Broadway's Leaps & Bounds

Musical series expands Knoxville's options

When it's showtime at the Knoxville Civic Auditorium, you wouldn't know that the bright lights of Broadway shining inside aren't direct reflections of the streetscapes of

Manhattan

's theater district outside. That's because productions like Chicago , Fiddler on the Roof and Miss Saigon are the spitting images of their counterparts on the Great White Way, albeit ones that don't require a plane ticket and hotel reservations.

Broadway in

Knoxville

, a company owned by the theater-entrenched Nederlander family, has been producing shows at the auditorium for more than a year now and just announced the line-up for its 2005-2006

season

Knoxville

audiences have responded to previous productions, we seem to have earned a gold star—and then some.

and

in

?

,

Mel Brooks' musical adaptation of his 1968 film The Producers helped the Big Apple's theater district repair the financial harm done by the terrorist attacks of

Sept. 11, 2001

. Almost as soon as it opened on April 19 of that year, it was impossible to get tickets to the show, which starred

Nathan Lane

and Matthew Broderick, and its popularity helped the theater district ride out New Yorkers' disinterest in live shows. USA Today called it "the funniest, most fearlessly irreverent thing ever seen on stage." The story follows two stage producers who set out to make

themselves

 

Running continually since October 2001 at

New York

's Winter Garden Theatre, and currently on stages in more countries than any other musical, Mamma Mia!

is

a collaboration

When it's showtime at the Knoxville Civic Auditorium, you wouldn't know that the bright lights of Broadway shining inside aren't direct reflections of the streetscapes of Manhattan's theater district outside. That's because productions like Chicago , Fiddler on the Roof and Miss Saigon are the spitting images of their counterparts on the Great White Way, albeit ones that don't require a plane ticket and hotel reservations.

Broadway in Knoxville, a company owned by the theater-entrenched Nederlander family, has been producing shows at the auditorium for more than a year now and just announced the line-up for its 2005-2006 season. If the shows' quality and selection are any indication of how well Knoxville audiences have responded to previous productions, we seem to have earned a gold star—and then some.

Carl Thompson, general manager of Broadway in Knoxville, says the first season's shows helped establish the Nederlander name here and build its reputation with audiences. When audiences responded well to Chicago and Fiddler on the Roof , BIK learned more about what viewers wanted to see. Plus, they conducted direct surveys to find out which musicals audience members would like to see without leaving town.

"Statistics show that people do want to see things they're familiar with," says Thompson. "We're very in tune with the public."

The season starts in December 2005 with Oklahoma ! and continues with The Producers in January 2006, Peter Pan in February, and Mamma Mia! in August. (Two out of four shows with exclamation points ain't bad.) Plus, the series has tacked on some attractive add-ons in the form of comedian Jerry Seinfeld on June 17, a live performance of A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor on June 23, and the dance troupe STOMP on March 14 and 15.

New York's theater district is alive with revivals at the moment, with productions of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Glass Menagerie , Steel Magnolias and On Golden Pond . But one revival that stirred up Broadway in recent years was Oklahoma ! Roger and Hammerstein's 1943 musical was one of the first to really nail the combination of a solid plot with songs that enhanced the characterization and story line. The current show is based on producer Cameron Mackintosh's version that was a hit at the Royal National Theatre in London. That production starred Hugh Jackman (Wolverine in The X-Men movies) and was shown last year on PBS.

Mel Brooks' musical adaptation of his 1968 film The Producers helped the Big Apple's theater district repair the financial harm done by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Almost as soon as it opened on April 19 of that year, it was impossible to get tickets to the show, which starred Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, and its popularity helped the theater district ride out New Yorkers' disinterest in live shows. USA Today called it "the funniest, most fearlessly irreverent thing ever seen on stage." The story follows two stage producers who set out to make themselves rich by launching the biggest theater flop in history. Once they collect thousands of dollars from old ladies and find a script titled Springtime for Hitler , they believe their scam will work. But the show's unlikely success undoes the pair's scheme. With 1,600 shows and counting, The Producers remains one of Broadway's most popular shows, and its touring production—directed and choreographed by five-time Tony winner Susan Stroman—will continue to increase its legions of fans. 

Having starred in four Broadway revivals of Peter Pan since 1990, 52-year-old Cathy Rigby is ready to retire from the role, but not until she's said farewell to fans across the country. The timing is right: This year marks the centennial of J.M. Barrie's classic novel.

Running continually since October 2001 at New York's Winter Garden Theatre, and currently on stages in more countries than any other musical, Mamma Mia! is considered the world's No. 1 show. The story of a young woman about to be married and seeking her real father gets a pop music injection with songs by ABBA woven seamlessly into the plot. It sounds improbable, but the musical conceived and produced by Judy Craymer and written by Catherine Johnson is a phenomenally entertaining and satisfying piece of theater. It helps if you already like ABBA, but the songs work so magically as integral elements of the story, their meanings and significance becomes more connected to the play than '70s radio.

Although the shows aren't being produced by Broadway in Knoxville, tickets for Seinfeld, Keillor and STOMP will be up for grabs for subscribers first before the general public. Thompson says co-presenting Seinfeld with the Civic Auditorium allows them to pool their resources and helps BIK "cover more ground" thematically. "And the Civic Auditorium gets the opportunity to bring in a well-known star and prove they have the muscle to do it," he adds.

A very different kind of humorist, Garrison Keillor will bring his Rhubarb Tour to town a few days later, performing a similar program to the weekly live radio broadcasts of his A Prairie Home Companion . The show is a collaboration with WUOT 91.9 FM, the University of Tennessee's non-profit public radio station.

"These arrangements exhibit a clear example of how we're working with the community to bring renowned talent to Knoxville," says Thompson.

"We want to offer a little bit of everything for everybody," he says, referring to the recent Dora the Explorer show for kids and its worlds-apart thematic distance from Miss Saigon or Fiddler on the Roof .

"You don't want to get into a mode of just presenting one kind of thing," he says. "People get tired of that. We keep taking 90-degree turns. We want to take audiences on a journey."

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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