By Michael Kerr
The Opera House Theater Company is one of the absolute true gems of Wilmington today — if you haven’t seen one of their shows yet, you’re missing out on a wonderful theatrical experience. In two of the last three years, their shows Hairspray and Oklahoma have won the Star News award for Musical of the Year. Their company of actors, directors, musicians, costumers, scenic designers, and technicians are some of the best Wilmington and North Carolina have to offer. Their company productions are a prime example of artistic professionalism and excellence.
The company was founded in 1985 by Lou Criscuolo with the help of his wife Mary James (Morgan). Lou is an Italian from New York City who has always made his living as an actor until he moved to Wilmington (he has continued to act here, but not for a living). He has appeared on Broadway, T.V., movies, commercials, soap operas, and print ads – really, he has done it all.
He first came to Wilmington when he was hired to perform in an original musical produced by Thalian Hall to celebrate its 125th Anniversary; the show was Remembered Nights, or Hello, Goodbye, Hello. While he was here, he fell in love with Wilmington, and with dilapidated Thalian Hall (this was in 1983, long before the two most recent renovations).
In 1984, he returned to Thalian Hall and directed Man of La Mancha, which was a joint production of Thalin Hall, Thalian Association, and the Junior League. Lou was familiar with the show, as he was in the original Broadway cast. After that show, he and Mary James decided to form The Opera Company. They had taken the name the “Opera House” from what Thalian Hall had been originally named until the early 20th century.
The Opera Hose did its first Show in 1985: Cactus Flower, starring Joe Namath Deborah Mays. At the same time, Lou was on Broadway in Ma Rainey’s Back Room. He traveled back and forth from Sunday till Tuesday overseeing the production. From then on, Lou moved full time to Wilmington and the Opera House Theater has been performing every summer since then.
Wilmington in the 80s was very different than it is today. Then, it was still a small town, not the big metropolitan area it has become. At that time, not a lot of northerners were moving here and it was rough getting the Opera House off the ground. Many people do not fully understand the cost that it takes to produce each show — sets, costumes, lights, sound, musicians, technicians, promotions, theater rentals, it all adds up quickly! We are the beneficiaries of the work that goes into putting on a show, but only if we are smart enough to take advantage of it.
The Opera Company has had many generous supporters over the years. From the original board members – George Diab, Jim Lea and Franklin Williams – to the many generous supporters and great underwriters who have wanted the Opera House to flourish and grow.
The original office was in an apartment on Nun Street and the shop was just a few doors away from where they would rehearse the show. The Shuffler Center was once the home of the Department of Aging; they let the company start rehearsing there at night in exchange for theater tickets for the seniors (they are still giving tickets for the seniors today). When the Department moved into their new location, they leased the building to the Opera House for their offices, storage and rehearsal hall. This was exciting for the company as they now had some room to move in. In fact, the building’s auditorium is exactly the same size as the main stage at Thalian Hall, making it the perfect place to rehearse in.
Lou and the company are open to suggestions for shows to put on. Every year, they try to put on shows that are new to them, as well as some classics worth repeating. Their hands are somewhat tied, however, as they must wait until the rights to put on certain shows are given. They must request the rights from the company that holds them to perform the show and pay them royalties to do so (only adding to expenses). If a company is on tour or retuning to Broadway, the rights may be restricted. It may be several years for the rights of a new show to become available.
This year they have chosen five impressive shows: Evita, The Wizard of Oz, On the Town, Kiss Me Kate and Into the Woods — all of which have been Tony winners. As of this article, the first two shows have already played; you don’t want to miss your opportunity to see the last three.
On the Town is a Leonard Bernstein musical with lyrics by Comden & Green. The collaboration of these three Broadway legends created this wonderful, lively hit. The production was revolutionary in many regards, as it contained many firsts for a Broadway musical. In an unprecedented move, the movie rights were bought up before the show even opened.
Even though it is a period piece now, it was very much about current events during WWII. It is the story of three sailors on leave in NYC and the three women they meet. The show and the songs will delight you and you will leave the theater humming. On the Town runs for three weeks starting Wednesday July 2, 2014 and runs for three weeks. Get happy and see his show.
The Next Opera House show is Kiss me Kate the classic Cole Porter musical with music by Lenard Bernstein. This was the legendary Cole Porter’s most successful musical and garnered five Tony awards when it opened in 1949 and another five with it revival in 2000.
This musical welcomes you to Baltimore and “Another Op’nin’ of Another Show.” This very lively and funny musical based on Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” is actually a play within-a-play. Moving from the play to life behind the play, your attention is glued to the stage and entertains you with the classical songs “Too Darn Hot,” Always True to You (in My Fashion),” and “So in Love” just to name a few. The show opens for three weeks starting Wednesday July 30, 2014. You really don’t want to miss this American classic.
The final show for the 2014 season is Stephen Sondheim’s acclaimed Tony award winning musical, Into the Woods. Sondheim is considered by many as America’s best musical composer and lyricist of the late 20th century. Some of his other musicals include West Side Story, Follies, Sweeny Todd, and my favorite Company.
Into the Woods “blends various familiar fairy tales with an original story of a childless baker and his wife, who catalyze the action of the story by attempting to reverse a curse on their family in order to have a child.” They set out to live “Happily Ever After” through familiar children’s stores such as Cinderella, Jack in the Beanstalk, and Little Red Riding Hood.As with almost all of Sondheim’s shows, there are life lessons to be learned and this is no different. This wonderful musical will keep you spell bound and attentive. This show also runs for three weeks starting Wednesday August 27, 2014.
The Opera House will be celebrating its 30th anniversary next season. That is 30 years of providing the Wilmington area with entertaining, exciting, classical, and historical musicals. They have lightened up our summer months with productions of the highest quality and professionalism. We owe them and their founder Lou Criscuolo many thanks as a community for providing this to us.
If you haven’t yet, I sincerely hope you see these wonderful productions. They will help make the summer months memorial for you.