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By Bridgette M. Redman
SAUGATUCK – Intelligent, summer fare is the recipe for a season at the Mason Street Warehouse according to its artistic director Kurt Stamm.
"There are so many factors that drive the choices we make," said Stamm. "The fact that we're in a resort town dictates a lot of what we can and cannot do. It's based on what people want to see while on vacation."
What they don't want to see is anything too heavy, such as Checkov or Ibsen, but neither will Stamm choose shows that are frivolous or without substance.
"The shows we choose are not light and fluffy. They are often very intricate and poignant," Stamm said. "'Avenue Q,' as funny as it is, is so timely and pertinent to what is going on in life right now. That is why it is so popular."
The 2012 season opened June 22 with the musical "Avenue Q." It runs until July 15, and is then followed by what is termed a bonus track week – three musical and variety shows – "Our Sinatra" and "Boeing Boeing."
The selections are based in part, according to Stamm, on 10 years of listening to audiences and what they want. Musicals are the most popular, but plays that are farces and spoofs also work well.
"There are other things I've done that don't work really well here," he admitted. "We did a spoof on a Wagner opera and nobody got it. I thought it was hysterical, but the way the material was written and delivered is a lot to comprehend. People come here to get away, to vacation and relax, not to think about the stress of everyday life. So why would you want to go to entertainment that then ramps it up?"
He does, though, take the advice of a mentor who warned him to never underestimate that an audience will pay attention to what is on stage and to trust in the audience's intelligence.
"If it is not really smart and really good, I won't touch it. My audience is used to coming here to see things that have real merit in the storytelling department. Even when it comes to a revue, it has to be well constructed, and the music has to be really good music."
It is the intelligence of the opening production that appealed to Stamm. He said he saw "Avenue Q" when it first opened on Broadway, and he immediately knew it was something he would bring to Mason Street Warehouse once the rights were available. He said it speaks to what Mason Street Warehouse wants to be in terms of a contemporary theater venue.
It is a show that presented many challenges by its very nature and because of the space available. They brought in a puppeteer for audition call-backs and conducted a workshop for those they were considering for the roles. They also had to compress the set, as their space does not have a lot of height and the show requires three levels. They scaled down the set and actors occasionally have to crouch to get through doorways.
"The other thing that is challenging from a costuming perspective is that you're looking for very specific actors to personify these puppet characters," Stamm said. "All of them play more than one character. One actor will play two or three puppet characters. They will go from being the closeted high-strung gay Republican investment banker to the fresh-faced kid out of college."
To populate "Avenue Q," Stamm hired actors from New York City, Chicago and Michigan. Two of the Chicago actors play a married couple on stage and are married in real life. Princeton, the recent graduate, is played by a recent graduate who just earned his degree in musical theater from the University of Michigan.
The bonus track week is Stamm's attempt at mixing in some different types of programming so that the season isn't just all theater. The weekend includes performances by the Good Lovelies, a female trio out of Canada; two shows by Marcus Monroe, a modern-day vaudevillian comedian who juggles, rides unicycles, and walks tightropes; and Beausoleil, a Grammy award-winning zydeco band.
"Our Sinatra" is the show celebrating the 10th anniversary season of the theater. It was the most popular show of its first season, and the original cast is returning to perform in it, including an actress who is taking a vacation from her Broadway role in "Momma Mia." It is the first time, according to Stamm, that Mason Street Warehouse has repeated a show.
They're ending the season with "Boeing-Boeing."
"It is originally a French farce that had a big revival in 2008," Stamm said. "It is a typical farce where one guy is engaged to three women and they all end up in the same apartment. There is a maid who keeps coming in and out and making comments.
"This is the type of thing audiences want to see when on their vacation. It is entertaining and fun."
MASON STREET WAREHOUSE 2012 Mason Street Warehouse is located at 400 Culver St., Saugatuck. Onstage through July 15 is "Avenue Q," which performs Tuesday-Sunday, plus Monday, July 2. Running time: 125 minutes. Tickets: $26-$39.75. For information: 269-857-2399 or www.masonstreetwarehouse.org.