“The Best of Times”
A Look back at the Best of Broadway on The South Coast
Cutlery, Cats, and that other French Revolution!
A trifecta of tour de force productions puts Festival Theatre on the map.
The year 2000 began a new decade and a new century for the world. For New Bedford Festival Theatre, it was a celebration of its first decade and the beginning of its second. This second decade would put Festival Theatre on the map as an award-winning theatre company, gaining notoriety for area premiers.
The turn of the 21st century saw the company move out of the home office of its Founder Armand Marchand and into a permanent home at 5 Dover Street.
The year 2000 also saw New Bedford Festival Theatre inaugurate the Whaling Museum’s Jacobs Family Gallery with its annual gala with Guest of Honor the legendary stage actress Julie Harris.
This heralded what was to become a decade that would see not just Broadway Musicals, but Broadway Blockbusters produced by Festival Theatre for South Coast audiences.
Three of these productions, Beauty and the Beast, CATS, and Les Misérables would be area premieres, having previously been seen only in Boston and Providence in touring productions.
Tale as old as time, Production younger than springtime
Beauty and The Beast (2004)
In 2004 Festival Theatre was one of only two professional theatres to be given permission to stage Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Disney had been very protective limiting the performance rights for the show since it was still playing on Broadway.
As Festival Theatre was one of the first theatres in the country to produce the show, there was nowhere to rent costumes and scenery. Unlike the 1990 production of La Cage, the National Tour was still crisscrossing its way through the United States and the Broadway production would last another three years.
The contract to produce the show would not allow the use of the logo, scenery, costumes or any version that could be considered copies of the Disney produced version of the show.
As Executive Producer for Festival Theatre, it was up to Marchand to find the perfect creative team for the show.
To lead this herculean task, he chose Director/ Choreographer Jean-Paul Richard, a Montreal native and former Vice-President of Actors Equity who was the director of 2003’s Smokey Joe’s Café and the Choreographer for Jekyll and Hyde the same season. Richard would lead the Beauty and the Beast company with a firm hand and a vision for what made any show he directed successful with audiences.
With a keen eye for costume design (as well as a powerhouse performer), John Michael Dias carried a family legacy that began when he learned costuming for the theatre at the knee of his grandmother, Fran Petisca, who costumed hundreds of plays and musicals for The Fall River Little Theatre. Mr. Dias’ job was to create the costumes from scratch, often designing, building and sewing the costumes himself. In fact, Dias’ costumes were so well designed and executed that Marchand was able to sell them to one of the large costume rental companies to be used by future theatres producing the show.
The cast of the show boasted Barbara Folts as Belle who joined the Festival Theatre Production direct from the Broadway Company where she understudied and performed the role! Artistic Director George Charbonneau played Maurice, Belle’s inventor father. Local favorite John Costa was Cogsworth the mantle clock, veteran Festival Theatre performer and star of 2001’s Chicago Jamie Rapoza played Babette the feather duster, and Melanie Souza, who has graced audiences with her talents in several Festival Theatre productions including Chicago, Gypsy, and Mamma Mia, played Madame de la Grande Bouche the wardrobe.
Festival Theatre’s production of Beauty and the Beast became the highest attended show in Festival Theatre’s history up to that time and would be talked about for years to come.
Broadway in a Junkyard?
Marchand was always on the lookout for the newest and most dazzling shows on Broadway to bring to The south Coast. For years, he had been asking about the ability to produce two specific and well-known shows with little success due to long running touring and first-class professional productions. But his luck was about to change.
The first was Andrew Lloyd Weber’s blockbuster musical CATS and the second was “The World’s Most Popular Musical,” Boublil and Schoenberg’s Les Misérables.
Marchand had originally been given the rights to produce CATS in the summer of 2005 with a gentleman’s agreement with the licensing company. However, this was rescinded, and a signed contract drawn up gave Festival Theatre the ability to produce CATS in the summer of 2006.
One of the longest running shows on Broadway, CATS played 7,485 performances over almost 18 years: well deserving its tag line “Now and Forever”. The Festival Theatre production would have a much shorter run but would nonetheless make a huge impact on the audiences who came to see the production.
One of the other unforgettable aspects of CATS’ original production is its set consisting of oversized props which spill out into the theatre, almost enveloping the audience in the junkyard where the Jellicle Cats come to strut their stuff. Finding the right scenery sent Marchand to the west coast where he found a company only a few miles from Disneyland called the Fullerton Civic Light Opera who had a set that was able to reproduce the feel of the Broadway production, without being a copy. Marchand, who believes that the settings and costumes “… don’t have to be perfect, but they have to be correct to the show,” made sure that the set from California came with the iconic tire that, at the night’s conclusion rises up to the rafters carrying Grizzabella The Glamour Cat (who sings the show’s anthem “Memory”) up to the “Heaviside Lair” where she is reborn.
CATS, also Directed and Choreographed by Jean-Paul Richard, featured a cast of 19 dancers, including Festival Theatre’s current Executive Producer Wendy Hall as Jennyanydots, the cat that seems lazy by day, but at night becomes incredibly active, leading a show stopping tap dance number. A familiar Festival Theatre face, Mark DiConzo, played Rum Tum Tugger also appearing in Beauty and the Beast, Les Misérables, Cabaret, Oliver and currently appearing on Broadway in Aladdin The Musical.
One aspect of producing Marchand loves is community engagement projects that provide synergy between Festival Theatre’s productions and local organizations. Prior to the 2006 run of CATS, Habitat for Cats, located in New Bedford, approached Marchand about creating some sort of event in conjunction with Festival Theatre’s production. Marchand collaborated to host a group of Habitat for Cats donors at a matinee, followed by a reception at the Catwalk Bar on Union Street. The organizers set up a table in the lobby with literature about cat adoption and took part in the “Cats on Stage/Cats in a Cage” event held at the Buttonwood Park Zoo. The zoo featured their large cats, Habitat for Cats had an adoption event, and cast members from the stage production were on hand for photos.
When Festival Theatre’s 2006 production of CATS concluded at the end of July, it fell just shy of the attendance figures of our previous blockbuster, Beauty and the Beast which would hold the title of highest attendance until our next show blew into town two years later.
There was another French Revolution?
Les Misérables (2008)
The last of our three Blockbusters from the second decade of Festival Theatre is Les Misérables from 2008. Another area premiere, Les Misérables, played two Broadway theatres over 16 consecutive years for 6,680 performances.
Marchand produced a coup de théâtre with Les Misérables when he commissioned Trevor Elliott to design and build an epic set for the production that allowed the sweeping story—which spans the years 1815-1832 and focuses on the Anti-Monarchist Paris Uprising of 1832—to move quickly between various scene locales, while enabling co-directors George Charbonneau and Michael Susko to immerse the audience in the world of the play while not having to slow down the quick pace of the action for set changes.
The Festival Theatre Production marked the return of David Weitzer (who had starred as Jekyll and Hyde for Festival Theatre in 2003) as Jean Valjean, the fugitive, and Steve Asciolla (the Beast in Festival Theatre’s record-breaking 2004 production of Beauty and the Beast) as Javert, his pursuer. Rounding out the cast were local fan favorites Jay and Robbie Burke as the comic and sinister Master of the House, Thenardier and his wife.
The Festival Theatre production of Les Misérables went on to win the 2008 New England Theatre Conference Moss Hart Award for Best Professional Production in New England. In its next decade, Festival Theatre would win this prize twice more.
After the success of a decade that included groundbreaking and award-winning productions of Broadway juggernauts, Festival Theatre embarked upon planning for its third decade, and it seemed that the future would be bright and full of more Broadway Blockbusters.