Theaters Seek Solid Ground Amid Shifting Sands

Cast of “El Hajj Malik” at Anthony Bean Theater

Many in New Orleans theater circles would describe the state of the local dramatic arts as healthy, maybe even robust. But managers of theater spaces around town may have a slightly different view. It’s not an easy to meet the overhead expenses of a performance space while also managing artistic challenges, which is why the handful of theaters in the local area have experienced mixed fortunes.

One of the most promising developments of the past year occurred at the suburban theater known as Rivertown, where a pair of theater veterans took the reins. Actor and director Gary Rucker and choreographer, performer and producer Kelly Fouchi – longtime collaborators and founders of Theatre 13 – took over artistic management at Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts in Kenner.

The pair announced a full season of main-stage and children’s theater productions and are reinvigorating Rivertown Theaters by bringing in some of the area’s top stage and behind-the-scenes talent.

University of New Orleans award-winning director David Hoover oversees the  March production “Noises Off,” a comic farce starring Rucker, Tracey Collins, Mike Harkins and Chrissy Garrett. Coming in May is “Gypsy,” followed by a summer festival that includes “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” starring Ricky Graham, and “When Ya Smilin’,” written and directed by Graham.

Rucker and Fouchi have already announced their 2013-14 season, opening with “42nd Street” in September and ending with the Mel Brooks musical “Young Frankenstein.”

Planning upcoming seasons has been more difficult for some other area theaters, including the city’s well-respected Southern Repertory Theatre. The establishment, which bills itself as the city’s only year-round professional theater, had been a longtime tenant of the upscale Canal Place retail and office complex, when suddenly, it lost its lease.

Southern Rep set off on a year of searching – first for a replacement space, and later just for a place where it could take up temporary residence. Artistic director Aimée Hayes finally brought the theater to a soft landing at the Contemporary Arts Center in the Warehouse District. In the CAC’s Freeport-McMoRan Theatre, Southern Rep has staged several well-received productions, including Graham starring in “Shirley Valentine,” “The Velveteen Rabbit” children’s tale and the edgy “Venus in Fur” in February.  

Southern Rep has turned to other venues as well, presenting “The Lily’s Revenge” in collaboration with Cripple Creek Theatre Company and several other companies at the Den of Muses. And when “Venus in Fur” showed staying power through the end of its run at CAC, the production moved over to Fred Nuccio’s Mid-City Theatre for a multi-weekend extension.

Mid-City Theatre, which has fast become an entertainment anchor in its Bayou St. John neighborhood, is branching out in March with a month-long program of song and dance. The theater’s Cabaret Month lineup includes Jennifer Blades, Anais St. John, Harry Mayronne’s Red Hot Blue Notes, Lisa Picone and more. (See www.midcitytheatre.com for details.)

Meanwhile, Anthony Bean Community Theater on Carrollton Avenue in New Orleans continues its dual mission of presenting quality productions and developing  young local talent.  Running through March 10 is “El Hajj Malik,” a play about Malcolm X by New Orleans writer N.R. Davidson Jr.  Also on its summer schedule is “Nu Skool/Old School,” an exploration of music past and present by young actors, directed by Anthony Bean.

Back in the suburbs, Jefferson Performing Arts Society continues a scaled-down season of entertainment with “Frost/Nixon,” “Driving Miss Daisy” and a kids’ production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Offering  performances at both East and West Bank locations, the organization’s east-side programs continue on the stage of East Jefferson High School, as the society looks forward to the long-awaited completion of the new Jefferson Performing Arts Center.

Paring down a season is, of course, preferable to going dark, which is the status of two other local stages. Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré seems stuck in limbo at this writing, with a reopening date in New Orleans’ French Quarter still not set. After closing the theater due to financial troubles and then announcing it would mount a comeback by selling part of its building to restaurateur Dickie Brennan, the theater’s board has been mostly mum. Le Petit’s website says only that “this star will be reborn” and a new season will be announced soon.

Actors Theatre in Metairie was another casualty of economic hard times, announcing early in 2012 that it would cease operations.

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