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Critic's Choice Kicks Off Surprising Season at Arena Dinner Theatre

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader


Theatre audiences looking at Arena's 2011-2012 season might be more surprised to discover what's not on the schedule than by what is. This year, there's no Neil Simon, no Agatha Christie, no Steel Magnolias, no Nunsense, no Arsenic and Old Lace.

In fact, according to executive director Dave Frey, five of the shows set for the new year have never been performed by anyone in Fort Wayne, and the other two shows haven't been seen in the city in decades. The new season reflects a concerted effort by Arena to freshen up the theatre's usual line-up of familiar comedies, mysteries, and popular musicals.

"It's easy to get in a pattern in community theatre where every 10 years or so you do the same shows," explains Frey. "You know them, they're familiar, they're fun, but we've got patrons that have been coming here for 25, 30 years, and they often ask, 'Can you do something new?' So this year, we decided to do a season where all seven shows have never been done on the Arena stage before."

It's a risky move, trying out unfamiliar titles, but Frey believes that Arena's regulars are ready to see a different kind of season. And he thinks that new shows will energize the creative forces needed to get the plays up and running. "The hardest thing for theaters to do right now is to find shows that directors want to direct, actors want to act in, and audiences want to see," Frey says. "It's difficult to find a show that satisfies all three requirements. There are a million comedy scripts that audiences will enjoy, but it's harder to get directors and actors interested unless it's something new and challenging."

One of the casualties of this new approach: no musicals for 2011-2012, which is surprising, considering that musicals are usually a cornerstone for a dinner theatre's season. "We just couldn't find a musical that struck us this time," Frey says. "Getting the right director, the right actors, the right time slot. . . and musicals are just getting terribly expensive to produce, they're at least three time the cost of a straight play." Which means a season heavy on the light-hearted: five of the shows this season are comedies, one is a farce, and one is a comic thriller. "It's a cliche, but my approach was based on the Depression era, when motion pictures took off because people just wanted to be entertained. I think we've seen, in the last couple of seasons, that people just want to show up and forget the world for a couple of hours. Have some laughs, forget the doom and gloom, and just enjoy a nice stage show."

Critic's Choice, the debut show for the season, is a good example of the kind of show Arena audiences can expect to see this year — a bright, urbane comedy from Broadway's past that probably deserves a second look from modern audiences. The 1960 comedy from Ira Levin concerns the moral dilemma a NY drama critic faces when he chooses to review an awful play written by his second wife. The original production, starring Henry Fonda, had a successful run on Broadway before being turned into a mostly-terrible 1963 movie starring Lucille Ball and Bob Hope. The bad reputation of the movie kept Critic's Choice from becoming a popular repertory title, and the play has only been produced sporadically since the 1960's.

In looking at the script, director Gregory Stieber and cast discovered an extremely well-written, very funny examination of a serious question: How far are you willing to go to maintain your personal (and artistic) integrity? Are you willing to sacrifice your personal happiness? Though the play is built for laughs and contains some familiar comic conventions (the narcissistic ex-wife, the seen-it-all mother-in-law, the amorous interloper), the moral question at the center of the play gives the comedy a dramatic heft that won't be lost on theatre people, artists, or anyone who contemplates selling his soul for a little peace and quiet.

Jeff Moore, who plays the critic, Parker Ballantine, likens Critic's Choice to a sort of an American version of a Noel Coward drawing room comedy — very smart, quick paced, and featuring sophisticated intellectuals who enjoy the pleasures of word craft and witty bantering. It's also very redolent of the early '60s, the time of Kennedy and Madison Avenue and Elaine May and Mike Nichols, the time when New York and Broadway were the artistic epicenters of popular entertainment. Though there are a few references from the era that audiences won't get, the cast believes that the very modern questions asked by the script — Sell out, or not? — will resonate strongly with a 2011 audience.

Arena Dinner Theater presents Critic’s Choice
719 Rockhill Street

Friday, August 5, 12, 19
Saturday, August 6, 13, 20

Doors & Cash Bar open at 6:15 PM
Dinner served at 7:00 PM
Curtain time is 8:00 PM

Tickets are $35 and can be purchased by phone at (260) 424-5622; online at arenadinnertheater.org; or at the box office at 719 Rockhill Street. Box office hours are 9:00 AM - 1:00 PM Mon-Fri and 9:00 AM - 1:00PM on show dates.

For dinner menu and seating, go to arenadinnertheater.org

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