Sunday, April 21, 2013

Mill Mountain Theatre's Comeback: Eager Anticipation

Mill Mountain Theatre will rise from the ashes of its own extravagance Wednesday with the April 24-May 12  run of "The Marvelous Wonderettes," a play that says much, much more about the future than about the past.

"Wonderettes" is a small cast play, based in music from the 1950s and 1960s, which means it will draw the right demographic (baby boomers, who have money) and will be relatively inexpensive to produce. MMT is the only professional theater in the region, but it will not be housing and paying a large number of actors for "Wonderettes," since the play has but four actors in it.

In the past, especially the recent past, MMT was guilty of spending far more money than it could afford to cater to the tastes (musical, musical, musical) of an aging theater-going crowd. At one point, it even produced "To Kill a Mockingbird" as a musical, an event that was far more offensive than entertaining.

Since its closing  in 2009, a lot has happened with the theater's structure, goals, board membership and intent. The board is heavy with successful business people, headed by Jack Avis, who owns a construction company and Cynthia Lawrence, whose marketing business has been something to watch for years. They are young, enthusiastic, active, involved, knowledgeable, full of energy and willing to use basic business principles to guide a cultural institution.

In the past, MMT has had little notable competition for those interested in live theater, save for Lime Kiln Arts in Lexington (which closed last fall) and Barter Theatre in Abingdon. Roanoke has a long and notable theater history, mostly revolving around Mill Mountain Theatre--for the past 50 or so years--but including a couple of nice dinner theaters, local group the Showtimers, Gamut and more recently Theatre Roanoke and the virtual dominance of Hollins University's theater program.

I note that MMT's admission prices for "Wonderettes" range from $22 for groups to a high of $27 (details of new production are here, and you can buy tickets online, as well). That's a good bit less than many of its past productions and, though high for two hours of entertainment when compared to movies, ball games and amateur theater in the region, it's on the light side for professional theater. Plays in the past have cost as much as $40 for a ticket. Take a family out on that. The price tags of the past limited attendance to those in the upper economic regions--mostly older and with little range in taste. Young people were all but shut out by the cost and the choice of plays. That group is now involved because of the the intense activity of alt theater during MMT's forced shutdown.

During MMT's absence, the area has developed a deep bench of actors, directors and technical people and mounting quality local productions has become the norm, rather than the exception. Operating on a shoestring is also a common theme. MMT will do well to ingest those lessons and incorporate them strongly into its plan--especially the part about using local actors to the extent possible.

I'm eager and excited in anticipation of Mill Mountain Theatre's return because this is the standard for theater in the area, in most people's minds (Hollins is the real standard right now, but Hollins does not have the financial restraints MMT must employ). I honestly hope this is an effort we can learn from and support wholeheartedly.


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