By GUY D’ASTOLFO
The Oakland Center for the Arts will begin its 25th anniversary season by reviving the theater company’s inaugural production.
“A ... My Name Is Alice” opens Friday, and it’s being directed by Sandy Vansuch, who also directed it the first time, back in 1986.
From its inception, the Oakland’s mission has been to present shows that other theaters will not do, and “Alice” was a good example at the time. A musical revue of sorts, it was a little risque in the ’80s, but hardly so today.
Although it’s very topical, the play has held up well over time. It certainly doesn’t qualify as nostalgia. Vansuch put it best: “You can look back at it fondly.”
The rights agreement forbids changing any dialog except dates. Still, Vansuch is taking a fresh approach to “Alice,” adding that music director Norman Toot is giving the music a new interpretation.
The segments in “Alice” are linked by a theme of contemporary women, with feminist overtones.
“When it came out at first, it was thought to be a show that women would really love,” said Vansuch. “But it had universal appeal and it moves along at a good pace. Everybody likes it.”
The topics are — unavoidably — ’80s issues, including women in the workplace. “Nowadays, women are doctors, lawyers, business leaders — and you don’t think anything of it,” said Vansuch. “But it wasn’t so back then.”
“Alice” opens and closes with skits by an all-girl band. In between are skits, solos, lots of humor, and even some pathos.
Vansuch described one scene in which a group of girls go to a male strip club. “It’s hilarious,” she said, “and back then, it was more of a big deal, something new. You see the girls getting all excited as the men strip.”
The ’80s had its own clothing styles, but the Oakland production isn’t taking pains to recapture them. “Alice” isn’t really about fashion, so Vansuch said there’s no point in focusing on it.
“I looked at a DVD of the show from the ’80s, and it really didn’t look all that different from today,” said Vansuch, “although the business-wear look for women, with the big loopy ties, is sort of gone.”
Vansuch, who has lived in Pittsburgh for seven years, was one of the founders of the Oakland. She didn’t hesitate earlier this year when the theater asked her to come back and direct “Alice.”
“I have an affinity for this place,” she said. “I spent 16 years here.”
The Oakland was started by a group of 18 people, including Vansuch, who took over some rented space in the Star Supply complex on Mahoning Avenue, where Easy Street Productions now resides.
In those days, the Youngstown Playhouse was basically the only theater in town, and the Oakland provided opportunities for actors, directors and technicians with less experience, said Vansuch.
Easy Street co-founder Maureen Collins, who acted with the fledgling company in its early years, is a special guest in “Alice.”
“She wanted to be a part of it,” said Vansuch.
The rest of the cast includes Monica Beasley-Martin, Donna Smith Downie, Laurie Geer, Carla D. Gipson, Kris Harrington, Starr E. McClure, Tricia Terlesky and Vansuch.
The production is being staged in memory of Anne Finerty James, an actress, singer, artist and songwriter. A member of the original group of Oakland founders, James died earlier this year.