Fiddlehead Theatre Company and the city’s Strand Theatre have been making a joyful noise about their new partnership, including an invitation-only breakfast for supporters this week at the Parkman House with performances by cast members from the company’s upcoming productions of the musicals “A Little Princess” and “Aida.” But everyone involved hopes the benefits extend beyond the proscenium.
The first taste of what Fiddlehead’s arrival as resident theater company at the Strand could mean to the Uphams Corner neighborhood comes in a few weeks at the Cape Verdean eatery Restaurant Laura, a few blocks from the theater on Columbia Road.
On Oct. 3, 4, and 6, Fiddlehead will offer youth performances of the musical “Fame Jr.,” a one-hour “pop-up theater” experience for diners at the restaurant, by teen singers and dancers recruited through the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. The shows will be flavored by a few lyrics performed in Cape Verdean or Creole. (Tickets will be available soon at www.fiddleheadtheatre.com.)
“We have a very strong mission to collaborate with the community,” says Meg Fofonoff, producing artistic director of Fiddlehead.
“We’re trying to make the Strand Theatre part of the revitalization strategy for the neighborhood,” says Max MacCarthy, executive director of Uphams Corner Main Street, a nonprofit that promotes local business growth. “It’s still a work in progress, but we’re excited to have Meg here.”
Fofonoff says Fiddlehead is committed to a long-term and wide-ranging presence in Uphams Corner, from main-stage productions to year-round youth theater workshops. The company had been looking for a new home since leaving Norwood in 2009, and found it with a production of “Ragtime” at the Strand in 2012.
“Ragtime” drew an average of 500 to 600 patrons over 12 performances, selling out a couple of times and breaking even overall, Fofonoff says. It showed that the right production could bring out both locals and those from elsewhere in the metro area, she says.
Although there’s no formal contract defining the “resident company” designation, Fofonoff says she has provided the city with a five-year schedule for Fiddlehead productions at the Strand. While that means blocking out a few weeks every year, the theater often has been underutilized in recent years. The city official overseeing the theater says Fiddlehead’s presence will enhance the Strand’s reputation and help attract more events, from theater and dance to concerts.
Having Fiddlehead as a resident company “gives us consistent booking dates of high-quality arts programming,” says Christopher Cook, director of the city’s office of arts, tourism and special events, who oversees the 1,400-seat Strand. “But the other thing is, it raises awareness and credibility around the theater as a desired venue for companies.”
Initially, Fiddlehead will open only the 800-seat orchestra level for its productions. “The Little Princess,” a Boston premiere directed by Fofonoff, and the Elton John-Tim Rice “Aida” will both have professional casts of more than 30 and will feature a live orchestra, Fofonoff says. “Little Princess” composer Andrew Lippa will come for a talkback after one of those performances, she says.
Both shows are family-friendly with positive messages, Fofonoff says. “I’ve been doing quality theater for 20 years, and that’s a wonderful thing and it touches people’s lives. But at the Strand, I’m really interested in doing theater that works in some way at helping make the world a better place.”
The Strand opened its doors on Columbia Road on Nov. 11, 1918, the same day of the armistice that ended World War I. The theater thrived for decades as a movie and vaudeville palace, hosting stars such as Milton Berle, but eventually fell into disrepair and closed in 1969, as the surrounding commercial district also declined.
The city took over in the 1970s, eventually leasing the venue to M. Harriet McCormack Center for the Arts, and the theater hosted a wide variety of theater and musical performances, including concerts by Phish and B.B. King and a new Kids on the Block video shoot. But financial and physical problems continued until Mayor Thomas Menino’s administration decided to make a new push for viability at the theater, beginning in 2004.
Early next year, the city will finish a years-long, $6-million-plus renovation of the Strand with final upgrades to sound and lighting systems. Cook says the hope is that the theater and the neighborhood will get a boost not only from Fiddlehead’s arrival, but by upcoming appearances by the Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre, Actors’ Shakespeare Project, and the Boston Ballet.
Creating a solid schedule has been hard due to renovations in the theater in previous seasons, Cook says. But from this September to June 2014, the theater is booked every single weekend, with the only exclusion being a short period for the sound and lighting project. That project is the only reason there’s not a third Fiddlehead show on the schedule, Fofonoff says.
The theater’s revival would never have happened “if Mayor Menino didn’t believe that the Strand is not only a treasure to save because it’s the last neighborhood theater in the city, but also a linchpin in the economic development strategy around Uphams Corner,” Cook says.
During “Ragtime,” Uphams Corner Main Street produced a neighborhood dining guide that was distributed to ticket buyers to get them into nearby restaurants. It is also arranging for local vendors to serve in the Strand’s lobby during shows. “We’re trying to build those connections,” MacCarthy says. “We’re still trying to explore ways to connect to non-food [businesses].”
Says the city’s Cook, “What’s happening now is, rather being a recipient of so many of those people’s hard work over the years, finally the Strand is returning some of those dividends.”
Kickstart for ‘Mildred Fierce’
Ryan Landry and the Gold Dust Orphans got some of their best reviews this year with “Mildred Fierce,” written by Landry and starring Varla Jean Merman. Now they’re taking the show to New York and running a $50,000 Kickstarter campaign to underwrite the trip.
Donor premiums include a thank-you in the Playbill for $25, a signed Merman head shot for $50, a pair of tickets to the show for $125, or lunch with Landry for $500. For a $5,000 donation, you get an executive producer credit and a performance of the show at your party or event (close to the New York or Boston areas), among other goodies.
The Kickstarter runs until 9:34 a.m. on Sept. 6 at www.kickstarter.com/projects/1037808882/bring-ryan-landrys-mildred-fierce-to-nyc. If Landry and the Orphans hit their target — Kickstarter campaigns are all-or-nothing — the show will play Oct. 5-27 at Theatre 80 on St. Marks Place. In addition to good reviews, “Mildred Fierce” won the Elliot Norton Award for best new script.