My lovely wife Jeanette sends along this essay with reviews of several shows and a comment on the large number of community theatre performances out there:
I noticed in one of Chuck’s recent posts that 14 plays and musicals have been scheduled in the area during October - four in Ashland, five in Charleston, and five here in Huntington — a few touring shows, but most staged by local theatre groups.
As Chuck has been elbow-deep in James and the Giant Peach at the Old Huntington High/Renaissance Center, I took it upon myself to see both Steel Magnolias last weekend at City Hall, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Pullman Plaza. That’s three locally-produced shows that overlapped a single weekend, and on top of that, a weekend when Marshall played a football game at home. I overhead it more than once: "What are these people thinking?"
Before I answer that looming question, some comments on all three shows.
James and the Giant Peach, like most local children’s theatre shows, is near to my heart. The play featured 31 kids, more than half who were appearing in only their first or second show. Jonathan Joy’s directing talents brought the best out of these bright, animated young people, including a colorful troop of six female “insects,” two deliciously evil aunts, three great narrators who helped us visualize the invisible, and the polite and unflappable Samuel Collins as James. Even the main set piece, the Giant Peach, was nicely rendered and magical in its own right. I couldn’t help but notice that even the very smallest children in the audience were captivated by the adventure that Mr. Joy brought to life.
Steel Magnolias was a great opportunity for a “sister-date” last Saturday. As perhaps the lone American woman never to see the full movie version of the story, I got to absorb the full impact of the lives, loves and losses of the gals in Truvy’s beauty shop. I was glad I did. Zach Davis directed a great team of local actresses. I was particularly delighted to see the lovely Kyle Fisher (the mom of one of my best high school friends), in her first substantial role, and she cracked me up, as did the always-wonderful Loretta Hetzer. The entire cast brought believability and lots of heart to the story.
In contrast, I had already seen The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in Chicago shortly after its Tony-Award winning Broadway run in 2006, but made a point to see the first local effort of the Pullman Plaza Playhouse. And I must say, the sheer talent and appeal of this cast matched up well against any high-priced touring company. Particular props go to the bombastic and nerd-tastic Mark Radford, the cartoonish frolics of Angela Wolfe-Hunt and Bradley Leonard, and the stellar vocals of Nancy Jackson and Elijah Boyles. Shayne Gue morphed seamlessly from one role to the next. My favorite of all was Alissa Fetherolf, whose emotional performance as latch-key daughter Olive was nothing short of luminous.
So three shows in one weekend, in Huntington, W.Va. – does it make sense? As a one-time co-director and occasional producer of First Stage shows, I know the volunteer effort and shoe-string inventiveness that lifts these shows to opening night. Each one is a labor of love, and it is a shame if small audience turnout doesn’t support the cost of production. There are only so many weekends in prime fall season between the time everyone returns from vacation and the time that holiday plans take over our lives.
But would you ask yourself if the Marquis or Cinemark wasted their money on too many screens, or if the area has too many sports leagues? Of course not! Thanks to the efforts of all these crazy dreamers, theatre is part of Huntington's cultural landscape. We’re blessed with a number of workable venues. And in sheer talent, energy, and “Garland & Rooney-style Let’s Put on a Show” determination — Huntington rivals cities twice its size. With a little more marketing savvy, maybe a few corporate “sugar daddies,” the inevitable maturing of our young audiences, and about a thousand more local adults who are willing to break from the pack and take a chance on a real live show for the same price as a movie night, the possibilities are endless!