Friday, July 10, 2009

Theater feature: Caldwell's chief betting on world-premiere 'Vices'

Marcus Bellamy and Holly Shunkey in Vices.

By Hap Erstein

Note to restaurant waiters: Be nice to your fellow workers. You never know when one has a new musical you will want to produce one day.

And conversely, if you have a musical you want to see staged, you never know when one of your co-workers will one day run a theater.

That is how Vices: A Love Story, opening today at the Caldwell Theatre, became the debut presentation of new artistic director, Clive Cholerton. Sure enough, the show was sent his way by singer/songwriter/former waitress Ilene Reid, who worked alongside Cholerton many years ago in a New York eatery.

“She introduced me to her music and her talent and we have stayed very good friends,” says Cholerton, the Boca Raton playhouse’s board chairman for the past four years. Recently, Reid and her team of collaborators send a rough draft of Vices to him “with the idea of reworking it and telling the story through dance, and I just fell in love with the idea of it,” he says. In addition to Reid, the script and score are written by Michael Heitzman, Everett Bradley and Susan Draus.

The story is what Cholerton calls “boy-meets-girl, boy and girl expose each other’s vices, vulnerabilities, strengths and weaknesses. Then they get to a point where they have to make a decision of whether this relationship is worth hanging onto or not.”

The show brims with original songs in styles ranging from pop to jazz to disco to rhythm and blues. What makes Vices: A Love Story different and increases the show’s risk factor is that “the dominant storytelling component is dance.”

Choreographing the show is A.C. Ciulla, Tony Award nominee in 1999 for Footloose, who has gathered a cast of Broadway veterans from such shows as Rent, Mamma Mia! and Tarzan. Cholerton likens the show’s choreography to television’s So You Think You Can Dance. “It’s very physical. He asks a lot of his dancers.”

Adding to the risk is the fact that much of the show was not written by the time rehearsals began. “All of the dance music was written on the fly -- all of it,” says Cholerton, who directs the production. “The musical numbers, which are kind of the fantasy component of the show, sort of a manifestation of what is going on in our characters’ minds, those songs were all written ahead of time. But even they have had a makeover in terms of lyrics and musical stylings. I would say maybe 30 percent has been created in the last three weeks, which is a lot.”

Asked what he was looking for to begin his tenure as the Caldwell’s artistic director, Cholerton says, “Excitement. I wanted something where people went, ‘Wow, that was different. I haven’t seen that before.’ And the only way you can do that is to take a chance and that is what we have done.”

Michael Hall, left, with Clive Cholerton.

The question is will the Caldwell’s traditional audience be receptive to Cholerton’s shake-up approach. Speaking about his vision for the theater, he emphasizes the similarities to what now- retired founding artistic director Michael Hall did. “I just want to pick up where he was,” says Cholerton, then quickly adds, “I’m in my 40s and he’s not anymore. That is itself takes on a new sensibility, a new energy.”

Cholerton would not mind attracting some 40-something theatergoers, but he would bring down the median age of the audience if he could draw the next wave of migrating retirees to South Florida. “In my mind, we’re not really capturing that 55-65-year-old that’s just retired down here,” he says. “We need to do shows that will be of interest to them and that are relevant to them. I know from a relevancy standpoint, Vices fits the bill.”

Cholerton feels certain that Vices: A Love Story will have a life beyond Boca Raton. Although the Caldwell does not have a financial stake in the show’s future, all subsequent productions will be required to credit the Caldwell as the site of its world premiere. “What we want to be known as, if you want to develop a new interesting piece of theater, this is a place you can do it at,” he says. “That moves you up on the ladder.”

Gaining a future percentage of the show’s royalties, fairly typical in the industry, was not worth arguing over to Cholerton, even though the Caldwell is facing its own financial woes. “The reality is the points that you get on something at this level are pretty minimal,” he says, even though he fully expects Vices eventually to make its way to off-Broadway.

Cholerton recently confirmed that some staff members have left, top management has taken a pay cut, the operating budget has been reduced by $250,000 and the theater is behind in its mortgage payments and vendor bills.

His word for the Caldwell’s current financial health? “Challenged.”

Asked if he is confident about the company’s survival, he pauses and hedges, “Um, what’s your definition of ‘confident’?

“I know we’re going to do absolutely everything that we can. I know that we could not have a more supportive environment to get ourselves through it, from the standpoint of our lenders. I wouldn’t have jumped into this if I didn’t feel that way.”

At the moment, his focus is on the onstage product. “If we do good quality work, people will come and see it and we will sell enough tickets and well will be absolutely fine,” says Cholerton confidently. “The onus is on us. We can’t blame it on the economy or anything like that. It’s within our own powers to control our destiny and that’s what I want to do.”

The new Caldwell Theatre starts now with Vices: A Love Story. “It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before and it’s incredibly entertaining,” he says. “It’s really something to experience. If you want to get your head out of this economic malaise that we’re in, this is the best way to do it.”

VICES: A LOVE STORY, Caldwell Theatre Co., 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Opens today, runs through Sunday, Aug. 2. Tickets: $38-$47.50. Call: (561) 241-7432 or (877) 245-7432.

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