Community theatre is an umbrella of enormous size. It covers everything from one-time-only shows to quasi professional organizations. The range of quality can be extremely varied as well. This weekend I attended two shows at two different local community theatre venues. The differences were quite striking.
Both companies are ongoing ventures that have real theaters. If “real theaters” sounds like a given then you may not understand the diversity that is community theatre. Gyms, churches, bars, backyards, gazebos, these and other unlikely spots can serve as impromptu, or at least temporary, stages. To have a physical theater is a sign of prosperity, strength and indirectly quality.
Quality can be a big issue with community theatre. I have attended shows where I was tempted to leave at intermission because of how dreadful they were. (I never do and I never say anything disparaging to cast nor crew. That is not my function and as it would serve no good purpose why would I inflict harm on others for no benefit to any?) I have dragged my wife to enough odd-ball venues with ramshackle casts, scripts and seating that she has grown jaded and now asks the Three W Questions before agreeing to attend a show: Where is it, who’s in it and what are we sitting on are all pertinent queries and the answers to these can indicate whether a night of theatre will be one we hope to always remember versus one we wish we could forget.
Friday we went to the Mount Vernon-Lisbon Community Theatre’s production of David Ive’s adaptation of Mark Twain’s 1898 play, “Is He Dead?” Mount Vernon is a Cedar Rapids, Iowa suburb of 4,600 people. They have a tight-knit group of theatre minded folks who work very hard to create community theatre. They also have cushioned seats and air-conditioning in their small auditorium and my wife and I have been to half a dozen plays there, all of which have been enjoyable. In this case my wife knew the show’s director, Mary Sullivan, as well as three of the actors so she gave tentative approval to our date. (I knew eight of the actors personally, have played with six of them, met one more and Mary has directed me in the past. With a cast of twelve I was pretty sure what we were getting into.)
The show that we saw Saturday night was Theatre Cedar Rapids’ production of “Les Miserables.” (Custom, etiquette and legality dictate that I mention the show was based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, the play was first written in French by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, with additional material by James Fenton and that the music and lyrics were by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Herbert Kretzmer. TCR used the adaptation written by Trevor Nunn and John Caird and orchestrated by John Cameron. And if that’s not enough Leslie Charipar was the director of this production and Janelle Lauer the musical director. Shesh!) Let me confess that musicals are not my thing and operas even less so. I listen to words more than I see scenes and oft-times the words get garbled or lost in song. Even with the superb cast that TCR had this sometimes happened. My inability to hear, comprehend and process the lyrics as quickly as the spoken word detracts from my enjoyment of a show.
The shows had a lot in common. They were both based on works written in the 18th century by highly respected authors and they’ve both been reworked to accommodate 21st century U.S. audiences. They also both dealt with injustice, though “Is he dead?” was a comical farce and the injustice of the mundane sort while “Les Mis” is an operatic tragedy centered on the degradations we inflict on self and others.
Both shows were successful in entertaining me and keeping my attention. Interestingly I found “Les Mis” to be overrated. Not the production at TCR, it was awesome, but rather the near universal embrace the play and movie seem to receive. As I said, opera is hard for me and so I didn’t fall in love with “Les Miserables.” I did fall in love with the production though.
At one point I leaned over to my wife and whispered in her ear, “I wonder how many people in the audience think they are in a professional theater?” Theatre Cedar Rapids is that good, that slick, that inspiring. The paid staff and volunteers create shows the likes of which I have seen on Broadway and at the Kennedy Center. The theater is actually two venues, one a 500 seat, ornate, balconied auditorium and the other an intimate, 90 seat, thrust stage. TCR is a building, not just a theater. It is five stories high, has a projection marquee out front, extensive wardrobe, props, support staff and on and on. I am certain that casual attendees to TCR productions think they are seeing professional theatre. (When I watch a TCR production I often wonder if I ever look that good to the audience!)
“Les Mis” not only lived up to my very high expectations but exceeded them. Almost without exception the players that brought this show to life mesmerized me with their power, persuasion and performances. If anyone could make me love opera these would be the folks to do it. (Maybe next time!)
“Is he dead?” represented classic Americana in classic community theatre. The show was lovely and had me laughing out-loud as I watched my friends cavort on stage. There was greater diversity in the talent range of “Dead” than in “Miserables” but I know that MVLCT and Mary had about two dozen people audition for her show while TCR and Leslie had hundreds try out for “Les Mis.” Both theaters, both shows are great representations of what community theatre can and should be. If you haven’t been to live theatre lately then what are you waiting for? I’m certain that there are incredible opportunities for you, all you have to do is turn off your screen and go!