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Over-Oaked Theater

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



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Actor David Tice Allison, an admitted disliker of musicals—despite the fact that he recently played the larcenous Fagin in Lucky Penny's Oliver ("A blessing and a fluke," he says)—has always preferred serious drama, and the more disturbing the better.

"People leave plays like Sam Shepard's Buried Child feeling weird and muttering, 'Holy Jesus!'" Tice Allison says. "They exit musicals feeling like they've eaten half a bag of jelly beans."


After several days, the online conversation heated up a bit, demonstrating a roughly equal level of support for both musicals and straight plays, with a larger number falling somewhere in between.

"What's killing community theater," says actor-director Larry Williams, whose production of the musical Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story is running at 6th Street Playhouse through July 19, "is the same thing that's always killed community theater: lack of funding through fundraising, certainly not a lack of possibilities or ideas."

"In this age of three-inch screens," asks Gene Abravaya, of Spreckels Theater Company, which presents musicals and straight plays, "what will keep theater alive longer: maintaining the interest of an adult who likes to attend thought-provoking dramas, or capturing the imagination of a youngster who has never attended a musical before?

"The answer is both," he says, "as long as they are both done well."

WHITHER THE THESPIANS? Can straight plays like Marin Theatre Company's 'Convert' compete with crowd-pleasing musicals such as 'Spamalot' and 'Cats'? - KEVIN BERNE
  • Kevin Berne
  • WHITHER THE THESPIANS? Can straight plays like Marin Theatre Company's 'Convert' compete with crowd-pleasing musicals such as 'Spamalot' and 'Cats'?

As long as they are done well.

"Do you know what really kills theater," says Harry Duke, Santa Rosa actor and theater reviewer. "Bad theater."

It's a point made painfully explicit by award-winning theater artist Conrad Bishop, of the Independent Eye. A lifelong supporter of the arts, Bishop applauds the efforts of North Bay artists who keep making watchable theater amid the hardest of hard times ("I've been very impressed with the quality of many productions I've seen here," he says). Even after praising some local artists, Bishop admits to getting exasperated by the overall quality of theater in the North Bay, where the talent pool is stretched among so many companies.

"Despite having spent 45 years in professional theater," Bishop says, "I usually find it much cheaper, and usually much more satisfying, to just go to a movie."


Bishop's point mirrors Dukes', suggesting that instead of being pro-musical or pro–straight play, perhaps the best thing a North Bay theater artist can do is to become staunchly pro-quality.

On the pro-quality and pro-musical side is Dan Monez, currently a board member of Napa's Lucky Penny Community Arts Center, which this year has presented the musicals Oliver, Bonnie and Clyde and Cowgirls.

"Having been on the management/production side of two nonprofit theater companies, as well as an actor-singer for many years, I couldn't disagree more with that statement," Monez says of the charge that musicals are killing theater. "In fact," he says, "one could argue that musicals are saving nonprofit theaters in small markets and communities."

Monez believes that musicals are just as worthy of being called "theater" as are straight plays. "Musicals draw diverse audiences and generate good buzz for a company," he says, "not to mention the fact that they usually turn a profit. Some artists are so wrapped up in the 'importance' of what they do, they forget who they are doing it for: the customer, the business side of the house. The fact is, without some deep-pocket underwriting, you can't make it work."

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