CONTROVERSY and ACCLAIM
Flip Sides of a Generation
Festival Theatre began its third decade in the summer of 2010 with the musical fable GYPSY. Earlier that year, Festival Theatre moved its offices once again, when it became the resident theatre company of the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center. Taking residence in the theatre cemented its status as an important part of downtown New Bedford’s DNA.
Festival Theatre’s third decade would see three recent Broadway hits play the Zeiterion stage , including Mary Poppins and the 2019 hit, Mamma Mia. Festival Theatre would also present revivals of two of its most popular productions, The Sound of Music and West Side Story.
But first, Festival Theatre would face its greatest challenge, presenting a show which created as much divisiveness in 2011 as it did when it premiered 43 years earlier.
A Side: “What a Piece of Work is Man”
Jen Percival leads the company in “Aquarius.”
On July 8, 2011, Festival Theatre opened its production of HAIR The Tribal Rock Musical. New Bedford audiences left the theatre in a state of elation; it seemed the show had stood the test of time and still had something important to say.
Many of the production’s most vocal supporters had seen the show when it first revolutionized the American musical in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s either in Boston or New York. The production’s harshest critics would cite the show’s alleged lack of patriotism and its famous nude scene as reasons to avoid it, but Executive Producer Armand Marchand, interviewed by Linda Murphy in the Fall River Herald News, said:
“Our mission is bringing the best of Broadway to southern New England. We do Broadway shows the way they’re meant to be done. If they took off their clothes off [sic] on Broadway, then they’ll take them off here too and we just hope the audience understands that,” he said of the brief nudity scene in the production of “Hair.”
Marchand has always felt a personal connection to the show. When he attended a performance on Broadway at the Biltmore Theatre in 1968, he was dealing with the reality he saw on stage. Like many young men at the time, he awaited his own draft status and dealt with the complicated feelings stemming from the unknown. Marchand openly wept in the theatre during one of the musical’s final images: the fallen soldier laid out on stage after sacrificing all for his country.
Marchand admits that controversy can be good for ticket sales. However, when the above photo was reproduced in many of the area newspapers, many detractors for the show would point to the above photo as yet another reason the show was, in their minds, anti-American.
Members of the production team; including Marchand and Artistic Director George T. Charbonneau received hate mail regarding the photo, which news outlets chose themselves out of a dozen photos submitted by Marchand for pre-opening press articles.
The ensemble cast was led by Scott Guthrie (Zach in A Chorus Line the same season) as Berger, Boston Conservatory alumni Gregory Isaac Stone (The Best of Times) as Claude, and featured Sarah Pothier (A Chorus Line and Grease) as Crissy.
This production would mark the third production entirely Directed and Choreographed by Michael Susko, who would go on to repeat those duties for eight more productions.
While HAIR was not a financial success (it had the lowest attendance of any Festival Theatre production, selling just 50% of Hairspray’s numbers one year later), Marchand considered it an artistic achievement for the creative team, going so far as to christen the production by Director/Choreographer Michael Susko a “Masterpiece”.
The lack of a sufficient audience for HAIR had an impact on Festival theatre’s 2012 Season. Initially planning to present Titanic: The Musical and Hairspray, both Tony Award winning musicals, Marchand had to cancel Titanic due to insufficient funds.
2011 was the last time Festival Theatre would produce two musicals in one season, Marchand attributes this to the rising costs of presenting the shows and keeping production quality at the level Festival Theatre is known for. An average show currently costs in the vicinity of $300,000.
B Side: You Can’t Stop the Beat
One year later, in July of 2012, Festival Theatre’s production of Hairspray, “Broadway’s Big Fat Musical Comedy Hit,” which some would call the antithesis of HAIR, came rockin’ n rollin’ onto the stage of the Zeiterion.
Based on the John Waters film of the same name, Hairspray takes place in 1962 Baltimore, tackling segregation, racism, and sizeism. While these can be heavy topics, Hairspray chooses to present them in an accessible way. Mixing the gravitas of such topics with a traditional musical comedy structure, combining a story about a non-traditional family, wry humor and a sensational score in one oversized package.
Recalling Hairspray, Marchand said “…everything about that show was a delight… I believe in the theatrical gods because every once in a while ‘everything’s coming up roses.’”
When reminiscing about Festival Theatre’s production of Hairspray, Marchand zeroed in on the harmonious collaboration within the creative team that made the production the success it would become. Director/Choreographer Michael Susko came up with the concept of the set design, and handed it off to Trevor Elliot who repeated his duties from HAIR and Les Miserables. “Michael had conceived it so that when you were standing on the edge of the stage there was a disc right over the orchestra pit to look like a 45 record and girls [The Dynamites] sing from that position.”
This one design detail supported at least one memorable moment for the ladies who portrayed the singing group, The Dynamites. Marchand continued, “The opening night of the show, the girls stopped the show. I ran back to see the girls and I said, ‘Hey, you guys made a hit’, and they said, ‘Mr. Marchand we were afraid’, and I said, ‘Afraid? Why?’ ‘We thought what is going on?’ and that’s because the people just erupted”.
Marchand also spoke of costume designer Aaron Gendreau-Visco’s attention to historical detail when conceiving the clothes for the segregated world of Baltimore in 1962. “He created costumes from heaven, I swear, and because we had 11 people of color in the cast, the clothes for that 1962 time. Black characters were dressed differently. [Gendreau-Visco] injected a little bit of a different style, it’s so subtle, but you can see the difference, he picked all that up, he did such a great job with the color range and everything else”.
Appearing in the cast all the way from Jersey City, NJ, was Laura Marie Rondinella as Tracy Turblad. Rondinella had submitted her headshot prior to auditions and when Marchand saw it, he held it up and said “Look at this girl, I’m telling you here and now she’s gonna be our leading lady, she’s gonna be Tracy Turnblad.” When Rondinella arrived at auditions, she was nervous. Marchand recalled the moment before Rondinella was to audition “…I actually held up her headshot, I said ‘see this girl look at her she’s not nervous,’ I said, ‘when you go into that room, I just want you to think how you feel in that photo, I’m sure you’ve sung ‘Good Morning Baltimore’ a lot of times before you came here…sing it with all your heart’. She did, and the role was hers.”
Portraying Rondinella’s mother, Edna Turnblad,was Aaron Fried. Fried auditioned at the annual NETC auditions in Boston and initially was not advanced to a call back. Marchand happened to run into him in a snack bar in the hotel where the auditions were taking place.After speaking with him, took him right up to the call back room to be seen by Susko, and he was hired to play the role.
One of the greatest moments in the show for Marchand would be during the finale “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” when in the middle of the song, Rondinella as Tracy Turnbladyelled out “Rock on New Bedford!” The audience’s cheer would grow louder as the cast sang and danced the most contagious song in the show.
In September of 2012, Marchand received communication from The New England Theatre Conference that Festival Theatre’s production of Hairspray had been chosen as the recipient of the Moss Hart Award Grand Trophy for Best Production in New England. Marchand explains, “The grand trophy is awarded to that show which places first in its category. [Festival Theatre’s] category was professional, and then in order to qualify to get the Moss Hart trophy you have to be voted the best under the five divisions, including community theater, high school theater, children’s theater and college/ university theater; they have five divisions so it’s always an honor to win the best professional show, but this one went one step further and was the best show out of all shows that were being considered.” Marchand called winning the grand trophy “The frosting on the cake”.
Reflecting on Hairspray, following the difficult time surrounding HAIR a year earlier, Marchand said, “Any kind of anguish we had suffered during HAIR kind of was erased by the acclaim that we received for Hairspray. And that’s the kind of business this is… this is a business where one day you’re up, the next day you’re down… and if anybody knows the song from the musical Follies ‘I’m Still Here”…I’m still here, and that’s what it’s about”.
Festival Theatre would go on to win another Moss Hart Award in the professional category for Mary Poppins in 2015, once again presenting an area premier.
At the conclusion of the 2019 season and his 30th year producing,Marchand passed on the role of Executive Producer to Wendy Hall, whose first production would be the acclaimed gala concert “The Best of Times” in November 2019.
As Festival Theatre enters its fourth decade, it is not only important to look toward the future, but also to take a look back where the company began. In our final installment we will trace the history of Festival Theatre from its predecessors at the Zeiterion in the 1980’s to the official founding of the company in 1990 .
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New Bedford Festival Theatre Inc. is a registered 501C(3) Non-profit organization.