Theater News

Big "D"

J. Hugh Johnson reports that live theater is thriving and blooming in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex.

The best thing that has happened to the Dallas cultural scene in the last 20 years is that live theater has grown far beyond Dallas city limits. Dallas and rival city Fort Worth to the west, now share a wealth of professional and semi-professional theaters, only a few of which existed forty years ago. Today, the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex has so many up-and-coming theater companies that performance spaces are at a premium.

The old dinosaurs of live drama — a small handful of non-profit theaters that have stood over four decades — give the Metroplex theater scene a sense of dramatic history. The Dallas Summer Musicals, now celebrating a 60th anniversary season, began as an amphitheatre for operettas and survived years of traditional American musical comedy mayhem sandwiched between star-vehicle reviews featuring the likes of Jack Benny, Mitzi Gaynor, and Carol Burnett. Under the current reign of executive producer Michael Jenkins, DSM has added a winter season of slightly more adult fare, with bookings at both the recently renovated State Fair Musical Hall and the historic Majestic Theater in downtown Dallas. Jenkins also has expanded the summer season to include the hottest national tours and a few locally mounted productions that tour a consortium of theaters around the country. Last season, a flashy, revamped version of the Broadway musical The Scarlet Pimpernel premiered at the Music Hall even before the show’s reopening in New York. Jenkins’ business savvy has brought top-notch productions of Cabaret, Ragtime, and Art, sprinkled between tireless sellout returns of Cats and Phantom that draw the masses. Jenkins’ efforts have resulted in the largest subscriber base in the DSM history.

Three Metroplex theaters share a claim to 40-year-plus histories. The Dallas Theater Center, which utilizes both the low-tech Arts District Theater and the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Kalita Humphries Theater, will someday move into a new downtown complex recently approved for construction by Dallas voters. Noted for a history of abruptly firing artistic directors, including Paul Baker and Adrian Hall, DTC is now under the direction of Yale School of Drama import Richard Hamburger. In addition to presenting cutting-edge new works and the razor-sharp classics, Hamburger has also dabbled in traditional musicals; a hit 50th-anniversary production of South Pacific was followed last season by a somewhat less successful production of Guys & Dolls. While no longer operating as a repertory company, during Hamburger’s tenure, DTC has slowly begun to rediscover the strengths of the Metroplex acting pool. Although principals still tend to arrive from out-of-town with Yale credentials, more and more locally based actors are finding their way onto DTC stages in major roles–e.g., celebrated Undermain Theatre founder Raphael Perry in the title role in Tartuffe and comic genius Larry O’Dwyer as Scrooge in DTC’s annual production of A Christmas Carol.

Sharing DTC’s longevity, Theatre Three continues to carve out a unique role on the Dallas Theater scene. Since esteemed co-founder Norma Young passed away after a long period of illness, her husband and Theatre Three co-founder/artistic director Jac Alder has become the dean of Dallas Theatre, tenaciously clinging to his intelligent, maverick vision which includes the creation of the highly effective architectural design of T3, with its in-the-round intimacy. A versatile actor, writer, director and musician, Alder has maintained the theater’s viability through decades of change. A capital campaign which led to the purchase of the theater’s Quadrangle shopping center location assures T3’s future while assisting many fledgling Dallas troupes by offering Theatre Too!, the basement rehearsal hall, as a rental space. Theatre Three’s eclectic source material ranges from Molière to Shaw to Sondheim; the company shies away only from Shakespeare. Alder’s musical tributes to popular songwriters have yielded wonderful evenings of music by Harry Warren, Irving Berlin and the like. A delightful current production of the musical revue I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change has broken all Theatre Three box office records. (When an announcement is made that the show will move to Theatre Too! for an extended run, remember that you heard it here first!)

Fort Worth’s Casa Manana, founded by the late great Melvin O. Dacus, incorporates Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome design into an 1,800-seat theater in the round that has dazzled audiences for 40 years. While the house is really too large to be an effective theater in-the-round, on ongoing capital campaign will provide funds to revive the fading charm of the “house of tomorrow.” A facelift for the Fort Worth cultural district landmark will come none too soon, as the new and stylish angel-adorned Bass Performance Hall nestled in downtown Fort Worth’s popular Sundance Square has clearly stolen Casa’s theatrical thunder since opening in 1998. The non-profit Casa organization now produces at both venues, bringing in national tours including the upcoming Ragtime and Cabaret, as well as locally produced and well-received standards such as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. While Metroplex actors must compete with out-of-towners for major roles, Casa continues a tradition of cultivating local talent such as the hugely popular character actor David Coffee, who recently stole Bye Bye Birdie from its stars. Coffee was also big hit as Pseudolus in “Forum” thanks to comedian Tom Arnold, who dropped out of the role just before rehearsals began. The best thing Casa has going for it is artist director Joel Farrell, whose production of the well worn Oklahoma! a couple of seasons back was both fresh and surprisingly sexy.

Rivaling Dallas theater icons, Fort Worth theaters have dramatically grown in number in the last two decades. The Fort Worth Theater scene includes two professional theaters with 20-year histories — Circle Theater and Stage West — and a couple of long-running, semi-professional companies, including the rustic outdoor Hip Pocket Theatre and Granbury Opera House west of town.

Circle Theater showcases very commercial fare, but producer Rose Pearson has also taken a few risks which have paid off handsomely, including the smash Texas premiere of playwright Del Shore’s coming-out comedy Sordid Lives, starring the beloved, pint-sized comic actor Leslie Jordan. Circle’s current run of Larry L. King’s latest comedy Dead Presidents Club, starring highly versatile Bill Jenkins as Richard Nixon and veteran actor Bruce Elliot as LBJ, is packing houses so fast that the run has been extended through most of September. Meanwhile Stage West’s former movie house space, which recently received a new façade, remains a popular destination for Neil Simon fans. Stage West merged with Fort Worth’s Shakespeare in the Park to become Allied Theater Group; the alliance has spawned comic troupes and even a production of the epic Angels in America. Non-professional Fort Worth troupes thrive from production to production, including the four-decade old Fort Worth Theatre (which unfortunately landed in Orchestral Hall, the worst performance space in the Metroplex) and the more promising and prolific Sage & Silo Theater, which produced a dozen daring productions during its first year in a former Catholic High School chapel.

New on the Dallas horizon is the Trinity River Arts Center, housing the Kim Dawson Theater, a rental space off Stemmons Freeway at Motor Street. Lean Theater Company opened the new theater with a revival of its zany production of Don Juan in Chicago. Next up, Lean will open Kevin Kling’s Lloyd’s Prayer, a comedy about a girl raised by raccoons starring those naked-under-the-sheets company regulars Nance Watkins, Thurman Moss, Marc Hebert, and Mary Lyons. The Trinity Arts Center will also be home to the first Playwrights Theatre 2000 Festival, set for September; four premiere productions from playwrights around the country will compete for Playwrights’ first annual Best Play award.

Exciting new productions are being planned elsewhere across the Metroplex, including three premiere musicals this season at Lyric Stage in Irving and a provocative new production of Romeo and Juliet starring Kitchen Dog Company members Tina Parker and Lynn Mathis in the title roles! Kitchen Dog’s home at The McKinney Avenue Contemporary (The MAC) recently added a new theater space, but parking limitations may make it difficult to have shows running in both venues simultaneously.

Target-audience companies including Echo and Wingspan (Dallas’ female-focused theaters) and Soul Rep, Teatro Dallas, and Jubilee (prominent ethnic-oriented companies) continue to present outstanding work that attracts diverse crowds. Not only is there something for everyone on Metroplex stages, but quality productions of any stripe are finding enthusiastic audiences hungry for more.