The Prom” because he loves its humor. The show was written by Chad Beguelin and Bob Martin — the latter of whom is behind “The Drowsy Chaperone,” which Phillips performed in years ago.  

“The story is funny and touching,” Phillips said. “The music is great and the dancing will be awesome. I am so excited to be working with our director, Carson Rudisill Hobbs.”

It will mark the directorial debut of Hobbs for OHTC. She has toured with Broadway productions including “Wicked” and has TV credits such as “One Life to Live.”

Smith said the show homes in on one of the season’s main focuses: diversity.

It is also what Big Dawg Productions executive director Steve Vernon considered while putting together a new season. 

“I’m excited by the breadth of [our] shows and how they involve characters from a wide array of ethnicities and experiences,” he told PCD.

Unlike Opera House — which does big song-and-dance numbers on Thalian’s main stage — Big Dawg focuses on “straight plays” in the 90-seat Ruth and Bucky Stein Theater on the second floor of Thalian Hall. Its first show of the season, “Airness” by Chelsea Marcantel, opens Feb. 9. The play won the 2018 American Theater Critics New Play Award.

“On the surface, it’s about people who enter air guitar competitions — a very real thing!” Vernon said. “I saw it as being about the search for community. The characters are trying to find a place in this world where they fit. They are looking for ways to be creative, as well as a sense of belonging to something higher than themselves.”

Vernon said it captured the essence of the season ahead for Big Dawg, as he was ruminating on how the pandemic disrupted life for everyone for two years.

“We were all in the same boat, but we all tried to paddle in different directions,” he said.
“In some ways we became closer and in some ways we became more fractured. I wanted to find shows that had a common thread but that spoke from individual experiences.” 

When balancing the roster of six productions scaled for the new season — five are debuts — Vernon considered the availability of local talent and also background knowledge, particularly with directors, that can heighten each production. 

“The first half of our season already has directors assigned,” he said. “I’m taking a little time to consider the second half.”

Other shows in the season include “Women Playing Hamlet,”  which focuses on an actress who lands the role of Shakespeare’s famed character, Hamlet, but questions her ability to see it through.

“I spoke with so many people during the pandemic who were struggling to re-discover their passions,” Vernon described. “So many of us began to doubt our worth and sense of place.”

In June, the company will do Lloyd Smith’s “The Chinese Lady,” a show based on the life of the first Chinese woman who came to America in the 1800s. Afong Moy influenced Americans’ perceptions of Asian culture and was considered a “side show curiosity.” 

“She was 14 and was paraded around the country as an ‘exhibition’ piece,” Vernon explained. ”Her ‘stage’ was a large box with doors, decorated with what white people at the time thought a typical Chinese person would surround themselves with. She managed to see our country in ways that we could not see it.” 

For Thalian Association Community Theater, artistic director Chandler Davis’ goal was to blend classics with family-friendly shows. It includes one premiere she is quite excited to see come to life: “SpongeBob the Musical” will be the season closer, to be staged in May 2024 (TACT is in the midst of its current season, which wraps May 28, 2023 with “The Wedding Singer”).

“‘SpongeBob’ was created for my generation,” the 37-year-old said. “Yes, kids are still watching it today, but the people who grew up with it are still fans.”

She calls the 2017 stage version “amazing.” It received 12 Tony nominations, including for Best Original Score, which received help from Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips on “Tomorrow Is.” “SpongeBob” won one Tony that year for Best Scenic Design of a Musical, as well as 2018’s Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards. 

“The music is fresh and catchy, and I believe it will be our most stunning show from a design perspective,” Davis said. “This is a show all ages can enjoy.” 

Other productions in the season include the tear jerker, yet poignantly funny, “Steel Magnolias” — plus a holiday season featuring a fan-favorite, “Elf,” which Thalian Association has done a few times before.

They originally had the stop-motion animation “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” scheduled, but on Thursday found out they had to switch their schedule.

“We lost ‘Rudolph’ as a tour is coming to Charlotte,” TACT executive director Susan Habas wrote to Port City Daily.

Its youth group hosted the production last year to much popularity.

As part of the 2023-2024 youth season, it will premiere Disney’s “Freaky Friday: A New Musical.” 

Davis is still sorting out the director for all shows and planning auditions, as TACT’s 2023-2024 season officially kicks off in fall 2023.

“My biggest criteria for directors is that they are kind and organized,” Davis said. “After that, I look at their ability to communicate and work with others, their passion for the project and their vision for the show. As a director of community theater, you have to find the balance between asking for a top-notch product for the audience to enjoy and remembering that you are working with volunteers who are there to have fun and have just done a full day’s work before coming to rehearsal.”

So what does it cost to scale a production?

Most community theater actors are volunteering time and talent, though to mount these productions is no easy feat. The financial encumbrances alone can reach into the triple digits. Smith said Opera House shows can cost upward of $110,000.

“We have so many generous people who step up year after year,” he said. “But it’s always a grind in this business.”

Opera House depends on roughly 60% ticket sales and 40% fundraising to cover expenditures. Inflation has escalated budgets to see through productions by more than 15%, according to Smith. This accounts for securing rights that have doubled over the last decade, as well as rent costs for Thalian Hall’s main stage.

“We have not been able to raise our ticket prices to the level we need to keep up,” he said, adding sales have remained strong, nonetheless, to keep the production company “thriving.”

Currently, the theater company is hosting a raffle to win Taylor Swift concert tickets in Nashville, with opener Phoebe Bridgers. All money raised help the season performances but also allow the company’s outreach in arts education.

TACT’s Habas said fundraisers, sponsorships, and grants are integral to the health of its nonprofit. TACT is hosting a Viking River Cruise raffle now and will produce “Divine Divas” this month at CFCC’s Union Station, with money helping offset productions that average $55,000.

“That is a tremendous amount of money, but compared to regional and Broadway budgets it is a very small budget,” she added. “Our creative teams, technical crews, actors, musicians, and volunteers work very hard to produce shows at a very high production level.”

As Big Dawg Productions prepares to open “Airness,” it hosted a fundraiser at Reggie’s 42nd Street mid-January. Air guitar contestants entered a friendly competition for a fee, with money helping finance the show’s upcoming two-weekend run. Vernon said Big Dawg’s budgets run approximately $7,000 to $8,000 per show — without accounting for rent, salaries, utilities, and so forth.

“Everything is more expensive now,” he said. “The costs of set materials have risen significantly. Royalties for shows have increased. Fundraising is a necessary component anyway, but even more so now. … Even if we sell every seat during a production run, which is not the case usually, it’s not enough to cover all costs.”

The guitar competition covered roughly $1,000 in costs for “Airness,” Vernon confirmed — basically enough for its royalties. Vernon said Big Dawg’s goal is to host a fundraiser ahead of each production this year. And while it helps with the bottom line, the recognition it brings to the association also benefits.

“We had numerous people there who had never heard of Big Dawg, that were curious enough to check an air guitar competition out,” he said. “Having a few dozen more people aware of the show that might otherwise not have been will hopefully provide even more ticket buyers. We are actually considering having three or four air guitar competitions a year as a continuing event, the feedback was so positive.”

Season tickets to Opera House, Big Dawg and Thalian Association shows are on sale now. Below are the lineup of productions:

Opera House Theatre Company

Season tickets here.

Adult Season
“Ring of Fire,” Feb. 24 – March 5
“Ragtime,” June 22 – July 2
“Disney’s Little Mermaid,” July 20 – Aug. 6
“Man of La Mancha,” Aug. 17 – 27
“The Prom,” Sept. 7 – 17

Thalian Association Community Theater

See the rest of the 2022-2023 season and ticket prices here. Thalian Association will also be producing “Beehive: The Musical” this summer at Kenan Auditorium.

Tickets to the 2023-2024 season open Aug. 21, 2023

Adult Season 2023-2024
“A Chorus Line,” Sept. 29 – Oct. 8
“Elf,” Dec. 8 – 17
“Steel Magnolias,” Feb. 9 – 18, 2024
“Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” April 5 – 14, 2024
“SpongeBob the Musical,” May 17 – 26, 2024

Youth Season 2023-2024
“The Sound of Music,” Sept. 15 – 24
“The Best Little Christmas Pageant Ever,” Nov. 17 – 26
“Disney’s Finding Nemo,” Jan. 19 – 28, 2024
“Madagascar, A Rookie Production,” March 15 – 24, 2024
“Freaky Friday,” April 26 – May 5, 2024

Big Dawg Productions

Tickets to the 2023 season here.

“Airness,” Feb. 9 – 19
“Two Jews Talking,” March 2 – 12
“Women Playing Hamlet,” March 30 – April 9
“The Chinese Lady,” June 8 – 18
“The Dog Logs,” Aug. 10 – 20 
“Waiting for Godot,” Oct. 12 – 22
“Bad Jews,” Dec. 7 – 17

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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