How to Build an Up-and-Coming Community Theater
The crazy, comic chemistry of the Mel Brooks smash-hit Broadway musical The Producers is being offered this month by the Shoreline Theatre Company (STC), the musical’s only performance in Connecticut this year, starring a cast of 60 auditioned players from points all along the shoreline and the rest of the state.
The STC production of the story of Bialystock and Bloom—the famed, fictional producers who accidentally create a hysterical hit musical about Adolf Hitler—will be offered in three performances, Thursday, June 27 and Friday, June 28 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, June 29 at 3 p.m. in the Cathyann Roding Auditorium, Branford High School, 185 East Main Street. Tickets are available at www.shorelinetheatrecompany.com at advance prices of $15 for adults, $10 for students/seniors, with an additional $5 charged at the door. This show is rated PG-13.
Colin Sheehan, co-founder of STC and co-director of The Producers, still remembers the electric experience of seeing the original Broadway cast, starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, when the show was a smash in New York, where it ran from 2001 to 2007.
It’s one of the reasons why he’s so thrilled to bring the show to Connecticut audiences this year.
“I saw the original cast, from a seat in the last row of the balcony, and it was one of the best experiences I ever had in the theater,” says Sheehan. “It feels like an old Broadway musical. The musical numbers, the huge orchestra sound, the big ensemble numbers...and it’s just hysterical.”
STC is even going to the extreme of bringing the original Broadway tour/Las Vegas showgirl costumes to Branford for its production.
“We are very excited for the audience to see them,” says Sheehan. “The showgirls are so iconic, and just by looking at those costumes you see the Mel Brooks humor, with a big pretzel or sausage. You don’t even have to do anything, and you’re laughing by looking.”
Alicia Loesche, the show’s costume designer, will be working with the cast and the rest of the crew to deliver those laughs.
Gimmicks and sight gags aside, there’s another reason why this rising theater company, which was founded less than two years ago and has already mounted six full-scale shows, is willing to invest in extraordinary elements like show-stopping showgirl costumes, says STC co-founder and The Producers co-director Mike Martone, Jr.
“It also shows we’re trying to bring an appreciation to our audience, that we care that they’re here,” says Martone. “We are not just putting on a show, just to put on a show. We’re putting on a show for an experience; for something that’s going to move you in some way—and it can be done by a community theater company. And I feel like we have proven, over the last two years, that we can do it.”
In fact, they can. The show’s cast, ranging in age from 15 to 60, include performers with serious chops.
Just the Right Men
Because the show’s energy hinges on the chemistry between the character of Max Bialystock, a washed-up, scheming producer, and Leo Bloom, a nerdy accountant with dreams of becoming a Broadway big shot, it was incredibly important to Sheehan to find just the right men for the job. He found it in Martone, who plays Bialystock, and Chris Lemieux, who plays Bloom. Both are Branford High School (BHS) alumni.
Martone, who performed in BHS musicals, went on to appear in several operas as a member of the Western Connecticut State University Opera Ensemble. He now teaches at BHS as a music educator and directs the high school choir programs. He also co-directs the BHS spring musical with Sheehan.
“Mike and I started this company, but we didn’t pick this show thinking he was going to be Max Bialystock. When I saw his audition tape, he didn’t have a say,” says Sheehan.
Lemieux, an actor and director based in New York City, is a member of the Actors Equity Association. He majored in acting at Pace University and has performed in numerous productions around the country. He also assists STC and TaborArts in Branford with their youth productions. Following The Producers, Lemieux will also appear in Legacy Theatre’s Midsummer Night’s Dream on the Branford Green, Tuesday, July 2 through Saturday, July 6 at 8 p.m.
“Their chemistry together is magic. I cannot wait for people to see it,” says Sheehan of Lemieux and Martone.
The same can be said for the show’s supporting performers in iconic roles including Ulla (Alison Johnson), Roger (Scott Towers), Carmen (Patrick DeLucia), and Franz (Joe Martone).
“The supporting roles, and everyone in the production, are all so great. The audience is going to be laughing from start to finish,” says Sheehan.
‘Old-School, with a New Twist’
The show’s choreographer, Paola Rarick, co-owner of StudioOne Dance Center in Branford, is another important part of the STC creative team, and she’s pulling out all the stops for this production.
“There’s lots of dancing, and a lot of these dance numbers are so iconic that I’ve tried to stick with as much of the Broadway choreography as I could,” says Rarick, who is working with a handful of trained dancers and an ensemble that’s quickly learning and gelling.
“They’re all holding their own—they’re all working hard and they’re all making the numbers look great,” she said. “And I’m expecting more than I ever, ever have out of the dancers. It’s a lot of tapping, there’s jazz, and there’s a lot of showy, old-school-with-a-new-twist choreography.”
True to the Broadway show, although with some added acrobatics that Rarick has included, there’s even a number where a troupe of elderly female benefactors (including some great guys gussied up like little old ladies) perform a memorable dance number with their walkers.
STC’s sets, live pit orchestra, costumes, acting, singing, and dancing combine to created a high caliber production, says Johnson, who plays the show’s Swedish bombshell, Ulla. Johnson got her start in BHS musical productions including Phantom of the Opera (2011), and went on to study and perform with the University of Connecticut Opera Theatre program.
“Being able to come back to a community theater in Branford with the caliber of talent that’s here is just an amazing opportunity,” says Johnson.
“To Colin’s, Paola’s, and Mike’s credit, they’ve facilitated and built something I never thought Branford would have,” Lemieux says. “When I was a kid, when we were all kids, there wasn’t any summer theater outlet. There only was the [high school] spring musical, and that was the only thing you had.”
How to Build a Community Theater Company
Sheehan, a native of Branford and BHS musical alumnus, planted the seeds for STC in his teens when he founded MusiKids CT, Inc., which gave away more than $25,000 over seven years to a variety of great causes including scholarships for instruments, lessons, and band camps.
He went on to become a television actor who worked on the Rosie O’Donnell Show, and, as an adult, he has produced, directed, hosted, and performed both in the tri-state area and abroad. Never losing touch with his hometown, he has raised funds and awareness for many Branford organizations, as well as Rosie’s Theater Kids, Pulse of Orlando, Make-A-Wish, and many more. For years, Colin worked for Seaview Productions, a progressive production company based in Branford that has a remarkably long line of notable and high-profile successes to its name. He became artistic director of Tabor Arts Branford and eventually founded STC.
Martone and Sheehan say the local Parks and Recreation Department in Branford also has been an important part of the community theater’s success so far. It acts as an umbrella organization for STC’s summer camp programs, holiday productions, and adult and youth theater productions.
This summer, the recreation department’s summer camp with STC will produce performances of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland Jr. in Branford in July. In October, Lemieux will direct an adult/youth cast in Peter and the Starcatcher, followed by STC’s holiday production of the Disney musical Frozen, coming in January 2020. STC is also planning a site-specific, small-cast production as the first musical to be performed in the new Branford Community/Senior Center in the spring of 2020, said Sheehan.
“Then, we’re going to do another summer musical next year. We don’t know what it is, but it will be fun,” said Sheehan.
The demand to join STC’s musical family is definitely growing. And remember—STC only launched in the summer of 2018.
“Our first summer camp last year, we had 30 kids. This year, we have 66 and we’re double-casting four performances of Alice and Wonderland,” said Sheehan. “We have seven to eight camp counselors [through the] Recreation Department, and counselors-in-training, all with a focus on the arts. It’s so great that [STC] is run with Parks and Recreation because it’s affordable. We are probably one of the most affordable theater companies around, and we really do cater to all different ages.”
Martone adds that parents have been very supportive, and pleased with the camps.
“There are a great deal of kids who are not interested in sports or dance only, and the bottom line is we have a certain niche here that is really important to them, and it is only going to continue to grow the arts, and appreciation for the arts, in this town,” Martone says. “And then there are those from other communities who are looking for an opportunity to experience something like this. We hear a lot from parents and family members that they’re sending their daughter, their son, or they’re telling their cousin about us; because in their towns, the programs aren’t as strong or as big, or don’t exist at all.”
That appreciation comes through with area residents seeking out the chance to join STC adult productions, including The Producers.
“From [STC’s earlier production of] Hairspray to now, with The Producers, the interest from people who want to do this has branched out of Branford,” says Martone. “We have people from East Haven, North Branford, and all the way up through Cheshire who are coming back from last year. They’re just a part of this community now.”
“We have someone who lives in Waterbury and someone that lives in Mystic,” Sheehan adds. “They travel an hour each way just to be a part of this special group. We’re doing The Producers in 25 rehearsals—it’s a very quick process, six weeks—but by the end of it, everyone gets so close, and they can’t wait for the next one.”
STC’s audiences come from across the shoreline and beyond, as well, as this company continues to build a reputation for putting on top-notch productions. And who wouldn’t love a chance to see The Producers, asks Sheehan.
“There are not a lot of adult theater companies around, and while this is a popular show, this is certainly a show that you can’t do in high school, so it doesn’t get done a lot,” he says. “As of now, in 2019, we are the only theater company in Connecticut that’s doing it—so we hope to have three sell-out shows! It’s Mel Brooks’s humor that captures a period in time. We think people know the show already, so they’re going to be excited to see it. We don’t want people to miss this show, so we’re doing everything we can to get the word out there.”