Highlights and lessons from a memorable theater weekend



When it comes to Mahoning Valley theater, last weekend was one for the books.

There were five plays and musicals running simultaneously, plus a touring production of “Nunset Boulevard” on Saturday at Stambaugh Auditorium.

Not that it’s unusual to have four to six productions running at the same time in this theater-saturated area. It routinely happens, especially this time of year.

But what was remarkable was the quality of what was on stage, plus the level of interest and anticipation. These were some season highlights, and all in the same weekend.

The Oakland brought the Valley premiere of the 2006 Tony-dominating smash rock musical “Spring Awakening.” Youngstown State University Theater offered “Rent” (sort of the “Spring Awakening” of the 1990s), which now transcends cult-favorite status.

The Youngstown Playhouse had a stellar cast in its small-but-sparkling play, “Our Lady of 121st St.”

Trumbull New Theatre presented the holiday crowd-pleaser “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

And Easy Street had a monumental production of “Annie,” one of the greatest musicals of the past half-century. This Broadway-caliber show at Powers Auditorium was a full-blown event, the way only Easy Street can manage.

And then there was “Nunset Boulevard,” part of the “Nunsense” franchise, starring Cindy Williams (“Laverne & Shirley”).

It would have been impossible to catch them all last weekend. The good news is that four of the shows (all but “Annie” and “Nunset”) will be back this weekend.

For the most part, the plethora of live theater didn’t water down attendance.

The Youngstown Playhouse and Trumbull New Theater have healthy season-subscriber bases (plus “Our Lady” is in the 100-seat Moyer Room). And “Rent” and “Spring Awakening” were at or near capacity all weekend.

The only one to get caught in the crossfire was “Nunset,” which probably would have done a lot better were it not up against “Annie.” Both were high-quality productions in large halls, with similar ticket prices, but “Annie” played to three nearly full houses at 2,200-seat Powers, while the lone “Nunset” show at the equally large Stambaugh drew only 500.

Counting the school performances, Easy Street sold more than 6,000 tickets for the run of “Annie.” On Sunday, they had to delay the start of the show by 20 minutes to accommodate all the walk-up ticket-buyers. The line to the box office stretched a block down West Federal Street.

Getting put up against the family-favorite “Annie” was a stroke of misfortune for “Nunset” because both shows pretty much targeted the same audience.

Stambaugh came out the loser, but Chris Lewis, marketing manager of the auditorium, was undaunted.

“I just love the idea there was so much to do in the Youngstown art scene all at the same time,” he said. “It’s about the community in my eyes. Weekends like this should be the norm around here, and they will be in the coming years.”

Lewis said Stambaugh will definitely book more stage shows in the future.

The auditorium also plans to continue its aggressive sales strategy in hopes of building a database of ticket-buyers. The heavy promotional campaign for “Nunset” even included ads in Pittsburgh and Cleveland newspapers.

But despite the weak sales, Lewis views “Nunset” as a building block.

“The audience was laughing from start to finish, and we got some great feedback,” he said. “A lot of people told us they’d definitely be back if we had another show like this. At this point, a happy audience equates to a successful event since word of mouth is the most effective form of advertising.”

Lewis said “Nunset” sales have been strong in other markets, but largely because the show was part of a theater series with many full-season subscribers.

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