Talent on Fire

Local theaters raise the bar

Ever hear the saying that quality begets quality? For proof, look around at local theater.

Working from the foundation of several strong theaters and a core of experienced talent, the community in the past several years has attracted scores of young, inspired professionals who are bent on making their mark. True to form, the existing theaters and talent pool have extended hands to the newcomers, creating a rising tide that … well, you get the picture.

The biggest winners in this scenario are local audiences. More than ever before, producers and directors are steering clear of smooth-but-tiresome waters and plunging into new dramatic territory. Examples from last season include: Southern Repertory Theatre’s premiere production of John Biguenet’s “Shotgun;” Jefferson Performing Arts Society’s bold staging (and the U.S. premiere) of Glyn Bailey’s “Scandalous! The Musical”; FourFront Productions’ presentation of “My First Time” and other shows at Southern Rep and Le Chat Noir.

Aimeé Hayes, artistic director at Southern Rep, predicts the trend will continue. She says the fall season on her stage not only offers “audience pleasers” but continues to raise the artistic bar. “The plays are super challenges to the actors and the artistic team, and they’re just riveting stories,” she says.

With the season opener, Michael Hollinger’s “Opus,” drawing to an end, Southern Rep is  gearing up for the regional premiere of “I Am My Own Wife” (Nov. 4-Dec. 6), the Tony award-winning play about a German transvestite who outwits the Nazis.

“The show has never been done here, which is odd, and it was time that our audiences in New Orleans see it — they have to see it,” Hayes says. “It sort of redefines what a one-man show can be.” Bob Eades stars and Carl Walker directs the production.

Next, Southern Rep launches into a “bacchanal” of original works, workshops and competitions aimed at giving fresh talent a leg up. Hayes hints that a big-name writer may be in the lineup for “an awesome three weeks” of learning and mentoring.

Perhaps nowhere is it more clear that local theater is shaking itself up than on New Orleans’ oldest stage. Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré has launched its 94th season, against the odds. “We’re in a much better place than we were five months ago,” says Manager Gary Solomon Jr.

Early this year it appeared Le Petit may have made its final curtain call. With expenses outpacing revenue and a debt load looming, the theater’s board laid off all staff and retrenched. Solomon says Le Petit is not out of the woods but is making progress. Subscription sales have been strong for what is “arguably, a really aggressive season,” he says.

After opening with Elton John and Tim Rice’s “Aida,” Le Petit this month offers the blockbuster “Damn Yankees” (Oct. 15-Nov. 1), and for the holidays will present a crowd-pleaser in Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” In May, the hit “Grey Gardens” comes to the stage through a collaboration with Southern Rep.
Meanwhile, downtown club Le Chat Noir Cabaret Theatre has lined up another season of fresh and unusual productions. Proprietor Barbara Motley can’t point to single unifying characteristic in the schedule. “I just love new work and the producers, directors and performers working in New Orleans who have the guts to try it,” she says.  

Motley says it helps that her bistro-style club is compact and intimate. “It’s a small space well-suited for shows without heavy overhead, and that keeps the focus on the work of the writers and the performers.”

This month Le Chat offers a “comedy festival” (Oct. 8-11) produced by Liam Kraus, and a funny take on the New Orleans Saints called “Bless You Boys” (Oct. 15-25). In November, watch for a local adaptation of Charles Mee’s Off Broadway hit oddity “Bobrauschenbergamerica.”

Jefferson Performing Arts Society keeps a focus on big musicals this season with Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” (Nov. 28-Dec. 13) and the stage adaptation of “Footloose” in January, both at Jefferson Performing Arts Center.

New Orleans will reach a new post-Katrina landmark late this month with an opening at Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts. “Cats” takes the stage Oct. 27-Nov. 1, and the performance of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s blockbuster marks the long-awaited return of touring Broadway shows to the city.

Theater manager Arts Centers Enterprises also has lined up “The Color Purple” and  “Mamma Mia!,” among others. The theater will offer Broadway hits while the city works to restore the venerable Saenger Theater and return big-ticket shows to that stage.

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