BETTY J. COTTER, Special to The Day
Theatre By The Sea, which offers Broadway shows in an old barn setting in Rhode Island, is celebrating its 80th birthday. Or rather, "she" is celebrating her birthday, as owner Bill Hanney likes to say.
If the old theater is a woman, she's held up pretty well over the years. The Matunuck barn opened its season last month with "Nunsense," which continues through June 16; followed by "Cats," June 19 through July 13; "Annie," from July 17 to Aug. 10, and "La Cage Aux Folles," Aug. 14 to Sept. 1.
This summer Hanney, who also owns the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Mass., has taken over production of the Matunuck theater, which he has owned since 2007. Among the changes he's made to the theater this season is a revamp to the theater entrance and remodeled bathrooms with period-style fixtures, with some help from the props department.
"She's 80. She needs a little facelift," said Hanney. The "little facelift" also included a new sound system.
"I've been complaining about the sound for seven years," he said. Now, he says, you can sit in any seat in the theater without missing a beat.
Tucked off a narrow country road a quick gull flight from the ocean, the old barn has seen many changes since it opened in 1933. A former farm and inn, the summer theater attracted dozens of movie stars in its heyday - Marlon Brando, Tallulah Bankhead, Mae West and Carol Channing among them. It's survived coastal storms, including the Hurricane of '38, and years when its stage went dark, most recently in the three years before Hanney bought the property. He hired a production company to run the business but decided last year it would be more cost-effective to produce the shows himself and share resources with North Shore, which he brought back from bankruptcy.
One thing that has not changed at Theatre By The Sea is its ambience. From the restaurant, Bistro By The Sea, theatre-goers stroll beneath a grapevine arbor where Rodgers & Hammerstein tunes play softly in the background. Before the show, they can mingle in the brick-walk courtyard, buy a drink at the gazebo and admire the gardens, where rhododendron and iris bloom. A ringing bell signals the start of a show.
With about 300 seats, including the balcony, the theater has an intimate feel. And, although the sound and lighting systems are state-of-the-art, the building still looks like a barn, with broad clapboard walls, exit doors covered loosely by curtains and a pitched roof. At night, it's not uncommon for fireflies or moths to crash the party, and occasionally the crunch of car tires on gravel drifts in from the driveway. Hanney has resisted air-conditioning the old barn, which can get steamy in mid-summer, instead relying on a complicated system of fans and louvers.
"They would hate me if I ever dry-walled that barn," he said.
It's all part of the summer theater's charm, what keeps audiences coming back year after year.
"You come here for this," Hanney said, gesturing toward the courtyard. "It is the magic of summer theater, of the whole experience. The restaurant by the shore, waiting at the gazebo - it is just a great night."
The before- and after-show experiences are taken seriously at Theatre By The Sea, where the restaurant offers entrees like Chicken Messina and Pan-Seared Scallops, along with lighter fare, including sandwiches and appetizers. The Bistro staff is experienced at getting diners fed in time to see the show, without making anyone feel rushed. Hanney is proud that he's never had to hold the curtain for a backup in the kitchen.
After the show, the audience is invited back to the Bistro to hear cast members sing show tunes during the Cabaret. Formerly headed by the outrageous drag queen Sabrina Blaze, the Cabaret is returning this season to its roots, with all cast members participating.
But the star attraction, of course, is the theater. Hanney has brought in an all-star lineup of directors for the four shows, which also will benefit from sharing resources with his larger venue. Both theaters are performing "La Cage Aux Folles" and "Cats," with the shows using the same costumes, props and some cast members.
The season started with the rollicking silliness of "Nunsense," about five nuns from Hoboken who put on a variety show to raise money to bury their dead sisters, felled by a bad batch of vichyssoise. It's directed by Dan Goggin, who not only directed the original version but wrote the book, music and lyrics.
Richard Stafford, "who has directed 'Cats' all over the world," was brought in for this production and the North Shore version. "He is just the go-to 'Cats' guy," Hanney said. "He's done several of my shows at North Shore."
"Annie" will be directed and choreographed by Richard Sebellico, one of the actors who played Rooster Hannigan in the original Broadway run of the show.
Charles Repole is directing "La Cage Aux Folles" at both venues, but although TV star Charles Shaughnessy (of "The Nanny" fame) will play Georges on the North Shore stage, he will not appear in Matunuck, which has a smaller budget than its Massachusetts cousin.
But, based on advance sales, Hanney thinks some of the shows will sell out. "'Cats' ticket sales are the highest advance sales in this time in the theater's history," Hanney said. "So we're off to a running start." The theater will sell season subscriptions until "Cats" opens on June 19.
The audiences come not just for the songs and the laughs, but also for the smell of the sea air, the insects buzzing under the lights and the crash of waves in the distance.
"We're by the seashore … You don't get that anywhere else," Hanney said. "You don't get the smell of the ocean scent on certain foggy nights."