The Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen” rocked this year’s Tony Awards, putting it on a must-see list for those Waco theater mavens lucky enough to make it to New York. For those with no New York in their immediate future, “Dear Evan Hansen” seems likely destined for non-delivery in Waco.
Likewise for “The Color Purple” or “Waitress,” two popular musicals whose scale and expense put them beyond a Waco community theater production.
Just because a full-flown staging of some of Broadway’s hot musicals put them out of reach of a Waco stage, however, doesn’t mean a taste of those musicals — captured in a song or two — can’t come to town. In fact, “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Waitress” (music by Sara Bareilles) and “The Color Purple” plus three more Broadway productions will supply the songs for the Waco Civic Theatre’s one-night show “New Theatre For New Audiences.”
Seven actors will sing numbers from those musicals, as well as from “Bubble Boy,” “The Last Five Years” and the work-in-progress “Dust and Shadows” (think Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper) in the cabaret-styled revue, providing a hint of what the buzz is about for those Broadway productions.
“First and foremost, they’re songs — and good songs,” said director Phillip Diaz, who led the WCT production of “Rent” in May. “We’re trying to keep things as new and fresh as possible.”
A cast drawn from previous WCT shows will sing the numbers of “New Theatre For New Audiences:” Charity Gaines (“Hairspray,” “Sister Act”), Erin Shephard (“The Addams Family”), Diaz (“Beauty and the Beast”), Lauren Weber (“Les Miserables”), Kaleigh Huser (“Hairspray”), Tim Griffin (“Sweeney Todd”) and Buddy Novak (“Rent”). Cameron Dinkens, music director for “Hairspray” and ensemble leader in ”Rent,” returns to lead a five-piece backing combo.
Staging will be minimal with a bit of mood lighting and, given some table seating for the audience, the theater’s new thrust stage extended into the seating area will provide a more intimate experience.
A greater interaction between performer and viewer is part of an approach of wooing new audiences, said Waco Civic Theater executive director Eric Shephard. “Cabaret can be incredibly powerful and moving. This (staging) allows our audiences to have a different setting, one that’s more intimate, more soul-baring.”
Expect more in the weeks ahead. The theater will bring back the performers of last season’s “Million Dollar Quartet” to sing more vintage rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly for a fund-raising “Stars: Million Dollar Quartet Reunion” on Sept. 8. On Aug. 18 and 19, several WCT actors will perform a shadowcast of the 2016 film musical “La La Land” at the Waco Hippodrome.
Shadowcasting, where live actors mirror onscreen singing and dancing, adds a new dimension to a film — one where audience members are encouraged to sing along and speak along with the dialogue — that also exposes a film audience to the energy and personal connection of theater.
“Waco is a diverse enough area that we need to diversify, both in content and in style of delivery,” Shephard said. Shadowcasting “La La Land,” for instance, gives some WCT company members a chance to do a bit of jazz and contemporary dance.
Like “New Theater For New Audiences,” it’s offering something outside the mainstream plays and musicals of the regular season. “Actors and audiences are interested in newer work. I’m happy to provide something for them, although you can lose a lot of money making actors happy,” he said.
Providing something different has brought audiences in for Brazos Theatre, 7524 Bosque Blvd., whose offerings blend murder mystery dinner theaters, improv comedy nights and radio show stagings, with performances sometimes in non-theatrical settings such as McLane Stadium’s Baylor Club.
For director Beth Richards, the name of the game is interaction with the audience and an emphasis on entertainment. “We have our niche and we’re doing something completely different. We do light-hearted entertainment, something that audiences will walk away with a smile or a laugh,” she said.
Case in point: The theater’s next murder mystery on Aug. 18 and 19 is set at a high school prom in the 1980s, “Murder at the ‘80s Prom.”
Richards has a core of company players who participate in the theater’s varied productions. “The people I have are so versatile. We have a close-knit group that’s closer to repertory theater,” the director said. Over time, audience members who came out for improv comedy have migrated to dinner theater or other Brazos Theatre offerings.
Dinner and a show
Dinner theater is a draw as well for the Bosque Art Center’s Tin Roof Theatre in Clifton, which frequently wraps one or two dinner theater performances in its main season productions.
And dinner theater is the only performance art at the 10,000-square-foot Flint Creek Manor in Meridian, where owners Jackie and Mike Murski join director James Johnson in putting on “Murder at Flint Creek Manor,” a monthly murder mystery dinner theater that draws fans from Dallas, Fort Worth and Austin as well as Waco.
Johnson’s joined by both WCT and Brazos Theatre actors in murders whose plotlines, settings and costumes change every few months. Saturday’s dinner theater involves Sherlock Holmes while the Roaring Twenties flavor September’s production and trick-or-treating October provides a traditional masquerade ball.
Johnson, manager of Waco’s Clay Pot Restaurant, filmmaker and a former WCT actor and director, said the personal interaction between actors charged to keep secrets and audience members trying to solve mysteries adds an appealing dimension to live performance.
Rather than traditional theater where action is confined to a stage and limited by a script, a murder mystery dinner theater mingles performers and spectators, with written lines a starting point for dialogue.
“Everyone loves a theatrical murder, apparently,” he said. “Murder happens around you and you know something is going to happen.”