Side By Side By Side By Side

It's no secret theatre districts act as important economic engines in urban areas. Although many theatres have been built in reasonable proximity to concert halls and mass transit lines, grouping auditoriums together as part of an architectural concept started nearly 100 years ago.

Today, one city block in the heart of Broadway's theatre district contains six theatres (the Booth, Shubert, Majestic, Broadhurst, Gerald Schoenfeld, Bernard B. Jacobs and John Golden) which share a curious architectural history.

Beginning a little more than 50 years ago, several American cities started laying plans for multi-theatre performing arts centers which could accommodate their resident theatre, opera, ballet and symphony organizations as well as touring productions.

  • Opened in 1962, New York's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts is home to the 3,900-seat Metropolitan Opera House, the 2,738-seat David Geffen Hall, the 2,586-seat David H. Koch Theatre, the 1,095-seat Alice Tully Hall, the 1,080-seat Vivian Beaumont Theatre, the 299-seat Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, the 268-seat Walter Reade Theatre and the 112-seat Clare Tow Theatre.
  • Since 1964, the Los Angeles Music Center has welcomed audiences into the 3,197-seat Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the 2,084-seat Ahmanson Theatre, the 739-seat Mark Taper Forum and the 2,265-seat Walt Disney Concert Hall.
  • Since its 1971 debut on the shores of the Potomac River, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has served the nation's capital with performances in its 2,454-seat Concert Hall, 2,294-seat Opera House, 1,161-seat Eisenhower Theater, 475-seat Terrace Theater, 398-seat Theater Lab, 320-seat Family Theater and 160-seat Jazz Club.


The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

  • Since 1973, civic leaders have done a spectacular job of renovating the historic downtown theatre district in Cleveland, Ohio. Playhouse Square (the largest performing arts center outside of New York City) now includes the 3,400-seat State Theatre, the 1,338-seat Ohio Theatre, the 2,714-seat Connor Palace, the 550-seat Hanna Theatre, the 500-seat Allen Theatre, the 288-seat 14th Street Theatre and the 150-seat Helen Rosenfeld Lewis Bialosky Lab Theatre.
  • Since its debut in 1987, Houston's Wortham Theater Center has been well-served by its 2,405-seat Brown Theatre and the smaller 1,100 seat Cullen Theatre.
  • That same year, the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa, Florida began welcoming audiences to the 2,610-seat Carol Morsani Hall, the 1,042-seat Ferguson Hall, the 268-seat Jaeb Theater and the 130-seat Shimberg Playhouse.


The Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale

  • Opened in 1991, the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale features the 2,700-seat Au-Rene Theater, the 590-seat Amaturo Theater and the 500-seat Abdo New River Room.
  • Opened in 2006, Miami's Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts includes the 2,400-seat Sanford and Dolores Ziff Ballet Opera House, the 2,200-seat John S. and James L. Knight Concert Hall and the 200-seat Carnival Studio Theater.
  • In 2009, Dallas opened up the AT&T Performing Arts Center, which features the 2,300-seat Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House and the 600-seat Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre.


The AT&T Performing Arts Center in Dallas

The San Francisco Bay area has two major performing arts centers.

  • The San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center consists of the 3,146-seat War Memorial Opera House, the 2,743-seat Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall and the Veterans Building (which contains the 928-seat Herbst Theatre, and will soon open the 299-seat Atrium Theatre in the Wilsey Center for Opera).
  • In Walnut Creek, the Lesher Arts Center houses the 785-seat Hoffman Theatre, the 297-seat Margaret Lesher Theatre and the 133-seat Knight Stage 3 Theatre.

But what about theatres that have become geographic neighbors without being part of a major architectural concept? On one block near Union Square, the Geary Theater plays host to the American Conservatory Theater while the Curran Theatre is currently undergoing renovations. On one block in downtown Berkeley, the Aurora Theatre Company resides close to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre's two auditoriums, the 600-seat proscenium-style Roda Theatre and the 400-seat Thrust Stage (which is currently undergoing renovations).


The Aurora Theatre Company's Alafi Auditorium


The Berkeley Repertory Company's Roda Theatre
(Photo by: Timothy Hursley)

I recently attended back-to-back performances of the season's opening productions for both the Aurora Theatre Company and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Each show focused on the trials and tribulations of some severely confused women. Some were wistful and wondrous, others were bone tired and laden down with lots of emotional baggage.

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The Aurora Theatre Company launched its 2015-2016 season with the Bay area premiere of Marisa Wegrzyn's poignant Mud Blue Sky, a contemporary comedy which takes in the parking lot as well as one of the cookie-cutter rooms in a chain hotel close by Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. From the moment the exhausted Beth (Jamie Jones) enters her darkened hotel room dressed in her flight attendant's uniform and begins the painful process of taking off her shoes, turning on the lights and recoiling from a disgustingly sticky remote control, the audience understands that this is one tired, burned-out airline employee.


Jamie Jones (Beth) and Rebecca Dines (Sam) in a
scene from Mud Blue Sky (Photo by: David Allen)

There is little chance of Beth getting any peace and quiet because her excited co-worker, Sam (Rebecca Dines), is eager to change out of her uniform and head out to a party at one of their favorite bars. Sam has also agreed to meet up with their former colleague, Angie (Laura Jane Bailey), who left her career in the sky to get a divorce and take care of her ailing mother. In the process, Angie put on a substantial amount of weight and learned that it's possible to have a decent life that is more than a series of lift-offs and landings.


Jamie Jones (Beth) and Laura Jane Bailey (Angie) in
a scene from Mud Blue Sky (Photo by: David Allen)

There's just one problem. Beth (who lives in St. Louis) has an appointment to meet her drug dealer in the parking lot. The 18-year-old Jonathan (Devin S. O'Brien) is dutifully waiting for her, clad in a tuxedo after his prom date dumped him so she could hang out with her friends. Although Jonathan is suffering through an advanced stage of teen gawkiness, he certainly knows how to roll a joint. He's also an extremely talented sketch artist.


Jamie Jones (Beth) and Devin S. O'Brien (Jonathan) in
a scene from Mud Blue Sky (Photo by: David Allen)

While the flight attendants are forced to be sweet and smiling during their working hours, things change once they're no longer cruising at 30,000 feet.

  • Beth is seriously considering taking the airline's early retirement package and trying to find another line of work (although she has no idea what she might be good at). Facing serious financial challenges, she's physically, emotionally and spiritually exhausted. Like most flight attendants, her feet are killing her.
  • Sam is trying to keep up a positive attitude and cling to her self-image as a party animal. However, she's deeply concerned about her young son who has just broken their dishwasher. What really unnerves Sam is the text she receives saying that he's cleaned up the mess in the kitchen (he's never cleaned up anything in his life).
  • Following her divorce, Angie discovered that she really missed the camaraderie she used to enjoy with her fellow flight attendants. She knows that she's gained too much weight to be able to work another flight, but has arrived at the hotel with a $400 bottle of cognac that she intends to share with her old friends.


Jamie Jones (Beth) and Laura Jane Bailey (Angie) in
a scene from Mud Blue Sky (Photo by: David Allen)

When Sam and Angie discover Beth's secret (that Jonathan is her source for weed), they become acutely interested in his potential.

  • Sam comes on strong, asking if she can buy some weed but then confesses that she hasn't got any spare money. Could she work out some kind of "arrangement" with Jonathan?
  • Angie has no trouble paying for her marijuana and is more than happy to let Jonathan use his nimble fingers to roll her a joint.


Rebecca Dines, Devin S. O'Brien and Laura Jane Bailey
in a scene from Mud Blue Sky (Photo by: David Allen)

When Jonathan gets a call from his girlfriend who's bored and wants to know if he'd like to get back together for the rest of the evening, all three women get very protective of their new friend. Although Angie (the only one who lives near Chicago) may have found herself a new source, it is Beth who may end up having the most fruitful future with Jonathan. Why? With his talent as a graphic designer, he's offered to design the labels for her new microbrewery once she retires from flying.


Laura Jane Bailey (Angie) and Devin S. O'Brien (Jonathan)
in a scene from Mud Blue Sky (Photo by: David Allen)

Aurora's production of Mud Blue Sky was sensitively directed by Tom Ross on a unit set by Kate Boyd that nicely mimics the decor of a hotel chain's guest rooms. Special credit goes to Chris Houston for his sound design of planes taking off on a flight path which passes right above the hotel.

Wegrzyn (whose mother was a flight attendant) certainly knows the territory she is writing about. And yet, with three severely-conflicted women and one likable but confused young man, it's surprising that Mud Blue Sky feels like such a slight play. While all three women are strong actresses, I was stunned to see the gangly young Devin S. O'Brien (Jonathan) walk off with the show. Jamie Jones is one of the Bay area's most formidable actresses and to see a young actor match her step for step signals a talent to watch.

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The Berkeley Repertory Theatre opened its 2015-2016 season with the world premiere of a new musical entitled Amélie (which is based on the 2001 film by the same name). Directed by Pam MacKinnon (with a book by Craig Lucas, musical direction by Kimberly Grigsby and musical staging and choreography by Sam Pinkleton), the show is most notable for its fluidity.

There's no doubt that David Zinn (scenic and costume designer), Jane Cox (lighting designer), Kai Harada (sound designer) and Peter Nigrini (projection designer) have created a delicious world of whimsy in which a young Parisian lass (Savvy Crawford as Young Amélie and Samantha Barks as the adult Amélie Poulain) can live out her fantasies. Nor is there any doubt that Daniel Messé's score and vocal arrangements (with lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Messé and orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin) have a strong lyrical appeal. As Tysen notes:

Our biggest discovery was just how much music the show required. At the beginning of our process, we only musicalized Amélie's fantasies, but soon learned the story was more effectively told when sung. This process has definitely been one of trial and error as we have thrown out just as many songs as are currently in the show. I knew it couldn't sound like the movie score. This is definitely an American take on a French film so, very early on Dan announced "No accordions!' Fortunately, Dan's music has a folksy, whimsical vibe that easily lent itself to Amélie's world.


Samantha Barks with the cast of Amélie (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Berkeley Rep's production (which whirls around the stage of the Roda Theatre with the greatest of ease) is obviously a labor of young love as well as professional love. Prominent members of the cast include:

  • John Hickok doubling as Amélie's father (Raphael Poulain) and the mysterious Bretodeaux.
  • Alison Cimmet doubling as Amélie's mother (Amandine Poulain) and the ebullient flight attendant (Philomene) who carries a cherished garden gnome from the Poulain's garden wherever she travels so that she can post pictures of the gnome in all of the places Raphael has fantasized about visiting.
  • David Andino doubling as a blind beggar and the world-famous garden gnome.
  • Tony Sheldon doubling as Raymond Dufayel (a frustrated painter who annually attempts to recreate Renoir's famous Impressionist painting, Luncheon of the Boating Party) as well as the grocer, Collignon.


Samantha Barks (Amélie) and Tony Sheldon (Dufayel)
in a scene from Amélie (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

  • Maria-Christina Oliveras as Suzanne (the owner of the Café des Deux Moulins in Montmartre, who suffered a leg injury while working in the circus as a trapeze artist).
  • Alyse Alan Louis as Georgette, a local hypochondriac who hangs out at the café where Amélie works.
  • Randy Blair as Hipoloto, a frustrated writer.
  • Carla Duren as Gina, a waitress who works alongside Amélie.


Samantha Barks, Maria-Christian Oliveras and Adam Chanler-Berat
in a scene from Amélie (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

  • Adam Chanler-Berat as Nino, the handsome and confused young man destined to fall in love with Amélie (even as she taunts him and plays hard to get).
  • Perry Sherman as Lucien, the grocer's assistant.
  • Paul Whitty as Joseph.


Adam Chanler-Berat and Samantha Barks in a
scene from Amélie (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

It's rare to encounter a fantasy in which a young girl filled with mischief and whimsy is forced to mature into a young lover, perhaps unsure of taking risks but realizing that if she fails to communicate with the man who fascinates her, nothing much will ever happen. And yet, to my utter surprise, I found myself far more interested in Adam Chanler-Berat's beautifully-sung portrayal of Nino (which exuded more depth, mystery and passion than anyone else onstage) than in Ms. Barks.

While there is lots of buzz about Amélie moving to Broadway in the Spring of 2016, this show is still very much in the tryout phase. The basic elements are in place although, on opening night, there seemed to be a great sameness to much of Messé's (mostly charming) score. My guess is that, during its Berkeley tryout, new songs may be added which will strengthen the moments of dramatic conflict. Here's the trailer:

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape