Penobscot Theatre Company is just a few days away from getting officially underway with their 44th season of producing live professional theater for the greater Bangor area and beyond.
Producing Artistic Director Bari Newport has put together an interesting slate with this season’s offerings. There’s plenty of music – a play about a barbershop quartet, a musical about a small-town diner and a beloved Disney classic. There’s comedy – a play about deer camp and family written by actor Jeff Daniels. There’s innovative drama and a long-running hit and even an adaptation of one of Bangor’s own Stephen King’s books.
But there’s even more excitement in the Bangor Opera House going into this season, thanks to a renovation effort this summer that has given the space a much-needed reinvigoration. The aging seats have all been replaced. New carpets have been laid, new lights have been hung. The space has been completely recharged.
Newport was quick to sing the praises of PTC’s Executive Director Mary Budd, whose efforts spearheaded the renovation efforts.
“Mary is an incredible grant writer, amongst a thousand other talents that she has,” said Newport. “Half of the cost [of the renovation] was covered by these grants and other gifts. The other half had to be matching, which led to our campaign to sell the 322 seats.
“Mary has been seriously hard at work making this place better.”
All told, changes at the Opera House include a transition from oil to natural gas, a revamp of the heating and cooling systems and, of course, the floor-up renovation.
“Deb [Dall, of Deb Dall Designs] was recruited by Mary to basically project manage the renovation of this space,” Newport said. “We’ve been so fortunate that she is a theater lover, a patron and incredibly generous.”
It has been a process for Newport and company – one that kicked into high gear after the theater’s first youth theater performance of the summer.
“Starting at the end of ‘Addams Family,’ all the seats went out,” she said. “Then, the first thing that happened was the painting. Bud’s Painting was in here for four or five days with a lift. The next week, the floors were done. After they dried, the lighting went in and the seats went in.
“We sold all of them over the course of the year, plus donations toward the renovation of the space. And then Deb with her team has totally worked her tail off making it beautiful.”
(“Scenes and Songs,” which took place on Aug. 24, was the first time the public was brought in for a look at the new space. It really does look great – better than it has in at least 20 years if not longer.)
But the theater’s doing more than fixing up their existing space – they’re adding some more. PTC’s Dramatic Academy is expanding into a new, separate space located just down the street at 51 Main Street. It should be up and running in time for the first class, which starts Sept. 5. Along with educational programs, PTC is also partnering with ImprovAcadia, the Bar Harbor-based improv theater, to establish a year-round presence in Bangor.
“It’ll be a full-time educational space and a part-time performance space,” Newport said. “We have so many kids now that it’s really hard to fit everybody in this building. Having a dedicated space just for education offerings allow us to do more adult classes a well. I think it’s a long time coming.
“And someday, we’ll have a second space,” she continued. “Maybe this is the beginnings of that, but for now, it’s a rehearsal space for DA and a dedicated classroom space with some performances – both by kids and by ImprovAcadia. It’s really good.”
Another noteworthy change is the theater’s shift to a full Equity contract this season for the first time in the theater’s 44-year history.
“It’s a pretty big move for the company,” Newport said. “It makes us the third year-round Equity theater in the state. It’s a big move for us. For a long time now, the company has been hiring at least one Equity person per show, sometimes up to four or five depending on the show. It just made sense to move on to a full contract at this point.”
So as you can see, big changes are in progress at PTC.
“Those are the big three – the Dramatic Academy, the Equity contract and … this,” Newport said, gesturing to the new Opera House in which we sat,
But what sorts of shows are you going to see while sitting in this newly beautified space?
The Fabulous Lipitones (Sept. 7-24)
The season kicks off with this “play with music.” Written by John Markus and Mark St. Germain, “The Fabulous Lipitones” is the story of a barbershop quartet that has lost its tenor following a fatal high B flat in competition. The three remaining singers are left scrambling for a replacement before nationals; they end up hiring a guy named Bob who auditioned by phone. But when he arrives, he’s not at all what they expected.
“For anyone who was a rabid Plaids fan, who has said ‘I wish they would do ‘Forever Plaid’ again, they are going to love this show,” said Newport. “This is a Maine premiere. It’s written by Mark St. Germain, whose expertise is actually historical or biographical stories. And it was co-written by John Markus, who was a writer for ‘The Cosby Show’ for almost a decade, he wrote for ‘Taxi,’ for these classic American sitcoms. He’ll actually be here opening night for a talkback.
“It’s a very smart show, it’s very funny, in the rhythm of a well-made TV comedy,” she continued. “But it’s also very timely and poignant in its subject matter. It’s about acceptance and making harmony, really.”
This production is directed by Michael Marotta, who directed last season’s “I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti.” The barbershop direction is being handled by Danny Williams.
“It’s got 12 barbershop songs in it,” said Newport. “There’s only four people, no accompaniment – they’re on their own. This music is hard.”
Those songs include a few classics and an Americana medley to go with the show’s original compositions.
“It’s perfect for our community, very family-friendly,” she said. “It’s got a wonderful message of hope. I’m really looking forward to it; you never get to see barbershop music onstage. It’s going to be super fun.”
Misery (Oct. 12 – Nov. 5)
Just in time for Halloween comes this production of William Goldman’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel (Goldman also wrote the screenplay for the 1990 film version). When a best-selling romance novelist’s car accident lands him in the “healing” hands of his self-styled number one fan. While he recovers, she reads his latest manuscript and is less than pleased with what she learns. Paul Sheldon is locked in a battle of wills with his erstwhile nurse Annie – and his very survival could be at stake.
“We’re actually working on ‘Misery’ now, because the changeover is pretty short” said Newport. “It’ll run in performance for four weeks; it’ll star A.J. Mooney, who has been associated with the project since before me. It’s certainly the regional premiere; I think there’s been one other production in the country since the Broadway version with Laurie Metcalf and Bruce Willis closed.”
This is a newer adaptation of the book; an older version by a writer named Simon Baker was taken off the market a number of years ago.
“It’s just three people [in the cast], but the team around it is extensive,” Newport said. “We have a special effects artist from Portland named Eric Anderson who is in charge of effects – blood effects, etc. – and we have Angela Bonacasa as our fight choreographer along with the usual crew.
“It’s going to be great. It’s going to be bloody,” she said with a smile.
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (Dec. 7-30)
Tale as old as time. You know the rest. PTC’s holiday offering is “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” the stage adaptation of that beloved story. With music by Alan Mencken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice and book by Linda Woolverton, it’s the story of a prince cursed for his cold-hearted ways, transformed into a monster as punishment. It is only by earning true love that the spell might be broken. Ethan Paulini – who directed this summer’s “The Full Monty” – is back to helm this production.
“We have an incredible woman coming in, her name is Jazmin Gorsline,” Newport said. “She’s been in Germany playing Christine in the sequel to ‘Phantom of the Opera’ called ‘Love Never Dies.’ We’re really excited to have a real star-type as Belle.
“The rest of the cast is local,” he continued. “I think all told, there are 19 or 20 people. The cast will be announced when tickets go on sale on October 2.”
Newport went on to stress that people shouldn’t dawdle in getting their tickets, predicting that the show would prove to be quite a popular one.
“It’ll sell out,” she said. “People should get their tickets early. And they should come early as well.”
The show will have 25 performances along with four student shows. Those student shows are almost sold out as well; those interested should contact the box office or Education Director Amy Roeder.
Escanaba in da Moonlight (Feb. 1-18)
In this comedy by Jeff Daniels, audiences will pay a visit to deer camp with the Soady family. Reuben Soady is 35 years old – the oldest of his family to never bring down a buck. He’s desperate to break the curse – and willing to go to extraordinary lengths to do so. The show has been on the PTC radar for a while; now, its time has finally come.
Newport thought that “Escanaba in da Moonlight” would be a perfect fit for that spot in the season.
“We’ve been doing these cabins in our February slot for quite a few Februarys now,” she said with a chuckle. “Not every February, but many of them.
“This is a very funny, very theatrical play,” she continued. “There are lots of funny moments, but there’s also something magical about it. It’s a deer hunting tall tale. Call it ‘Dumb and Dumber’ in a deer camp in northern Michigan.”
The play had been on Newport’s mind for some time, but it wasn’t until now that circumstances lent themselves to mounting the production.
“We’ve been holding it – we’ve had the rights for a while, for years – and this was the last year we could do it,” she said. “And we were holding it not because we didn’t want to do it, but things have come up and we’ve wanted to do those other things immediately.
“It’s been a long time coming.”
And hey, if you’re not sold yet, there’s one more thing.
“It has the best fart scene,” she said. “If there’s a better fart scene in a play, I don’t know what it is.”
Ugly Lies the Bone (March 15 – April 1)
This Maine premiere, written by Lindsey Ferrintino tells the story of Jess, a young woman whose last tour in Afghanistan ended with her severely injured and shipped home to a small town on Florida’s Space Coast. She’s left to deal with the impact of her physical and psychological scars; she does so through an experimental virtual reality therapy that gives her the means to shape a world where she might not need to hurt so much.
“This is a great, new play by a female playwright, brought to my attention by the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta,” Newport said. “It’s a play about the healing properties of virtual reality and VR therapy being used to heal an injured female veteran. It’s funny in a modern, fresh way. It’s very approachable, very moving and unlike storytelling that one sees on a regular basis.”
The complexities of representing that virtual reality adds an unusual technical element to the proceedings.
“We’re working with a game designer to put the world of it together,” Newport said. “It’s complicated for sure. But it’s also a great acting piece, with room for magic.”
Newport anticipates some partnerships in association with this production. PTC is a Blue Star theater, part of a national group of theaters who offer discounts to active military personnel as well as veterans and their families.
“I’m glad to find a piece with that connection to veterans – particularly female veterans,” she said.
The Spitfire Grill (April 26 – May 13)
A musical adaptation of Lee David Zlotoff’s 1996 film of the same name, “The Spitfire Grill” follows a fresh-out-of-prison parolee named Percy to a small town in Wisconsin where she takes up waitressing at the titular diner and becomes an object of some interest in sleepy Gilead. Spitfire Grill owner Hannah can’t sell the place, so instead offers up a $100 essay contest that proves quite popular. With music and book by James Valcq and lyrics and book by Fred Alley (Alley was the librettist and lyricist for recent PTC offerings “Guys on Ice” and “Lumberjacks in Love”).
“I don’t think it has been done around here for a while,” she said. “It’s an incredible show. It’s surprising, because it has such a different feel, but it’s written by Fred Alley. This show premiered at the same theater in Wisconsin as ‘Guys on Ice’ and ‘Lumberjacks in Love.’ But I didn’t realize all that when I picked it.
“The music is incredible,” she continued. “It’s a folk musical, a female-driven story. Dominick Varney will be directing it. It has fiddling in it, it has accordion in it, it has mandolin in it; the band is very much part of it.
“It’s the perfect show. It’s moving and magical. And it’s truly about the music. I just can’t wait for this one – I know that people are going to love it.”
In addition, PTC continues its tradition of a surprise seventh show for the summer months. This season, it was announced at the theater’s “Scenes and Songs” event that the summer show would be the beloved comedy “Shear Madness.”
Shear Madness (June 16 – July 8)
This murder mystery is one of the longest running non-musical plays in the world, with a Boston production ongoing since 1980. The play – written by Paul Portner – revolves around a murder that takes place in a unisex hair salon. It’s a comedy where the dialogue can be largely improvised and the ending is different every night – the audience gets to hear clues, question actors and ultimately vote for who they believe to be the guilty party. From there, the cast plays out the ending as instructed.
And that’s not all for the season – the year will see a number of special events as well. There will be an as-yet-untitled New Year’s Eve performance – a Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston show. PTC veteran Andrew Crowe will bring his musical group that pays tribute to legendary country supergroup The Highwaymen for four performances. Burlesque will be returning to the Opera House – this time in May. And in the summer, the Kinsey 6 – a dragapella barbershop quartet – will grace the stage in July.
And there you have it. As you may have gathered, there are a lot of changes happening at the Penobscot Theatre Company. Sure, they might be marking their 44th year, but by all appearances, they’re only getting started.