Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Theater feature: New West Boca troupe to bow with 'Bat Boy'

The cast of Slow Burn Theatre Company's Bat Boy.


By Hap Erstein

Welcome to the area the Slow Burn Theatre Company, a new professional troupe that is the passion project of Patrick Fitzwater and Matthew Korinko, two former St. Louis performers-directors who moved here in 2008 and have wanted to start their own stage operation ever since.

They will be the first to acknowledge that the shaky economy does not make this an ideal time to begin such a venture, but as Korinko puts it, “you can come up with excuses at any point in time for not giving it a shot. We just looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s just do it,’ instead of falling back on excuses not to.”

Although the company’s name brings to mind a crockpot meal or an Oliver Hardy comic take (“Well, Ollie, this is another fine mess you’ve gotten us into”), Korinko says it has numerous other connotations.

“We kind of were going through some theater terms and I Googled a glossary and 'slow burn' was one of the terms. The minute I said it, it fit,” he says. “It can be the way a character grows, a slow burn within a song or within a play, or the more literal meaning that is suggested by our logo, the slow burn of a wick before the explosion you know is coming. The anticipation that builds up, the suspense.”

As the mission statement on their Website (www.slowburntheatre.com) puts it, they intend to produce “daring, contemporary and intelligent works of musical theater” and they list more than three dozen show titles, ranging from Avenue Q to Xanadu, from Next to Normal to Urinetown, that they are interested in mounting. It’s an ambitious list, without a single show by Andrew Lloyd Webber in it. It is hard not to like their intentions, and only time will tell whether they are overestimating the taste of our audiences.

We will be able to find out soon, for they open their first show, Bat Boy: The Musical on Feb. 18 at West Boca Performing Arts Center -- yes, the 600-seat auditorium where Avi Hoffman’s New Vista Theatre recently bit the dust.

Quirky, tongue-in-cheek Bat Boy (music and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe; book by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming) is based on the freakish character immortalized in the tabloid Weekly World News. The show, which premiered in 1997, is described by Slow Burn as the “amazing story of a strange boy with pointy ears, his struggle to find a place in a world that shuns him, and the love that can create both miracles and madness.” Oklahoma, it’s not.

Asked why they chose Bat Boy to build their reputation on, Korinko says, “I think it embodies everything we want to be. It’s small. Musically, it’s just cool. And it’s lesser-known. It could have been better-known, but it came out off-Broadway just before 9/11, so it suffered the fate of a lot of shows. There was no audience to go see it, because obviously tourism really dropped off in New York at that time.”

Bat Boy, like many of the shows on Slow Burn’s to-do list, would probably be best produced in a tiny performance space, rather than the cavernous West Boca high school auditorium. But Korinko and Fitzwater are undaunted.

“When we walked into West Boca and talked to the people there, everybody there just had the same vision we did and was so excited about what we wanted to do that the seating capacity wasn’t really the fear anymore,” explains Fitzwater. “We know we’re not going to sell 600 tickets every night, or even once, but we’re finding ways to cut that number down with scenery and not make the theater feel so vast.”

“For 'Bat Boy,' we are using the full capacity of the theater. But our second show, Assassins, we expect to only use about 270 of the seats, to work the scenery out into the audience and create a big top tent feel that people will walk into.”

The two co-artistic directors live in Fort Lauderdale, but they work at a hair salon in Boca. Although they looked at theater spaces as far south as Hollywood and north throughout Palm Beach County, Boca Raton won out because of its built-in audience for them.

“We have a good base here, because hundreds of people come through the salon a day. It’s like an open audience right here that we’re tapping into that is constantly buying tickets, every single day,” says Fitzwater. “That‘s why we eventually chose Boca, because we already had some clout here in Boca.”

Fitzwater uses his salon clients as an informal sounding board to test market Slow Burn’s show choices. “We ask clients at the salon about their reaction to 'Bat Boy' and it’s almost entirely positive, saying that it’s something different, something that they haven’t seen,” he reports.

Because of their mission, Korinko and Fitzwater expect to draw a younger audience, the Holy Grail of all theaters in South Florida. “We want to try and get the new theatergoer, because we want them to grow old with us,” says Korinko. “Rather than going in and just targeting senior citizens, which most theater companies do, we’re trying to reach out to that new theater audience that will spend the next 20 years with us.”

Bat Boy tickets have just recently gone on sale. Interestingly, the early buyers are mostly in two extremes of age. “We’ve only been on sale for about a week and a half from word of mouth and a mailing,” says Korinko. “We’ve had a great response from a wide range of theatergoers. It’s the 20-somethings and then it does jump up to the 70-somethings who are embracing it.”

The challenge for Slow Burn is interesting the generation in the middle. “Yeah, it’s like the 30s and the 40s, I don’t think they plan ahead very far. I still think they’re coming, but they’re like, ‘It’s four weeks away.’ Whereas your 20-somethings are worried it’s going to sell out, your 70-somethings just want to sit in the front row and the 30s and 40s go, ‘It’s a big theater. I’ll buy a ticket that night.’ It’s a little maddening.”

Bat Boy: The Musical (Feb. 18-March 7) will be followed by Stephen Sondheim’s Tony Award-winning Assassins, about the diverse, disgruntled handful of souls who attempted or succeeded at killing the president of the United States (April 29-May 9).

“That will be our abbreviated first season,” says Fitzwater. “It gives us a chance over the summer to kind of step back for a second and realize what we did right, what we can do differently and really lay out and market our second season.

“We expect to do three shows in our second season, so it will probably span about eight months. It’s certainly something that could wind up year-round. It’s not in our immediate plans, but it could happen.”

Slow Burn has already incorporated as a not-for-profit group, and is busy raising money, another challenge in this economy. Asked where their operating funds come from, Fitzwater says, “There’s donors, there’s personal money and we’ve had some fund-raisers as well along the way. There are some generous people who believe in us.”

Korinko and Fitzwater are already thinking past the success of Slow Burn to mentoring future theater professionals.

“We really want to include the community in things. We want our Thursday nights to be an inspirational thing for the high schoolers, to have talk-backs after our shows,” Korinko says. “To inspire and encourage the next generation, the next Slow Burn, whoever’s going to be taking over after us.”

BAT BOY: THE MUSICAL. Slow Burn Theatre Company, West Boca Performing Arts Theatre, 12811 West Glades Road, Boca Raton. Feb. 18-March 7. Tickets: $25 ($20 for seniors, $15 for students). Call: (954) 323-7884.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I hope this works out for them. I am a bit concerned about the size of the space. Audiences in South Florida are often swayed by lack of support. If they go see a show that looks mostly empty, they tend to believe the product is a failure and seldom go back.

Also, this is quite an ambitious show for such a green cast. Batboy is not an easy piece. It requires a great deal of comedic acting skill to pull it off. Few of the cast listed are very accomplished at anything like this. I would've hoped that Slow Burn would understand that to really hit it out of the park onn their first turn, they should've used the money's raised to attract a top-tier cast.

We'll see.

Good luck.