The historic Napa Valley Opera House could be said to have it all: gorgeous 130-year-old architecture, an illustrious and colorful history, a multimillion-dollar renovation and a strong reputation as the reigning destination for music and comedy in the Napa Valley. The one thing the opera house hasn't had since it reopened in 2003 is its own resident theater company.
That is about to change.
"When we first started thinking of launching our own theater company," says Barry Martin of Napa's Lucky Penny Productions, "one of our dreams was to someday call the Opera House our home, but we figured that would be three to five years down the road."
This week, after a couple of shows staged in various Napa locations, Lucky Penny launches its first full season at the Opera House, with Neil LaBute's incendiary battle-of-the-sexes comedy The Shape of Things. Directed by Martin, the show has just five performances and is driven by a creative online marketing campaign (anchored by a tasty video "trailer" featuring the cast delivering some of the play's more delicious lines). Expectations are high for the company's get-to-know-you show at the Opera House.
"We are incredibly fortunate," says Martin, a community outreach coordinator for the city of Napa and a one-time Napa Valley radio station manager with a lifelong affinity for all kinds of theater. "Our first show at Lucky Penny established us as a company that sells out its shows," he says, referring to 2009's two-week production of Sam Bobrick's romantic comedy Baggage, performed inside the Napa Wine Train's station. The show drew great word-of-mouth buzz and established Lucky Penny (named for a song from the movie Waiting for Guffman) as a certifiable presenter of crowd-pleasing entertainment.
Baggage was followed up with a production of Norm Foster's Looking, performed in the Cafe Theater at Opera House. "Those shows," Martin explains, "established our reputation, and now people know that to get seats for one of our productions, it's a good idea to get tickets early."
When Martin and Lucky Penny cofounder Tyler Bartolucci were asked to plan a full season of shows inside the main theater, there were a few immediate challenges to deal with.
"The Opera House is a busy place," Martin laughs, "so there was no way we were going to be able to do traditional three-weekend runs of our shows. We know we'd have to do one-week runs of four or five days in a row." Usually, in the case of those traditional multiweek runs, a theatrical show is expected to start off slow, and then build its audience through positive buzz and print and internet reviews. With just five consecutive performances, that's a luxury that Martin and Bartolucci will not have. Fortunately, Lucky Penny's reputation having been established with their first two shows, the cast and crew are gambling that the new shows will build up enough mo' before the shows even open.
"It doesn't hurt that The Shape of Things is a fairly well-known play," Martin says. "It's relatively new," he adds of the 2001 play, made into a film directed by LaBute, starring Paul Rudd, Rachel Weisz and Gretchen Mol, "and it has a strong following among young people. What we are hoping for is to find a way, with the shows we do, to satisfy the tried-and-true theater audience while also attracting younger audiences who don't routinely consider theater as one of their entertainment options."
The Shape of Things tells the story of three art-school students whose lives are changed when one of them becomes romantically linked to another student who sets out to perform a complete makeover on him. How much should a person be willing to change for the woman of his dreams? That's the question at the heart of LaBute's play, and with dialogue that is both wicked and hilarious, LaBute has established himself as one of the most entertaining provocateurs in the business.
In setting to challenge local audience's view of what theater is, Martin hopes to build an eclectic, pan-generational audience for future productions. "Let's just say that we aren't content to do the same things everyone else is doing," Martin laughs. "By being different, we intend to become the next big thing in Napa."
'The Shape of Things' runs Feb. 17&–21 at the Napa Valley Opera House, 1030 Main St., Napa. Wednesday&–Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 2pm. $25. 707.226.7372.
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