The company has long been known for its popular musical theater productions, from “Annie” to this season’s hit, “My Fair Lady.” It’s what they do, and they do it well.
“We’ve kind of been of the opinion that musicals are what we need to do because that’s what sells,” said Artistic Director Peter Powlus.
However, the 62-year-old company thought it might be time for an experiment. So they brought out reliable Neil Simon, master of comedy, for a try at a straightforward stage play. It’s been a bit of a breather for Powlus and crew.
“It’s a small cast. It’s not that technically demanding. There’s not an orchestra involved, so it’s nice,” he said. “But it’s proven to be challenging in different ways.”
The company is concerned about a dearth of musicals this season, in the middle of their bold experiment.
“But I’ve always said this, and I hope it’s true: Any good theater is good for theater in general. As long as we’re all doing good theater, we’re helping each other to a degree,” he said.
The Fort Gordon Dinner Theater thanks the Players for such help. Fort Gordon sold out its showing of “Guy and Dolls,” added an extra show, and sold that one out within 24 hours, said Program Director Steven Walpert. It’s the kind of support that every theater director dreams of, and it has kept the theater alive while financing for the arts has gotten tighter.
“They used to have a program like this at every major Army installation. They are declining in the U.S., but in Europe there are a ton of these. In the U.S., it may be down to 10 now, from 75 to 100,” Walper said. Walpert credits not just returning theatergoers but also command support for the organization’s success.
But the two theater companies have very different situations. Powlus answers not just to the box office tally, but also to sponsors like Comcast, Coca-Cola, the Greater Augusta Arts Council and the Georgia Council for the Arts. Walpert said he has the same financial responsibility as a traditional community theater, but without access to grants that are derivative from the National Endowment for the Arts. He is free of a board of directors in the legal sense, but remember that his superiors are trained to use firearms. Then again, security isn’t much of an issue for Walpert.
So when it comes to deciding what the season will hold for the two theaters, they share a lot of the same considerations. The plays they choose have to hold an appeal for their audiences, and have a good track record in other places. Awards like a Tony are nice, but do not always help make a production a success on the local theater level.
“‘Jekyl and Hyde,’” Powlus answered immediately when asked if there were any production he’d like to do. “‘1776’ would really have some nice outreach potential but we’re just not sure people would come into the theater to see it.”
It’s a real concern in an industry that has never enjoyed staggering profit margins. Walpert said he gave a play called “Second Samula” a shot some years ago. It came highly recommended.
“‘You will love this show and the audience will love it. You will get a standing ovation every night,’ they said. That show did not sell out because the name wasn’t very popular. But it was a real treat for the people who attended,” he said.
Both men use their audiences as a sounding board and pay attention to trends, such as the television reality show “You’re the One That I Want,” which is currently searching for the leads in the new revival of the Broadway play “Grease.” The play has seen a resurgence of popularity, even in karaoke bars, where endless renditions of “Summer Nights” are belted out by wannabe Sandys and Dannys, and the Players will respond by staging the production next season.
Walpert said that he can try new stuff every now and then because his audience is extremely loyal.
“I can afford to take a risk every once in a while because my audience has faith that they’re going to have a good time at the theater,” he said. That’s not to say that Augusta will see a production of the quirky work “Urinetown” any time soon.
Walpert said that he came to Augusta with the idea that he was going to educate the community about “real” theater, and Powlus came to the Players as former choreographer for the Augusta Ballet, where he and the company put together the original story ballet, “The Hatfields and the McCoys.”
“I’ve dreamed about creating our own piece of musical theater,” Powlus revealed.
“The Hatfields and the McCoys” ultimately went on to win multiple awards, and Walpert was awarded the Irving Berlin Award earlier this year for programming excellence. But all that means little in regard to box office sales.
“Somehow when I did Tennessee Williams, whether it was a brilliant production or not, it didn’t seem like all the seats were full,” Walpert said.
But Powlus thinks that a comedy like “The Odd Couple” will win over audiences.
“It’s just so well-written. The characters are so strongly developed and play off each other so well. It’s just really rich material, very easy to relate to,” he said.
Oscar and Felix, both suffering from recent divorces, take up together as roommates. The comedy makes marriage look like a cakewalk.
“Through all the comedy, it’s really dealing with a sensitive issue and that’s what I think is so great about it. Not only is it funny, but it’s poignant. That is how a lot of us deal with our troubles: try to have a sense of humor about it. A very valuable bit of medicine to have,” Powlus said.
The Augusta Players present “The Odd Couple” on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 23-24, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 25, at 3 p.m. at the Imperial Theatre. Ticket prices range from $12 to $32. Call 706-826-4707 or visit augustaplayers.com. You can just stand outside the Fort Gordon Dinner Theater and wave, because there’s no more room for “Guys and Dolls.” Call 706-793-8552 or visit fortgordon.com to learn about future offerings.