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Over-Oaked Theater

Local theater groups confront a crowd-pleasing conundrum: the musical!

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It started on my Facebook page.

Six little words, posted as a private message in response to a link about a show I'd recently seen. A musical, one of many I'd caught in the previous few weeks. This one wasn't particularly good.

Bing! In came the message.

"Musicals," it read, "are destroying Sonoma County theater."

Period. No exclamation point. Just the cold, hard statement.

This declaration was, I should say, left by a very talented actor-director, a passionate local theater artist who's been conspicuously out of the spotlight on local stages lately.

He is also a straight talker who knows how to poke at the tender parts of his audience. For one thing, he happens to know I like musicals in addition to straight plays (theater-speak for nonmusical shows). But his was a provocative remark, pointing to a significant issue in the North Bay theater scene, one I've had numerous discussions about in recent years: the difficulty of building an audience for new and challenging theatrical works, and the financial necessity of feeding the tastes of what audience there already is.

So I reposted the message as a question of my own, and asked it of 300 or so Facebooks friends who were involved in the theater: "Are musicals destroying Sonoma County theater?"

Mindful of how the theater community works in this area, I included artists from the entire North Bay, where an actor from Santa Rosa might take a part in a show in Napa or Marin County, and a director from San Rafael might take a gig helming a show in Sebastopol or Cloverdale.

The response was immediate—and all over the map.

MUSICALS VS. PLAYS

"I don't think it's as serious as 'musicals are ruining it,'" says actor-director Nicholas Christenson of Narrow Way Stage Company. Narrow Stage has long been known for its willingness to tackle new, unknown and controversial plays, including the occasional musical, such as Stephen Sondheim's polarizing Assassins, currently in rehearsals for a September opening in Sonoma.

"Musicals are extremely important to the overall picture of the theater scene," says Christenson. "They just shouldn't be the only thing onstage."

OK, so there's one pro-musical voice.

Add to that Rohnert Park–based publicist and event marketer Karen Pierce-Gonzales, who has promoted both musicals and nonmusicals.

"Musicals are perhaps the most accessible all-age theater genre," she says. "I wish we had more of them."

So there's another on the pro-musical side.

"To say that musicals are killing local theater is like saying Midsummer or Twelfth Night are doing the same," says actor-director Matt Cadigan, who recently directed a piece for Tapas, Pegasus Theater's New Short Play Festival. "We see Shakespeare shows every year, every damn year, because they are well known and bring the money in. I think musicals have a very important place in theater, in that they make money for the big houses."

So there's another person on the pro-musical side. Or wait, is he?

Cadigan's articulate and funny answer to my Facebook question ("Season ticket holders expect to see Cats!") quickly moved on to address the problem of separate companies performing the same shows over and over, leading to duplication and a sense of staleness.

Indeed, there have been at least three productions of Fiddler on the Roof in the North Bay in the last two years and two productions of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men in Sonoma County within a year of each other. Sonoma Arts Live, in Sonoma, will be staging the mathematical drama Proof in August, just four months after it was staged at the Cloverdale Performing Arts Center (though, for the record, even though both theaters are in Sonoma County, they serve different geographic audiences). Last Christmas, there were two productions of the play Other Desert Cities running simultaneously in Sebastopol and Rio Nido, less than 15 miles apart.

"The mixture of musicals clogging a season and what's left being so repetitive," says Cadigan, "can choke out what is important about theater. We need to see more stories coming through that we don't know. We need to capture different audiences to grow local theater. Is it growing right now? I don't know."

OK, Cadigan is pro-musical, but just barely—and with a bit of attitude.

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