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Sunday, October 24, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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On Second Thought

The Time Is Right For Changes At 5Th Avenue

Seattle Times Theater Critic

The 5th Avenue Theatre is in for a change. But will it be a minor shift, or a major turnabout?

After a decade under the direction of Frank M. Young, the 5th Avenue Musical Theatre Co. (the nonprofit organization that runs the showplace) is seeking an artistic director to guide the programming at the exquisite landmark facility.

Young's title was executive director. And he did an excellent job of keeping the theater's massive budget in the black, pulling in some blockbuster national tours ("Phantom of the Opera," "Beauty and the Beast") and enlisting as many as 36,000 subscribers per year.

The company was also so successful financially that it funded theater educational and internship programs in the community.

But the 5th Avenue's own resident productions have been artistically erratic. And Young too often assumed that some of the bland, middle-of-the-road revival fare presented at Houston's Theatre Under the Stars (the other theater Young manages) would also wow Seattle.

The new 5th Avenue honcho will be selected sometime next year, and will have the opportunity to create a 5th Avenue season more attuned to the theatrical zeitgeist of Seattle.

And what would that look like? Here are some suggestions:

-- More innovative revivals by exciting directors. It's OK to keep reviving the golden-oldie musicals of the past. But who needs lackluster retreads, or faded carbon copies of the original Broadway version? One key is to hire innovative American and foreign directors to invigorate these shows. That's working in England, where Trevor Nunn ("Carousel") and Sam Mendes ("Cabaret") breathed exciting new life into old musicals, and on Broadway with Walter Bobbies' sizzling remake of "Chicago." Why not here, too?

-- Refresh the canon. The 5th Avenue often polls its patrons on which shows they'd like to see next.

While that sounds like democracy in action, it often leads to the safest, most familiar choices, since people are most likely to check off the most familiar titles.

Why not branch out beyond the standard 30 or 40 musicals that are continually resurrected in touring, amateur, and semi-professional mountings already? There's a world of intriguing musicals that haven't been mounted in Seattle on a large professional scale for ages. To name but a few: Brecht-Weill's "Threepenny Opera." "The Pajama Game." "Gypsy." "Dreamgirls." "Most Happy Fella."

-- Host an "Encore"-type series. In New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, music-lovers can see low-budget workshop versions of "forgotten" and rarely seen musicals. Why not have the 5th Avenue join in with the newly formed local group, "Showtunes! Musicals in Concert," to take this task on, too - on off-nights in the theater or at a cheaper-to-use location?

In New York's "Encore" series, I saw great, low-tech, script-in-hand stagings of "Pal Joey" (with Patti LuPone and Peter Gallagher), "Strike Up the Band" (with Lynn Redgrave) and "St. Louis Woman" (with Vanessa Williams).

Maybe 5th Avenue can't, or won't need to, pull in such stars. These rarely produced tuners are fun to discover in any case, and there's clearly an audience for them here.

-- Draw more on local talent and resources. The 5th Avenue has made some progress on this front recently, casting a few more roles from the Seattle acting pools. But there are other terrific performers who haven't been tapped yet (Lisa Estridge-Gray, David Silverman, et al), plus gifted resident opera and musical directors (Rich Gray, Stephen Wadsworth, Jeff Steitzer), designers and choreographers. They've proved themselves at the Seattle Opera, Village Theatre, Cabaret de Paris and other local venues. Why not give 'em a shot downtown?

-- Reconsider the price structure. The 5th Avenue may be the only resident, nonprofit theater company in Seattle to not offer student and senior discounts for every show. Even if it's only a small price break, it's a gesture that could garner much good will. - Misha Berson Seattle Times theater critic

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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