Theatre by the Sea Is Puttin’ on the Ritz

theatreBeing a Broadway musical fan as well as a movie buff has paid handsome dividends in recent years as movies, particularly comedies, have been adapted for the stage on a now predictable basis. We’re at the point where it’s becoming increasingly difficult, especially for younger audiences, to trace the origins of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels or Hairspray or Mama Mia or any number of musicals that have appeared on the big screen, either before or after their stage versions. In some cases, the stage version came first. In other cases, the musical follows the movie, which followed the play … or the album … it’s confusing. For an audience that may not care, it’s the production value that counts and whether or not they had a good time. While we wait for Book of Mormon to become a film (maybe) and Pump up the Volume and The Wall to head to Broadway (really), we at least have plenty to keep us entertained in the meantime. Our beloved Theatre by the Sea brought the wildly successful Spamalot (based on Monty Python’s Holy Grail film) to Matunuck last summer and now it closes the 2015 season with another comedy classic film from the ’70s turned musical, Young Frankenstein.

Motif chatted with TBTS owner Bill Hanney about Young Frankenstein and all things Matunuck. Hanney is already excited about 2016 and eager to spread the word, but he especially warms up to the subjects of his newest production as well as what he sees as a new Golden era of Theatre by the Sea (our words). His excitement was palpable as we spoke, and it’s hard not to get up in Hanney’s enthusiasm.

MOTIF: So, tell us everything about your Young Frankenstein.

Bill Hanney: Well, first off, you have to like the movie (Editor’s Note: The Mel Brooks 1974 comedy classic – if you haven’t seen it, you really need to, if only for the cultural references that have now become a part of our culture). If that’s not a point of reference for you, then this show won’t quite land.

MOTIF: I can’t imagine that would be the case for anyone, so let’s just take that as an assumption.

BH: So, what audiences can expect is a closer version of the movie (than the original Broadway version) added to a lot of song and dance. We’ve kept to the spirit of the film. First off, the sets are all in black and white … the costumes are in color, of course. We have this wonderful designer and we took advantage of that. The ending of ours is a lot more like the movie, unlike the Broadway version, so we had to ask permission from the copyright owners, and that is not easy to get. Aside from that, this cast is phenomenal. You know, for “character” shows, you really need more than just great performers. You need all types of actors with interesting faces and dynamic personalities as well as acting and singing ability. We got that.

MOTIF: What else makes this Young Frankenstein stand out?

BH: The special effects here are really incredible. You know … you know the space. It’s not huge and we cram a lot on that little stage. Between the sets and the choreography…

MOTIF: And you have artistic director Kevin Hill directing and choreographing again, just like with Smokey Joe’s Café?

BH: Yes! And you know … even with Kevin directing … I take a very hands-on approach. I don’t just show up in a tuxedo on opening night. I am involved with tech and paying close attention to rehearsals and previews as well as the opening. And, when I hire directors … and Kevin and I saw eye to eye on this … I’m like, if you don’t want to work with me in that way … but Kevin loved the idea and he’s been a great collaborator.

MOTIF: So, we of course always have to ask about the number of Rhode Island actors involved…

BH: Of course. Well, we have (as the Gene Wilder character, Frederick Frankenstein) Tommy Labanaris, who did Into The Woods at Ocean State recently and he’s fantastic. Believe me, I love using Rhode Island performers, wherever possible. Not to mention the publicity we get, but there are many other reasons down to things like local housing and knowing that all of their friends will come. It adds up. But, I’m not going to use somebody if they’re not right. I audition, but I always will go back to New York to find the right actors, where necessary. If you’re not right, I can’t use you (there are other Rhode Island-based performers involved, for the record).

MOTIF: I can respect that. You don’t necessarily have a quota, per se, but you’re not opposed to as many RI performers as are appropriate for the particular show.

BH: Right. We’re about the quality. And, in terms of numbers and successful shows, last year (2014) was the best year the theater ever had. All records were broken. And this year will surpass last year. This year, My Fair Lady broke all the records yet again. People respond to quality and the fact that we care to put on the best show possible. Last year’s Mary Poppins … it was the *family* show, but we spent the time and money to get it right. We were one of the few theaters in the world to fly Mary Poppins up and over the balcony. No one did that. And this is what I want to do as a producer, is have that quality. Subscriptions are only going up and up …

MOTIF: It is starting to feel more and more like the quality of the theater’s heyday under Tommy Brent (former TBTS producer who rescued the theater from demise in the late 60’s). Many of us have memories of not only the theater, but the atmosphere and the grounds and the cabaret afterwards.

At this point, Motif begins a long discussion with Hanney about our experiences interning for Tommy Brent in the ’80s and a close connection to the Ryan family of North Kingstown, who helped Brent revive TBTS. Old season posters still exist in the Ryan family household, which will be donated to TBTS for their archives. Hanney also uses the opportunity to lobby Motif for a change in categorization for the Motif Theater Awards – currently, TBTS is nominated under the “Summerstock” category, but Hanney feels that they belong in the larger “Professional” category alongside Trinity and The Gamm. “They don’t call themselves ‘Winterstock,’” he notes.  

BH: Do you want to know what’s coming up next season?

MOTIF: Of course!

Well, we’ll start off with The Buddy Holly Story and then move on to West Side Story

This pairing parallels Hanney’s strategy and approach toward building a successful season. Warm up with a jukebox musical, just like Smokey Joe’s Café and 2014’s The Rat Pack Show. The second slot is a classic while the third slot is always family fare (with a nod to the adults). This year, it was Disney’s The Little Mermaid (you can decide whether or not 2014’s Grease or Mary Poppins was the family affair that time), but My Fair Lady certainly solidified TBTS’s ability to stage a classic (“It’s nice to see a show with flying scenery once and a while,” we noted). Next year, the final two slots go to The Wizard of Oz and Sister Act, ensuring that every demographic is covered up to and beyond the subscriber base. Motif’s only comment about Oz was “Well … wow…” to which Hanney added an appropriate, “Yeah, right?”

Theatre by the Sea continues to settle into a new confidence as the 21st century plunges forward. The last 15 years have seen a lot of change in the aftermath of the Brent legacy and now Hanney not only embraces that past, but intends to conquer it. Always professional, always more than just fun, a show at Theatre by the Sea is once again an event, not just a night out to see a show. Bill Hanney, as busy as he is (he also runs the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Massachusetts), is ultimately concerned with preserving an institution while advancing it on his own terms. And, like Frankenstein’s monster in the highly entertaining musical currently gracing the stage at Matunuck, TBTS may be old and cobbled together from something that once was, but that doesn’t mean the creation isn’t worth more than the sum of its parts. Putting on the Ritz, indeed.

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