Wilmington’s Opera House Theatre Company (OHTC) has been providing the community with entertainment for nearly 35 years. The local nonprofit has put on more than 200 shows since forming in 1985, entertaining audiences with classic musicals such as “Hairspray,” “Chicago,” “Rent,” “My Fair Lady” and others. While much of their 2020 season has been canceled or postponed due to COVID-19 lockdown measures, the creative team behind OHTC has begun hosting live shows on Facebook that mix performances by local talent and archived footage of previous OHTC productions so folks can still enjoy local theatre.
“The concept of ‘Musical Theatre Mondays’ was derived from [us] trying to navigate this new normal we’re living and trying to find different ways to entertain people while maintaining social distancing,” says OHTC executive artistic director Justin Smith. “That fire burns deep for us, so we at Opera House hope to be at the forefront of this movement to keep pushing out performances and entertainment while people are stuck in isolation.”
Kaitlin Baden, marketing manager at OHTC and coordinator behind Musical Theatre Mondays, came up with the idea for a virtual platform after live performances came to a screeching halt. Baden has been with OHTC since being cast as Mimi in the 2013 summer production of “Rent.” With a background in vocal performance and acting, as well as her ties to the theatre company, she longed to provide a sense of comfort to the larger community. Her idea struck a chord, and the new series was born.
“I started organizing stand-alone community videos, like our Wilmington theatre ‘Imagine’ video and our ‘Annie’ orphans singing ‘It’s a Lock-Down Life’ parody video, just to bring people some happiness,” says Baden, “Now, through Justin’s ideas we’ve come to put together these 30-40 minute segments with artists whom we’ve worked with over the past 35 years.”
A total of four livestreams have been planned to keep viewers engaged through what organizers hope will be a short-lived quarantine. However, Smith says OHTC will continue to produce online content if lockdown measures remain in effect.
Shows are livestreamed Mondays at 7 p.m. on the OHTC Facebook page. Each week, a different host will perform a couple songs and introduce a variety of other performers, including veterans from previous OHTC shows, special guests and newcomers from the company’s apprentice program—a training ground for teens and young adults between 14-24. Each guest will present a song or musical adaptation of their choosing, as well as an informal chat about their experience with OHTC and how they’re doing amid social distancing.
The tone was light and fun as local actress and musician Annie Tracy Marsh hosted the first livestream on April 27. Marsh, who starred as country singer Patsy Cline in OHTC’s 2019 production of “Always…Patsy Cline,” started things off with soulful acoustic renditions of Cline’s “Crazy” and “On My Own” from “Les Misérables.” She then welcomed JJ Niemann, who gave viewers a preview of OHTC’s upcoming production of “Newsies,” which he is choreographing and starring in. (While the show was originally scheduled to take place this summer, no concrete dates have been set.) Other highlights included an archival performance from OHTC’s 2019 production of “42nd Street,” and a pair of collaborative performances, pre-recorded via Zoom: “At the Ballet” from “A Chorus Line,” performed by members of the apprentice theatre program; and a parody of the hit musical “Avenue Q” (called “Avenue Q[uarantine]”) by OHTC regulars Jason Aycock, Kaitlin Baden, Heather Setzler, Chiaki Ito, Bradley Barefoot and Tracy Byrd.
The second show on May 4 was hosted by OHTC associate producer Ray Kennedy, who has been with the company for 30 years. He just wrapped the direction of “The Sound of Music” before NC’s stay-at-home order went into effect. The livestream included archival footage from “MacArthur Park” and “Hello Dolly!” as well as guest performances by Lauren Mazzola Maasch (“Till There Was You”) and Cannon Starnes (“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”), among others.
On May 11, OHTC board member Jeff Phillips will host. He’ll be joined by special guest (and former OHTC performer) Cullen Moss, known for his roles in the Screen Gems film “Dear John” and the TV series “The Walking Dead” and “Outer Banks.” May 18th’s show will be hosted by Smith himself, whose turn in the host chair should be a special one.
The veteran actor and director has been a figure in the local theatre community for decades, with previous experience running City Stage and Cape Fear Theatre Arts. During these tensures, he produced around 100 shows over the course of 14 years. (He is also part of a business group that owns downtown restaurants Anne Bonny’s, Husk, Yosake and Dram + Morsel.)
Smith joined OHTC over a year ago and was just hitting his stride when the novel coronavirus hit. Summer productions of “Newsies,” “Funny Girl” and “Annie” have since been halted, with little word on when or how they’ll be staged. However, Smith remains resilient.
“We’re still in talks with Tony Rivenbark at Thalian, constantly re-assessing the situation, and we’re reluctant to give dates at the moment,” he says. “We are working really hard to make sure they happen this summer, albeit with altered schedules.”
The loss of creative face-to-face collaboration has taken its toll on performers and audiences alike. Already the scheduled September production of “The Wiz” has been moved to 2021 after OHTC’s annual New Year’s show, as performers cannot gather for rehearsals. Although those involved admit the Monday night livestreams are hardly a substitute for live theatre, they serve an important function of allowing for creative expression and unity among performers and staff.