When I was eight, growing up in London, my mother took me to see that year’s offering by the famed D’Oyly Carte Company: Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Yeomen of the Guard, as a special Christmas treat. Theater was fairly cheap in those days since the government supported the arts, but the tickets were still a stretch for my immigrant mother.
In those days, a heavy crimson curtain draped most stages. My evening at the theater began with the overture, with irresistibly catchy snippets alternating with gorgeous melodies, then that curtain slowly sliding open, and finally beautiful people with fine voices living out a ridiculously contrived and romantic story. I watched entranced, bewildered, overwhelmed. And fell in love with Martyn Green’s jester, Jack Point, weeping with him as he stumbled across the stage in the last act, singing farewell to his beloved Phoebe, who had fallen in love with Lord Fairfax. A committed if unconscious socialist even then, I couldn’t begin to understand how Phoebe would leave the man who’d loved her so long, and who sang to her so pitifully, for a vapidly handsome lord. “I have a song to sing-o,” Green sang despairingly, and tears dripped onto my pretty holiday dress.
I’ve been attending theater in Denver for many years; I’ve spent evenings delighted, stimulated, amused, inspired, irritated or bored out of my mind. And to this day, there’s always that moment of expectation as I wait for a show to begin, the sense that the crimson curtain is sliding open, about to reveal who knows what wonders.
Considering the cascade of theatrical offerings that start this weekend brings back the same prickle of anticipation. Very few theater people can make a living in Denver, but there’s still a groundswell of lively, independent work of every kind around town — contemporary and traditional, surprising and comfortably safe, gut-wrenching or laugh-out-loud funny, highly professional or cozy community.
There’s a new artistic director at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company, and after more than a decade of some predictability, the winds of change are blowing. It will be fascinating to see what Chris Coleman, who came from the Portland Center Stage, will do with this huge and pivotal Denver organization. While the center itself seems more corporate by the day, with press releases about multimillion-dollar fundraisers (this venue is the exception to the rule about not being able to make a living in theater) and new vice presidents arriving regularly while queries about future direction are answered with rehearsed generalities, Coleman himself clearly has strong convictions, an interesting vision and a genuine love of theater.
The season's first play is Vietgone, which opens August 31. Vietnam is back in the national consciousness, as a new generation of Vietnamese-American writers — the children of refugees — finds its voice. Viet Thanh Nguyen won a Pulitzer for his tough-minded novel, The Sympathizer, which, among other things, mocks the way America’s foreign wars are portrayed here; Qui Nguyen's She Kills Monsters filled the Aurora Fox stage three years ago with major battles with unorthodox weapons, elves and fairies, puppets, monsters and cheerleaders doing a dance-off. Nguyen's Vietgone is inspired by the author’s parents, who met in a refugee camp in Arkansas. It’s a love story that makes use of rap, contemporary slang, farcical moments, sexy moments and hip-hop.
Coleman himself directs the second offering of the season, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, and he'll give this classic musical, with its roster of unforgettable songs, new meaning by using an African-American cast. This has historical justification: There were all-black townships in early twentieth-century Oklahoma, where the action is set. The casting carries political implications, reflecting that America belongs to black people as much as anyone else. But what particularly piques my interest is a video on the company’s website showing joyously exhilarating dancing. Dominique Kelley, who was assistant choreographer for the television series My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, was involved with the film La La Land, and — most impressive of all — performed in Savion Glover’s knockout and boundary-breaking Bring In ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk, is creating the choreography, and it should be fascinating.
Curious Theatre Company's season opens this weekend with The Cake. Playwright Bekah Brunstetter writes for the hit television show This Is Us, which is alternatively wonderfully addictive and drenched in sentimentality. Her script here is inspired by the case of the Lakewood baker who refused to create a cake for a gay couple, a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled for the baker on narrow grounds. Brunstetter has tweaked the story: Her baker is a warmly sympathetic woman, a devoted Christian, torn by the decision she has to make when the lesbian daughter of a dear friend asks for a wedding cake. Curious artistic director Chip Walton has been focusing on politically relevant scripts for years, the theater always mounts strong productions, the cast is excellent, and I’m anxious to see this crucial human-rights issue explored and humanized.
Lungs opens September 7 at Miners Alley Playhouse. Playwright Duncan Macmillan is English, and I tend to like plays by English authors, which are frequently less wordy and more caustic than the work we’re accustomed to. Reviewers say Macmillan’s Lungs is both funny and savage, so I’m betting it’s right up my alley. The production will be helmed by Len Matheo, whose taste is eclectic and whose productions are usually first-rate. The cast is comprised of real-life married couple Luke Sorge and Adrian Egolf, and both are always a pleasure to watch.
Also gearing up for the season are the Aurora Fox, which has a new artistic director, and the Arvada Center, which produces shiny mainstage musicals along with edgier work in its Black Box. Up in Boulder, BDT Stage tackles musicals like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat that you thought you’d never want to see again, giving them vivid life, while the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company offers seriously intelligent productions.
Vintage Theater has taken on a big, ambitious project with Robert Schenkkan’s nine-part The Kentucky Cycle, serving dinner between part one (afternoons) and part two (evenings). The adventurous work of the Catamounts is also inextricably entwined with food: craft beers, cocktails and Saturday night feasts. And for real adventure, watch for Buntport Theater Company’s 47th Original Full-Length Play, which opens November 30. There are other venues, too, each with its own atmosphere and style.
The red velvet curtain is long gone, but the magic of theater still endures.