By Rosalie Tirella
Here’s hoping the Foothills Theatre makes it, but if it doesn’t, we know: The Hanover Theater really “stole the show,” as far as Wormtown goes, and the Foothills is just not strong enough to compete with the class act that pretty much sits in the middle of a pisshole (Southbridge Street/The Goral building is soooo depressing!). It’s funny: the people who attend theater here can certainly afford two theater subscriptions. Why can’t Worcester’s old timers – when I used to go with my boyfriend “Mario,” the majority of Foothills patrons were 60+ years old – attend both the Foothills AND The Hanover? Ha! Maybe that would tucker them out! Maybe for these seniors, it is an either/or proposition! The Foothills OR The Hanover! Can’t do both! That would be exhausting! Once when we were at the Foothills Theatre, Mario and I sat next to some oldster who fell asleep (during a very good play) and, chin on chest, quietly gurgled through the entire performance! Later that eve, Mario and I talked about why there weren’t any younger folks in the audience – say people under 50. It was that bad! Yes, there was a young couple here and there and a few twentysomethings. But that was it. (I’m not counting the kids taken by granddad, etc).
This, to me, looked like a problem. When the old timers died out, I told myself, who will support the Foothills Theatre?! Still, the place was always packed! Not an empty seat in the house!
So when the Foothills plays started changing – getting edgier and nudier – I thought: Well, the new artistic director, Mr. Garret, wants to draw a younger, hipper crowd. He wants to take the theater in a new direction. He did – and the old timers left the house! In a recent interview, Garret said the theater was in the red because 1. they didn’t get the big grants they had applied for and 2. attendance at many of the shows was “dismal.” Two years ago, attendance at the Foothills could never be described as “dismal.” Hate to sound like a geezer I was just pokin’ fun at … but I kinda liked the OLD direction, the OLD Foothills productions. I liked – no! make that LOVED! – their musicals, their annual “Christas Carol” productions which sometimes starred Eddy “Carmine”-from Laverne-and-Shirley Mekka! I loved the old time plays and their simple sentiments. Best of all – and I know I am talking like a provincial Worcesterite – I really LOVED the musicals! (I know – I just wrote that!) When the actors busted out in song – and most had good voices, a few had fantastic ones – and shimmied their butts and kicked their legs up over their heads, I thought: WOW! THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT! And, let’s face it, that is entertainment by Worcester standards.
You can’t really screw up a great, classic American musical – and America has a magnificent songbook! If you have very good voices, you have a very good production of “Guys and Dolls.” Yes, if you have wonderful actors, with wonderful voices, they can take “Guys and Dolls” to new places, higher, exciting ground. But if you live in Worcester and you wanna have a good time, a bunch of good singers who belt out their lines with brio is good enough!
Or so I thought.
Enter, new Foothills artistic director, Russel Garret, stage right. Right off I felt Garret was sailing into choppy waters when, in an interview, he said he wasn’t “married to” the Foothills annual production of “The Christmas Carol.” I screamed to Mario: “What?! No Christmas Carol! I love Charles Dickens! I love that show! I love the way it makes me feel!” (The Hanover, wisely, has decided to make the play a Christmas tradition.) Garret’s 2008-2009 Foothills season sounded sort of boring. There weren’t a lot of shows I wanted to see … . Then there was the Foothills show with (I think) full frontal male nudity! I don’t know … If the acting wasn’t so hot, the only thing that “stands out” is the you know what … !
Here’s the rub: If you’re going to present heavy-hitting plays, you need heavy-hitter actors. Years ago, when there was a Worcester Phoenix, the Boston Phoenix theater critic attended the Foothills shows – and uniformly panned them. Marc Smith, then the artistic director, pretty much banned the guy from his theater, his “baby.” But the Boston critic wasn’t being a jerk. He was just applying the same standards that he sets for Boston plays. He was actually showing us a little respect. Acting – speaking words, so we believe them; moving so we believe, too – is hard.
So now we have the Hanover. I have never been there, but if they bring in actors with bigger acting chops, men and women who have toured all over the world and country, actors who are first-class, then what happens to the Foothills? Can Worcesterites be expected to subsidize the ailing theater by buying tickets to “Casino NIght” or some other crappy event? Probably not for long.
We say: Bring back the musicals, Foothills! Make the plays more mainstream again! Then, at the very least, you may be able to re-attract the old timers who fled for safer entertainment – like old DVDs of “On Golden Pond.”