Michael J. Duran has been the artistic director for BDT Stage for nearly fifteen years. His experience as a performer both on Broadway and television was already extensive, but he has learned a lot since taking the reins of what was then known as Boulder’s Dinner Theatre. “I knew absolutely nothing when I started,” Duran admits. “My whole concept, my whole idea of what running a theater is, has changed so dramatically. I didn’t know how up and down the theater business is: It doesn’t take much at all to have a winning or losing season; it’s always on a very fine edge. In Colorado now, with things changing so drastically, we are competing for the entertainment dollar more than ever. There’s no predicting. It’s scary, it’s nerve-racking, it’s stressful.”
Dinner theater, which was in its heyday in the 1970s, is a tricky — and some say dying — venture, and directors like Duran must invariably choose between shows they hope will appeal to older audiences, church groups and Rotary clubs, and those that might lure younger audiences. “Being a for-profit theater — I know that’s a tautology — ticket sales are the only source of revenue we have,” says Duran. “So we have to think commercially.”
At the moment, that thinking is going well. The company’s current run of Annie — starring the irrepressible Annie Dwyer as Miss Hannigan — has attracted enthusiastic audiences. “Kids love Annie, and so does anybody who’s seen it and grew up with it,” says Duran. “With some of these things, we are bringing in younger families and cultivating new and younger audiences.” Annie closes on February 24, and will be followed by Always...Patsy Cline from March 3 through May 20. The Little Mermaid takes the stage June 1 through September 7. Motones Vs. Jerseys, a cabaret show that’s playing now, runs through January 23.
“We try to have a little something for everybody, but everything we do is not for everybody,” says Duran.
Some of his experiments have met with mixed results. Six years ago, Duran staged Slow Dance With a Hot Pickup , an interesting musical work-in-progress by John Pielmeier, who wrote Agnes of God, about eight desperate people competing to win a shiny new truck. But at roughly the same time, Hands on a Hardbody, based on a similar story, opened in La Jolla, California; it eventually went to Broadway and Slow Dance stalled. “The timing was just bad,” observes Duran.
In 2019, BDT Stage will host a production of I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, which has been rewritten to be edgier and more topical, and the company will also bring back Disenchanted, in which six fairytale heroines express their anger and frustration at the gap between their sugar-sweet stories and anything resembling reality. Disenchanted, staged last March, was a huge, hilarious and unexpected feminist hit.
Duran would like to stretch the company’s horizons even further. He would love to stage Waitress, he says, adding, “One show I’m desperate to do is Come From Away. I saw it in New York. Dear Evan Hansen is a beautiful show, if I could get it.”
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The company has many things going for it. The performances are skilled and exuberant — perhaps in part because actors are paid for rehearsals and performances in addition to receiving tips for waiting tables. Some regulars, who add duties like choreography or sound design, make a living working there. The intimacy of the space adds the kind of excitement and immersion you don’t experience in a large auditorium. Neal Dunfee’s music direction is terrific; Amy Campion’s sets make inventive and expressive use of the space; Linda Morken has been designing the elegant costumes for years. And the food is always bright and fresh-tasting.
Over the years, there have also been significant artistic achievements. A decade ago, Duran teamed up with Jeffrey Nickelson’s Shadow Theatre Company to produce Ragtime , with Nickelson himself playing Coalhouse Walker. Nickelson died in 2009 and his theater is defunct, but the memory of his enigmatic angel-devil Coalhouse lingers. And then there was Fiddler on the Roof in 2014, brilliantly staged, and with a performance by Wayne Kennedy as Tevye that simply made you forget any other version you’d ever seen.
“We’re in a pretty good stretch here,” says Duran, “and we are so blessed to be able to do this. Not everybody can do what they love and make a living at it.”
Motones Vs. Jerseys, through January 23, and Annie, through February 24, at BDT Stage, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, bdtstage.com.