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It's a wonderful season

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A preview of Penobscot Theatre's 2015-16 slate

BANGOR - One of Bangor's most venerable cultural institutions is on the verge of kicking off yet another season. Penobscot Theatre Company's 2015-16 slate its 42nd is once again bringing high-quality professional theater to the audiences of the region.

There's a little something for everybody this year. There's a show featuring the music of an American icon and an interpretation of an all-time holiday classic. There are shows about young people coming of age and about falling in and out of love. There's heartfelt humor and a world premiere of a work by a noted local playwright not to mention the Maine premiere of a really rockin' show.

Producing Artistic Director Bari Newport is well aware of the benefits and obligations that come with helming an organization of such long standing. It's that awareness that informs both her choices for the present and her ideas for the future.

'I've been thinking a lot about what if?' lately,' she said. 'Our goal is to stay focused on the organization's goals we want to stay true to what PTC is all about. It's about producing quality work that will help inspire imagination and cultivate a lifelong passion.'

So far, PTC's efforts seem to be working the theater's subscriber base is up significantly over the past two years, even while national trends see subscriptions dropping. Yet Newport is still looking for more.

'It's important to have a really steadfast foundation of support for our work,' said Newport. 'We're the only thing like us around, so it's vital that we're serving a wide variety of people.'

If the goal is to serve as many potential audiences as possible, the season Newport has assembled looks to be a very good one to indeed accomplish it.

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The Season

Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash' (Sept. 10 27)

The PTC season kicks off with a bang and a twang, offering up this musical featuring the music of Johnny Cash. In the tradition of the jukebox musical, it is a collection of some of Cash's most iconic musical work, bringing classic country songs to the stage. Conceived by William Meade and created by Richard Maltby, this show is NOT a biography of the Man in Black. However, the outlines of his story are certainly sketched in by the wealth of musical material and his presence will certainly be felt. Expect a foot-stomping good time as a collection of talented musicians tell a fascinating tale by way of nearly 40 songs from the catalog of a true giant of American music.

'This one is already proving very popular,' said Newport. 'We expect it to do really well particularly with the great talent that we've got. We're making this piece into something rich; audiences are going to have a fantastic time.'

Doctor Cerberus' (Oct. 22 Nov. 8)

This next offering is a Maine premiere from the pen of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, an edgy and engaging look at some of the trials and tribulations of growing up. Franklin Robertson is 13 years old, a young man bullied by his brother, misunderstood by his parents and generally struggling with the notion of his own identity. He's sad, lonely and uncomfortable in his skin. He escapes the mundaneness of his world through late-night horror movies, spending every Saturday midnight watching the enigmatic horror host Doctor Cerberus. And maybe just maybe Doctor Cerberus holds the key to young Franklin's salvation.

'Doctor Cerberus' is an unconventional and challenging piece, an apt fit for the Halloween season.

'This is risky work,' Newport said. 'It definitely contains some adult themes and content, but it's also about following one's dreams. [The show] also puts Stephen King on a pedestal, which adds to the appeal.'

It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play' (Dec. 3 27)

This season's holiday show is a classic frankly, I hope that you don't need me to tell you the story of 'It's A Wonderful Life.' This version is an interactive interpretation of the Frank Capra cinematic classic; it's a whole new way to experience the story of George Bailey and the small town of Bedford Falls. It is one of the most beloved Christmas tales ever told, and it will be told in a way that you've likely never experienced before. And don't let the title fool you this show will have plenty to offer the eye. With five actors playing all of the roles and an engaging meta-narrative about the people putting on the show, there's going to be plenty of energy to go with the story's sentimentality.

'This is very much a full production,' said Newport. 'We're embracing the radio aspect, but there's plenty more to it. From the moment you walk into the theater until the moment you walk out, it is going to be a total experience. It's going to be like stepping back into the 1940s.'

Hair Frenzy' (Jan. 28 Feb. 14)

Local writer Travis Baker made a splash on the Opera House stage a couple of years ago with his play 'One Blue Tarp.' Baker's latest is a return visit to the Maine town of Clara. This time, the focus falls on the local hair salon the titular Hair Frenzy owned and operated by Tina. Tina is just making ends meet as a single mom, but a wild opportunity comes to town in the person of international film superstar Toryn Bennoch, who just happens to be a native of Clara and Tina's childhood best friend. Chaos ensues as Tina finds herself forced to consider a possible new life, and whether she wants to let go of her old one.

'It has been incredible seeing Travis's play grow,' said Newport. 'There have been a number of readings and it just keeps getting better. And it's great to help develop plays if we're not producing new work about this place, who will?'

The Last Five Years' (March 10 27)

Next up is this two-person musical by Jason Robert Brown, an innovative take on the time-honored tradition of the love story. It follows a couple Jamie and Cathy - over the course of their relationship, only with each person traveling in a different direction through time. Jamie's story unfolds chronologically from the beginnings of the relationship to its end. Meanwhile, Cathy's story is told backwards, starting from their marriage's endpoint and traveling in reverse her arc ends with the couple's origin. It's an engaging and unique meditation on relationships and the nature of love, with PTC mainstays Dominick Varney Wood and Brianne Beck slated to star.

'It's a small musical very modern,' Newport said. 'There's nothing else entirely sung this season. And we're always looking for ways to support and highlight local artists. It's filled with difficult, beautiful music and offers a really interesting form of storytelling.'

Duck Hunter Shoots Angel' (April 28 May 15)

The end of PTC's official season is marked by this show, the only stage-specific work by noted writer Mitch Albom. Those expecting a 'Tuesdays with Morrie'-style sentiment might be surprised by this one, the story of a jaded tabloid journalist who makes his way to rural Alabama to investigate reports of the shooting of an honest-to-goodness angel. The man's cynicism is shaken as evidence begins to pile up that far from a hoax this might actually be a case of divine intervention. And as the media hordes descend, the two guilt-ridden hunters at the story's center quickly find themselves overwhelmed. 'Duck Hunter Shoots Angel' doesn't totally eschew Albom's tendencies toward sentimentality. Rather, it simply informs those tendencies with a liberal dose of humor and genuine affection.

'It's a fantastical story with roots in reality,' said Newport. 'It's fun and wild; family-friendly while still being a little bit naughty. It's a really funny show that audiences are definitely going to appreciate.'

Rock of Ages' (summer)

While the PTC season is traditionally made up of six shows, this season is giving area audiences one more chance to hit the theater before they hit the beach. For the first time, this homage to '80s rock and roll will grace a Maine stage, thanks to an extended (and decidedly unorthodox) campaign by PTC. This story of dreams and excess set against a backdrop of glam bands and seedy bars follows a collection of characters as they strive to fill the holes in their lives often making questionable choices in order to do so. It appears that PTC intends to end their 2015-16 season with a bang, and there are few shows better suited to provide that bang than 'Rock of Ages.'

'It's the Maine premiere,' said Newport. 'We're the first in the state to do it and we worked very hard to get it. We campaigned hard Chris Dodd from The Rock and Art Shop put together a collection of Maine rocks for us to send and [PTC Education Director] Amy Roeder rewrote some of the show's songs to plead our case as well. It's quite a coup for us.'

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And of course, there's plenty more going on at PTC over the course of the year. The company's popular Dramatic Academy will present a number of productions throughout the year, including works from Edgar Allan Poe and Roald Dahl as well as the classic 'Harriet the Spy.' The theater also offers a series of master classes in varying theatrical subjects as well as several sessions of improv classes.

In short, your involvement with Penobscot Theatre doesn't have to begin and end with attending a show.

'If people haven't tried it out yet, [PTC] is theirs for the taking,' said Newport. 'All I can say to people is Try it!' Our aim is to engender the trust of the community; they need to trust that we will continue to put forth work that will engage and entertain them. We will never be boring.'

So there it is, folks a valuable creative and cultural resource that's just waiting for you. Like Newport says, try it. Judging by this season's offerings, you'll almost certainly like it.

(For more information about all things Penobscot Theatre, visit their website at penobscottheatre.org. For tickets, you can also contact the box office at 942-3333.)

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