October 9, 2008

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Merrimack Rep at 30
Professional company opens season with music
By Heidi Masek hmasek@hippopress.com

Artistic director Charles Towers tries to create balance throughout the Merrimack Repertory Theatre season with script choice, executive director Tom Parrish said. That can include comedies, dramas, new plays and contemporary plays. They also try to have some music. “Musical theater is one of America’s only original art forms,” Parrish said.

While shows in past years there have included song, the professional Lowell, Mass., company has not produced a full musical since 1993, in part because their venue can’t fit a large-scale production. However, The Fantasticks, with its simple staging and smaller cast, does fit. Still, the 1960 off-Broadway play is “very powerful,” Parrish said. 

MRT is opening its 30th anniversary season with the show opening Oct. 16 and ending Nov. 9. A boy falls in love with the girl next door after their fathers put up a fence to separate them. That’s not the end of the story, however. The book and lyrics are by Tom Jones and music by Harvey Schmidt.

David Villella plays El Gallo and was part of the cast of the Tony Award-winning 1999 revival of Annie Get Your Gun on Broadway. Broadway’s Dane Knell plays Mortimer; he performed with James Dean in See the Jaguar.

Piper Goodeve plays Luisa and has appeared off-Broadway in Anne of Green Gables as Anne. She has an MFA from Brown University/Trinity Repertory Consortium and studied at Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London. Nick Mannix plays Matt and has performed off-Broadway and in regional theater, in film and TV.

Of the locals, Plymouth State University student Christopher Sheehan plays the Mute. Known to New Hampshire audiences for his music direction for Peacock Players, Actorsingers and All Access Production, Jeffrey Prescott performs percussion in MRT’s orchestra for The Fantasticks. He also has regional credits to his name, and is in his fourth season as a development associate for MRT.

Jonathan Silverstein directs.

“It’s a really important year for us,” Parrish said. They want to celebrate the past with the anniversary, and “move forward into the future in a strong way,” Parrish said.   

Last year MRT brought a production to New York for the first time. Towers is also directing that show, Secret Order, by Bob Clyman, for the Alley Theatre in Houston (Oct. 24-Nov. 23). MRT doesn’t have immediate plans to bring more work off-Broadway, but is producing Clyman’s Tranced from Feb. 12 through March 8. It addresses genocide and memories of an African graduate student and international deceit uncovered in sessions with a hypnotherapist, said Vanessa Crowl, MRT marketing associate.

Another familiar contemporary playwright to MRT audiences will be the author of A View of the Harbor. Massachusetts-born Richard Dresser workshopped it in Lowell and this will be the regional premiere. A View of the Harbor is the third in Dresser’s trilogy about happiness and pursuit of it in America. An idealist and his girlfriend visit his eccentric family in Maine. It runs from Jan. 8 through Feb. 1.

Two former lovers reunite in Skylight, by David Hare, running from Nov. 20 to Dec. 14. Bad Dates, comedic stories from a single mother of a teenager girl with a stressful job looking for a good guy, runs March 19 through April 12. MRT ends the season with an American classic playwright, Eugene O’Neill. Josie and James have a comic and tragic meeting under a full moon in A Moon for the Misbegotten. It runs April 23 until May 17.

“Last year was our third year in the black,” Parrish said. That allowed them to retire their accumulated deficit for the first time in their 30-year history, he said. When asked if it’s normal for a regional professional theater to have a surplus for three years, Parrish said, “Well, in an ideal world it shouldn’t be.... As a nonprofit we have to run in a financially responsible way, just like any other business.” The surplus was mainly through special gifts, including a bequest.

The theater did have more subscribers three years ago, at 5,300. It ended last year with about 4,300, an 87.6 percent renewal rate, which at least is above the national average of 70 percent, he said. The drop came after MRT raised prices. They have since been working to rebuild their base. “It’s at the point now where our season ticket prices are the lowest for professional theater in eastern Massachusetts,” Parrish said. Their mission focuses on artistic excellence and affordability for the audience, which can be “two competing goals,” he said. Average ticket cost is $25, he said. While some seats can cost more than $50, previews and pay-what-you-will nights, student and senior discounts and other programs use donations to subsidize much less expensive tickets. “We believe everyone should have access to art,” Parrish said.

MRT has also concentrated on building its southern New Hampshire audience. “We’re seven miles from the border,” Parrish said. A growth in subscribers from the Granite State has replaced a loss of some Boston-area ones.

Most ticket prices range from $15 to $56 at MRT. The box office is at the 308-seat Liberty Hall at 50 East Merrimack St. in Lowell, Mass., next to Lowell Memorial Auditorium. There’s also a new online box office at www.merrimackrep.org, or you can call 978-654-4678. 


Try to Remember...

What: The Fantasticks

Where: Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack St., Lowell, Mass.

When: Wednesday through Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 4:30 and 8:30 p.m.; Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m.; Wednesday, Oct. 22, at 2 p.m.

Discounts and chats: “Pay What You Will” and “Director’s Dialogue” post-show discussion Thursday, Oct. 16; Lowell Night, $10 tickets for Lowell residents, Saturday, Oct. 18, at 8:30 p.m.; Cookie Matinee Oct. 22; Wine Lover’s Wednesday, Oct. 22, at 7 p.m.; Post Show Forum, Thursday, Oct. 23; Young Professionals Night, Thursday, Oct. 30, at 7 p.m.

Costs: Previews start at $31, top price is $61, discounts for seniors and groups of more than six, students pay $15.

Contact: www.merrimackrep.org, by calling 978-654-4MRT (4678). 

 

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