As I sat in Mid-City Theatre watching actress Ashley Rose Bailey whistle and beep her way through the role of R2D2 in “William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope,” it occurred to me what an odd theatrical summer it has been.
For the better part of two decades, Tulane University essentially dominated the summer theater landscape in New Orleans, staging Summer Lyric, the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane and Patchwork Players.
With the end of school and the onset of vacation, smaller theatrical companies closed up shop, and their members headed over to the oak-covered Uptown campus.
Three musicals, two Shakespearean productions and the longest-running children’s theater in town monopolized the city’s talent pool.
Even as the scene grew with the influx of post-Katrina performance practitioners, the campus remained a theatrical terminus.
The Nola Project, Cripple Creek Theatre, the now-defunct Inside/Out Productions, and many others relied on the university to provide them a stage. In essence, the hottest months of the year placed Tulane at the center of the New Orleans’ theatrical scene.
But with Patchwork’s departure to Rivertown and a number of theater companies, including Southern Rep, bringing their own educational programs to life, the dynamic has shifted.
When coupled with this year’s Shakespeare Fest’s infusion of new talent and its smaller numbers of available roles, these developments led to alternative offerings and opportunities this summer.
Readings, intimate productions, smaller musical revues, new work and popular burlesque troupes could be found from Mid-City to St. Claude Avenue, giving New Orleanians more summer options than they have had in a long time.
Standard productions were indicative of producers dipping their toes into theater during a time when most New Orleanians were mostly looking for ways to escape the heat.
Director Harold Gervais remounted his well-received “Chesapeake” with the award winning actor Jake Bartush over at Barrister’s Gallery, Monica Harris and Matt Story presented a view of loss and its aftermath with Christopher Shinn’s “Dying City” at The Shadowbox, and JPAS gave its subscribers a little Fourth of July fun with “The Complete History of America.”
Smaller musical revues and cabarets flourished with Sean Patterson, Jefferson Turner and Amanda Zirkenbach’s clever and professional “A Midsummer Night’s Cabaret,” Dorian Rush’s Linda Ronstadt tribute “True Blue Bayou” at The Allways, Rivertown’s patriotic presentation of “The Victory Belles” and Le Petit’s restaging of Rivertown’s own “Under the Boardwalk.”
None of those shows were elaborate in their construction, but all demonstrated producers working within the form’s confines to present highly polished product.
If there are two real heroes to this summer season, they are Fred Nuccio and Su Gonzcy at Mid-City Theatre.
Not only were the “Star Wars’” reading and the “Midsummer” cabaret under their watch, but the producer and production manager also seemed to open their doors to any and all that had a crazy or inspired idea. Along with “Bent,” “Reefer Madness,” and “The Human Buffet,” the theater presented Southern Rep’s new play series 3x3 and Pat Bourgeois’ ongoing life-of-its-own comic soap opera “Debauchery.”
And, of course, variety entertainment continued to thrive. “The Dirty Dime Peep Show” scandalized, “Cirque d’Licious” spun, and “Freaksheaux to Geaux” proffered the strange.
As for Tulane, they are doing just fine.
Summer Lyric had one of its most successful seasons to date. All three of its shows were well-received and boasted titles guaranteed to please most middlebrow theater goers.
And after a hiccup with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the Shakespeare Fest found its footing and offered a series of inspired smaller productions, including the delightful “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged).”
It will take another season or two to see if this surprising burst becomes a trend. But happily for fans of the stage, the New Orleans theater community has demonstrated plenty of potential for the dog days of summers to come.
Jim Fitzmorris writes about theater. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.