Mill Mountain Theatre’s Trinkle Main Stage has been dark for about four years now, since the board of directors shut down Roanoke’s venerable live theater institution for financial reasons. Some said Mill Mountain had become too big, had put on too many plays, had too ambitious of a scope, one that could no longer be supported by corporate sponsors or ticket sales. Then Mill Mountain Theatre’s home, Center in the Square, went dark itself for a $30 million renovation.
Starting this weekend (April 24 through May 12) the Trinkle stage is back in business at the “new”, sleeker Mill Mountain Theatre, with The Marvelous Wonderettes, a “cotton-candy colored, non-stop pop musical blast from the past,” as described in a handbill for the show. The musical’s “plot” involves four girls, high school chums, who take you from their prom to a reunion ten years later. It’s an excuse mainly for the quartet to belt out song standards from the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, from Lollipop and Its My Party to Respect and Rescue Me.
Mill Mountain’s producing artistic director, Ginger Poole, will co-direct along with Peppy Biddy, with whom she worked with on the play in Mississippi last year. Poole was also involved with the choreography. She’s excited about the return of Center in the Square, which makes its official debut on May 18 (after a ticketed gala, the Big Grand Affair, on May 11), a week after The Marvelous Wonderettes ends its run. The April 24-May 12 run also includes Thursday 2pm matinees on April 25, May 2 and May 8. Poole said they will “see how it goes,” with the early time slot.
Center in the Square renovations took care of the Church Avenue side of the facility first; that meant the smaller Waldron Stage was able to reopen over a year ago after remodeling. A rehearsal space for Mill Mountain has also been renovated. Now comes the main event, and the first play on the main stage in four years. The Big Lick Conspiracy, No Shame Theatre and the noon time Centerpieces brown bag lunch discussion series (second Wednesday each month) have also kept the Waldron Stage busy.
“This is a huge step for us,” said Poole, who helped keep the Mill Mountain brand alive over the past four years with youth summer camps and acting classes for children and adults. For a long time she was the only paid employee. Paul Mylott came aboard as development director last year. Hitchcock’s 39 Steps (a murder mystery-farce) and the Sound of Music during the Christmas holiday season are already scheduled. Poole hopes to hire plenty of local actors, including children, for the Sound of Music. Roanokers “love their musicals,” noted Poole, who anticipates 5-6 shows in total every season.
The Marvelous Wonderettes will afford patrons a preview of the Center in the Square renovations, since they’ll have to walk through the new lobby. The large aquarium tanks in the remodeled atrium are being loaded just before Center’s reopening, so theatergoers can watch that process as well. “The cool thing in our opening week is when they start loading in…the coral and the fish. It will be a little sneak peak,” said Poole.
The lobby at Center in the Square will feature large digital message boards where Mill Mountain (and other tenants) can let visitors know what’s coming. “We’ll have a more accessible message for the people that come through the door,” said Poole.
Poole said a nationwide trend that started with the recession has meant many cultural institutions were forced to take a look at what they were doing, and cut back if necessary. As for Mill Mountain, “the balance was off,” said Poole, “and that was the major factor in our closing – [as well as] getting our ducks in a row. Moving forward, we are slicker and a sharper organization. We are making better choices.” That means fewer shows for one thing – no more 12 productions per year on the calendar. “It’s a more steady pace,” said Poole.
Poole said the community has been supportive as they hear about Mill Mountain’s struggles and the fight back to fiscal soundness. She feels collaboration between artistic groups in Roanoke “has to happen” if more cultural organizations are to survive. Mill Mountain has partnered with the Hollins Playwright Lab over the past few years on more daring, experimental plays mounted on the Waldron Stage. “We can’t do it by ourselves anymore. Tapping in to shared resources, shared marketing [is a must].”
As for The Marvelous Wonderettes, “These are the songs that you know – you know all the words,” noted Poole. The play had a successful off-Broadway run several years ago. Poole and Biddy staged it in Mississippi last year; they share directing and choreography chores. Professional actors from elsewhere went through the audition process before landing their roles in Wonderettes.
The four actresses on stage are singing, dancing and acting the whole 90 minutes. “It’s fun, it’s happy, it’s familiar. It’s a celebration, a party and just the type of show that I want to give to the Roanoke Valley to say hey, Mill Mountain Theatre is back,” said Poole. Its time to celebrate!”
(Go to millmountain.org or call 342-5740 for more information and tickets.)
By Gene Marrano