Theatre by the Sea: A Piece of RI Heritage

Since 1933 (with a few off years), Theatre by the Sea has been delivering “Broadway in a Barn” to Rhode Island residents and tourists alike. From the golden years when stars such as Marlon Brando and Mae West strolled its lawns, to the resurgence under Artistic Director Tommy Brent in the second half of the 20th century through today (with new ownership under Bill Hanney), TBTS still remains a destination for not only quality live theater, but a true Rhode Island summer experience. Motif spoke with current Artistic Director Kevin Hill (entering his third season as AD) about the 2015 season, his place in the TBTS legacy and the upcoming Smokey Joe’s Café.

Kevin Hill is no out-of-town New York transplant coming to Matunuck to set up shop in this quaint little barn in Wakefield, although his time spent on stages in NYC has more than prepared him for his current role. Hill is relatively local, born and raised in Waltham, Mass, but he embarked on a career as an actor and dancer that took him across the country, touring with the likes of Carol Channing and Michele Lee, and then he expanded his reach, joining the cast of the International Touring company of A Chorus Line. Eventually becoming an in-demand director and choreographer, Hill worked all over the country with big names and big shows. Award nominations followed, including one for Best Director/Choreographer of a Memphis production of the Leiber and Stoller musical revue, Smokey Joe’s Café, this summer’s TBTS opening show. He is a professor of dance, most recently instructing at the Boston Conservatory of Music and he also owns and runs Hill Studios Dance and Fitness located in Newton, Mass.

We asked Hill what brought him to Theatre by the Sea after all of these years successfully practicing his craft in some of the biggest theaters in the country and how he feels about belonging to the storied lineage of artistic directors at TBTS. “It’s exciting to part of that lineage,” enthuses Hill. “I’ve always wanted to be an artistic director and, during the time that the theater was abandoned, a friend and I would often drive by and I would wonder if I could run it someday.” Hill had dreams of purchasing the theater until he was finally approached by current owner Bill Hanney in 2010 to work on their production of Hello Dolly, and that relationship finally developed into Hill’s placement in his dream job. Hill acknowledges that there is just something special about Theatre by the Sea that’s obvious and elusive at the same time. “Just driving down Card’s Pond Road … you take a deep breath and relax,” sighs Hill.

The 2015 season mirrors last year’s formula with some family favorites, a closer that’s geared toward the adults and an opener filled with familiar, classic music. Asked about the Rhode Island vs. out-of-state actor ratio (stemming from auditions in New York that fill the majority of TBTS’s cast), Hill is quick to point out that RI is always duly represented. “Tommy Labanaris, who just closed Into the Woods with Ocean State Theatre Co., is joining us as the lead in (season closer) Young Frankenstein,” he points out. Labanaris’ resume is suitably filled with New England credits and he joins the roster of actors such as Michael McGrath who hailed from Worcester and used TBTS as a launching point for his successful Broadway career.

It is the opener, however, that Hill wants to discuss. He promises that this version of Smokey Joe’s Café will be a “fresh look” and that he detests doing “carbon copy” productions. “This will be very different than the normal revue that’s been done in the past,” insists Hill. “There will be more of a through line with the characters and we’re piecing it together better,” rather than simply running through the standards that, in this show, include “Stand by Me,” “Yakety Yak” and “On Broadway.” Hill gets excited when he anticipates how audiences expecting a simple jukebox musical will “come to enjoy the music, but get tied up in the story we’re trying to put forward … I’m looking forward to their reaction.”

While there are different directors for two of the other shows this summer (My Fair Lady and Disney’s The Little Mermaid), Hill returns to the helm for Young Frankenstein in August. “We have resident artists here,” says Hill, “including our lighting designer and a Tony Award-winning sound designer,” emphasizing that eternal balance at Theatre by the Sea between summer stock road house and a home for local artists.

When listing Rhode Island theaters (of which we boast more than the usual number, especially for a state our size), people tend to rattle off the easily remembered and often incorrect names “Trinity, PPAC … um, The Gamm?” And then, as they go blank, forgetting the dozens of other fine companies that exist right under their nose, they usually come around and offer up, “Oh, and Theatre by the Sea!” It may be only summer stock, but it’s a large part of our culture and our heritage. Those who make TBTS their home and work are proud to be a part of that memory and continue to keep the legacy alive.

Bill Hanney’s Theatre by the Sea opens its 2015 Season with Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Songs Of Leiber And Stoller; June 3 through June 21; 364 Cards Pond Rd, Wakefield. For tickets and more information, call 401.782.8587(TKTS) or email boxoffice.tbts@gmail.com

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