Theatre Aspen setting the stage for a big future | AspenTimes.com

Theatre Aspen setting the stage for a big future

Stewart Oksenhorn

Theatre Aspens production of the musical revue Smokey Joes Cafe features George Jackson, left, and Joshua Landy. Aspen Times photo/Mark Fox.

The kind of big plans David McClendon has for Theatre Aspen take big time. The year-round theater venue McClendon envisions is at least a few years away.But McClendon, Theatre Aspen’s big-thinking artistic director, can’t wait a few years to take a big step away from the past. So Theatre Aspen, the former Aspen Theatre in the Park, has an expanded and renovated venue, an altered approach to casting, and a budget for the summer season, which opened last week, that is double last year’s.The physical expansion of Theatre Aspen is immediately noticeable. The old tent in Rio Grande Park has been supplemented with another tent, still under construction last week. The addition will serve as a covered lobby, sporting a bar serving snacks and an assortment of beverages: beer, wine, brandy and liqueurs. Just behind the tents is a dressing trailer. And, as McClendon says, “wait till you see the inside.”

The seating capacity has grown by a mere 13 seats. But those seats – in fact, all the seats – are new and padded. “They’re actually comfortable,” said McClendon, adding that they will be moved to the new venue, when it is built. More impressive is the stage. Once upon a time, a good third or more of the tent was given to dressing rooms. To McClendon, that was a poor use of limited space. So all the dressing is now done in the adjacent trailer, allowing a major expansion to a thrust stage that stretches to the audience. There is also new electrical equipment, making the total bill some $70,000 for a renovated tent that Theatre Aspen hopes it will be done with in less than a handful of years.For McClendon, the work was a necessary signpost to the future.”My whole focus and idea was to show the old audience, and the potential new audience, what’s coming down the road,” said the 52-year-old McClendon, who spent a decade as a Colorado Springs-based freelance director and before that 11 years with San Diego’s Globe Theatre before taking the position in Aspen before last summer. “I didn’t want to wait. I felt strongly we had to do it now.”The current season also represents a shift in casting philosophy. A wealth of local talent filled the stage in recent years; this year will feature mostly imported actors, with a smattering of valley residents. Auditions were conducted in Denver and New York, as well as locally; McClendon canceled planned Los Angeles auditions when he found he didn’t need them. In fact, most of the actors were already known to McClendon, largely from his involvement with the Denver theater community.”The way I do it is the way it’s done in the professional world,” he said. “You go in with an idea of who you want, and you also go through the audition process because you might find someone new; you might find something you didn’t already have in your head. The idea is to get the absolute best people you can.”

McClendon is as high on the season’s program as he is on the renovated tent, the talent, and the future. It is the first Aspen season he has programmed; last year’s season was set before he joined the organization. This year also sees an alteration in scheduling; instead of rotating repertory, with the three presentations being shuffled throughout the season, Theatre Aspen has gone to dovetail repertory, with the plays overlapping somewhat. (The first production, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” for instance, opened June 30 and runs through July 30; the second, “The Colorado Catechism,” opens July 14 and runs through Aug. 11.)”Smokey Joe’s Cafe” holds the honor of being the longest-running musical revue in Broadway history. The revue of the songs of songwriting team Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” opened in 1995 and ran for more than 2,000 performances. Among those impressed was McClendon.”I saw it in the late ’90s and it was one of the most enjoyable nights I’ve had in the theater,” he said. Still, McClendon says he expects that night to be surpassed soon. “I have to say, this work here is stronger, the people we have are better, the voices are better than in New York. They’ve taken a different turn with it.”The revue features seven actors performing such Lieber & Stoller hits as “Jailhouse Rock,” “Love Potion #9,” “On Broadway” and the show-closing “Stand By Me.” There is no thread through the songs; McClendon says none is needed: “Each song is a short story unto itself. That’s why it works so well. That’s why the music has lasted so long.” The show is directed by Anthony Powell, a longtime associate artistic director at the Denver Center Theatre Company.

McClendon directed “The Colorado Catechism” some five years ago in California. But even he isn’t as familiar with the drama as the director of Theatre Aspen’s production. Directing this summer is Vincent Cardinal, who wrote “The Colorado Catechism” while working at a theater in Cripple Creek. Cardinal, who is head of the theater department at the University of Miami, has been working on the screenplay of the story, about a renowned portrait painter and a schoolteacher who meet in a Betty Ford-like rehab center in Colorado.”What I like about the play,” said McClendon, “is it causes us to look at ourselves. Because we all have our addictions, we all have our journeys. It shows that we have to give up that which we love most.”McClendon directs the season’s comedy, Steve Martin’s adaptation of Carl Sternheim’s “The Underpants.” Originally written by the German Sternheim in 1910, the farce centers around a beautiful young woman, Louise, who exposes – perhaps accidentally, perhaps not – her unmentionables during a parade for the king, causing grief for her bureaucrat husband. Martin’s adaptation opened at New York’s Classic Stage Company in 2002. McClendon included it as a reading last summer in Aspen.”It was so hilarious, I knew right then we would put it in the season,” he said. “It’s sexy, bawdy, high farce.”The setup is a classic. But the primary comedy comes from the language. It’s like music, it’s so finely woven and quick. I was working on it the other morning and I laughed. It was: ‘How far do I dare go with this?’ That doesn’t happen often.”

The 2005 Theatre Aspen season also includes the children’s theater piece “The Near-sighted Knight and the Far-sighted Dragon,” directed by Wendy Moore and showing Friday and Saturday mornings through most of the season. The new Sunday Series will feature a variety of entertainment at the tent on Sunday evenings; some events are free. Among the scheduled events are the cabaret-style show “An Evening of Tough Love” (July 3 and Aug. 21); a staged reading of local Andrew Kole’s “Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time” (July 10); Kira Silverstein’s “The Body Project” (July 17 and 24); and Aspenite Barry Smith’s one-man play “Jesus in Montana: Adventures in a Doomsday Cult” (July 31 and Aug. 7).Theatre Aspen made strides toward a year-round presence with the introduction last winter of a stage version of “It’s A Wonderful Life”; it has already set dates, Dec. 20-24, for this year’s presentation at the Wheeler Opera House. McClendon sees this summer as the next step forward toward the future of theater in Aspen.”I think, in every respect, this is a precursor of what is to come,” he said.The Theatre Aspen season has “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” running now through June 30. “The Near-sighted Knight and the Far-sighted Dragon” opens Friday, July 8, and runs through Aug. 20. “The Colorado Catechism” opens July 14 and runs through Aug. 11. The season concludes with “The Underpants,” showing Aug. 4-27.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com