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Music and melodrama, laughter and tears – Previewing PTC’s 2019-2020 season

August 21, 2019
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BANGOR – Bangor’s professional theatre company is getting ready to kick off the 2019-2020 season.

Penobscot Theatre Company is launching into its 46th season in just a couple of weeks. The company has been a mainstay of the region’s cultural scene since its very beginnings back in 1973 – nearly half-a-century ago – growing right along with myriad other aspects of the city’s vibrant evolution.

For year 46, Artistic Director Bari Newport and her team have put together another interesting, engaging season – one aimed at connecting with all manner of audiences.

“We pride ourselves on doing a wide variety of work,” Newport said. “And next season is a perfect example. The wide demographic that we reach, both geographically and in terms of interest level. ‘I like comedies.’ ‘I like to bring my family.’ ‘I like new work.’ ‘I like musicals.’ ‘I like historical pieces.’ ‘I like dramas.’ We truly reach a wide variety of different types of people and I want our season to reflect that.”

It is a wide-ranging season, to be sure – from musicals and dramas to farces and one-woman shows, this program has got them all. If the mission is to try to come up with something for everyone, it seems clear that this is mission accomplished.

“We've been really focused on being distinctive,” said Newport. “And I think that we are. I think that our work is very much our own. I think it’s vibrant and optimistic and colorful – energetic. We try to really dig in to every aspect.” 

Let’s take a closer look at PTC’s 2019-2020.

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Mainstage

Woody Guthrie’s American Song (Sept. 5-29)

This show – based on the songs and writings of Woody Guthrie, conceived and adapted by Peter Glazer with orchestrations and vocal arrangements by Jeff Waxman – opens the season. It’s a tale spun forth by an American icon, a folk legend whose music laid the groundwork for so many of the legendary figures who would follow.

“We're opening with this one, a Maine premiere,” said Newport. “I'm really excited about it; I think it hits dead center for the region. It's super family-friendly, but it's also … I mean our tag is ‘Before Dylan, Before Cash, There Was Guthrie.’ It’s Guthrie songs, but it’s also the story of his life, woven together with his own words. It's his poetry, his illustrations – there are projections involved. It’s very much like [2015 PTC offering] ‘Ring of Fire.’”

Gaslight (Oct. 17 – Nov. 3)

This 1938 play – also known as “Angel Street” – has seen hundreds of productions in the eight decades since it first hit London’s West End. It’s a Victorian melodrama, a story of lies and deceit whose plot gave us the term “gaslighting.” Patrick Hamilton’s script is one of the classics of the genre, an ideal and sinister fit for the Halloween season.

“I'm directing this production of ‘Gaslight,’” Newport said. “It’s a Victorian melodrama which is going to look great in this space.

“The American title of it is ‘Angel Street,’” she continued. “But we got permission to use the English title ‘Gaslight,’ which is of course where the term ‘gaslighting’ comes from, so it's also really relevant. And we haven't done anything with great Victorian costumes in a long time; it is going to look fantastic in our Opera House. It’s a great space for it. It's a fantastic script; I love that it's a melodrama.” 

Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical (Dec. 5-29)

This year’s offering for the holiday season is this show, a musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic book. With book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, this one tells the story of a special young girls struggles against neglectful parents and a school system that seeks to break her spirit. Instead, she stands up for herself and the things she believes – and magic ensues.

“Next up, we have the Maine professional premiere of ‘Matilda the Musical,’” Newport said. “It's fun and fantastical and has such a great message. There's more than a little magic to that story – and there's real magic that we have to do. Everybody's really excited about it.

“We have a director/choreographer pair coming from Los Angeles to direct and choreograph it,” she continued. “They are a married couple and they both choreograph and both direct. There are a bunch of kids and yeah – it is a BIG cast. We found some great kids through Dramatic Academy. A fantastic Matilda, a young woman named Kate Walters. Dominick Varney, Christie Robinson, Ben Layman will play Trunchbull – such an awesome group.”

Don’t Dress For Dinner (Jan. 30 – Feb. 16)

The first show of 2020 promises to warm up your winter with some sexy farce. This play by Marc Camoletti is the sequel to “Boeing-Boeing,” a show PTC did a few years back. It’s got everything you want from a farce – mistaken identities and marital infidelities and quirky characters. Oh, and there’s some gourmet cooking to boot! Expect twists and turns and slamming doors and all manner of high-speed ridiculousness.

“In the winter slot, we're doing ‘Don’t Dress For Dinner,’” said Newport. “Super colorful, super fun costumes. Jen Shepard, Michelle Weatherbee, Brad LaBree and Dominic [Varney] are all in the cast – some of the best comedic actors we have. It’s a broader sort of farce, perfect for the time slot. And it's FUNNY – super, super funny. There's SO MUCH physical comedy. The costumes are going to be great and it's sexy. It’s just a perfect fit.” 

Safety Net (March 12-29)

This challenging piece from the pen of Daryl Lisa Fazio will see its second-ever production with Penobscot Theatre Company. A story of a small-town Alabama fire chief – the first-ever woman to hold the position – and her struggles to reckon with some of the bleak realities of the world in which she lives. A story of a town at war with opioids and the people unsure how to fight, this show will be produced in partnership with the Maine Science Festival.

“The world premiere is happening in Atlanta in October and we have the second production; it will also star the playwright,” said Newport. “It is a finalist at the Eugene O'Neill Center in Connecticut; it's been developed at the Alliance Theatre and Florida Rep and Rachel Bertram actually brought it to my attention because so many people were talking about it. ‘Are there any exciting new plays that address the opioid crisis?’ Which doesn't exactly sound like a great time a great night out at the theater. 

“But what I love about this particular play is that it centers on a female fire chief in a small town. It's very funny and it's very heartfelt – it’s a real actor’s piece, but it's also from the heart. And and I had never read a piece that was quite like this. I'm really excited about it. 

“I mean, it's still in development,” she continued. “Which makes it really exciting. The playwright is an actress who started writing for herself years and years ago and has had a lot of success as a playwright in recent years; she's like one of the most up and coming new playwrights.

“Everybody wants the ‘world premiere,’ but it's actually the second production that's harder to produce – certainly, it’s harder for a playwright to get it produced, because a world premiere sounds more exciting. But we're excited to do the heavy lifting for this second production.”

Becoming Dr. Ruth (April 23 – May 10)

Yes, THAT Dr. Ruth. There’s a lot that you probably don’t know about the legendary sex therapist; the diminutive broadcast icon has lived a life too vast and varied to be anything but real life. This one-woman show, written by Mark St. Germain, walks audiences alongside Dr. Ruth Westheimer as the stranger-than-fiction details of her journey are revealed.

“Jen Shepherd is going to star as Dr. Ruth in this show,” Newport said. “At first, my thought was ‘Jen is so young.’ But she put on the glasses and well, there it was – she can transform like anybody's business.

“It's such an interesting story and Dr. Ruth is such an interesting person. Maybe some of the younger folks aren't necessarily aware exactly of Dr. Ruth, but things like the recent documentary put her on the cultural radar for people a little bit younger. I love biographies, and what a fascinating life; it’s unbelievable. Even people who know about Dr. Ruth with the sex education stuff probably don't know that she was an Israeli sniper and a Holocaust survivor, just for example. It's an awesome and charming story. 

“I hope we can get her here,” continued Newport. “She loves seeing these productions. It really is a one woman tour de force. So I'm hoping that we can get her to come.”

9 to 5 the Musical (June 11 – July 5)

Closing out the 2019-2020 mainstage season will be the musical version of “9 to 5.” Based on the movie of the same name, the show features a book by Patricia Resnick and music and lyrics by Dolly Parton herself. It’s a story of three women driven to the breaking point by a boss who disrespects them and a corporate culture that refuses to listen to them. So they take matters into their own hands – with hilarious results.

“This one is super exciting for us,” Newport said. “It’s a great one, but it actually doesn't get produced that often – it's got an enormous cast and it's pretty complicated technically. Ethan Paulini is returning to direct it. We'll be running it for five weeks again to the second week of July. 

“‘9 to 5’ is a great show and actually really relevant at this moment, but it's also super funny. Dolly Parton did all the music, which is wonderful. She even does a beginning and end of the show voice-over video for productions. It's a very cool script with very good music, all of it written specifically for this show by Dolly Parton except for the iconic ‘9 to 5’ song. It's so good. It's modern, but it takes place in the eighties – lots of ‘wink wink’ moments. I was really surprised when I read the script, honestly; it’s just as strong as the movie.” 

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So that’s the mainstage season, but there’s a whole lot more that PTC is bringing to the stage over the coming year.

There are their Dramatic Academy offerings, featuring some of the area’s best young talent. Those three shows include:

“Squatch,” an original play by Travis Baker, Zane Baker and Isaac Miller. An original play, this one follows a pair of youngsters searching the woods of their small town for Bigfoot himself – but they might find more than they bargained for. Runs Nov. 1-3.

“The Snow Queen,” by Ron Nico. This adaptation of the classic Hans Christian Anderson tale follows a little girl searching for a lost friend who has been bewitched and imprisoned by the titular Snow Queen. Will her charm be enough? Runs March 20-22.

“The Secret Garden,” by Tim Kelly. Based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beloved novel, this show will tell the story of Mary Lennox, an orphan girl sent to live with her uncle, a man of many secrets … including a garden that Mary wishes to revive. Runs May 15-17.

(For more information about PTC’s Dramatic Academy, visit www.penobscottheatre.org/education.)

Also worth noting is “Tell Me On A Sunday,” a one-woman show from the pen of Andrew Lloyd Webber that will star Brianne Beck. The show, which will run for just one weekend – April 3-5 – is the story of a young woman from an English town who comes to the United States in search of love. We should all have high hopes for this one, combining one of musical theatre’s finest creators with one of our area’s finest performers.

PTC will also offer up some holiday laughs in their 51 Main Street space with “A Kick in Your Dickens,” an improv comedy celebration of the season. ImprovAcadia’s Jen Shepard and Larrance Fingerhut will lead the way alongside longtime Chicago improvisers Vincent Kracht and Mike Shreeman as they put together a Yuletide yukfest unlike any other. The show will run Dec. 12-29, but seating is limited to just 40 per performance, so be sure to get in early.

You might want to mark your calendars for Leap Day 2020, because that’s the date of the planned Opera House Jubilee, a celebration of the 100th birthday of the Bangor Opera House. With a dinner, silent auction, performances and more – all right there on that venerable stage – it’s a chance to mark an auspicious anniversary. Just 100 tickets will be available.

Finally, there are a few big PTC events coming up in the next few days. August 22 sees the theatre’s annual “Scenes and Songs” event, a wonderful in-person preview of the upcoming season. And then on August 24, the theatre will host a Community Day at the Bangor Opera House; Newport and other staff members will be giving tours of the building every half-hour. In addition, PTC will be opening up their Theatre Factory – home to the theatre’s costume and scene shops – at 14 Griffin Road for tours. There will also be a huge costume sale. It’s all happening from 10-4.

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And that’s that. As always, Penobscot Theatre Company strives to put together a season that serves the wants and needs of its audience, whoever that may be.

“It’s important that we think about the community,” Newport said. “And it's not just Bangor that we’re serving. We're serving 40,000 people a year now; that’s more than just the city. That gives all of us more energy, more motivation to reach out; we’re looking to connect with people living three hours basically in every direction. This isn’t just Bangor’s theatre, it's the region’s.”

(For tickets or more information about PTC's upcoming season, you can visit their website at www.penobscottheatre.org or call the Box Office at 942-3333.)

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