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From tears to cheery musicals, close at hand

Regional arts troupes keep local stages up and running

Sebastian Hoffman (right) sings during a reheasal of "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" at Emerson Umbrella theater in Concord

Jessica Rinaldi For The Boston Globe

Sebastian Hoffman (right) sings during a reheasal of "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" at Emerson Umbrella theater in Concord

They sing out as one voice: “Let me entertain you.” That is the aim of Concord’s Emerson Umbrella Center for the Arts, the Franklin Performing Arts Company, and Waltham’s Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston.

Whether it’s a straight play, a big musical aimed for adult audiences, or a show performed for and by children, these ensembles offer a wide range of option for a night of entertainment.

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And while some local arts groups may struggle, in Concord, Franklin, and Waltham they push forward with creative ideas and making the most of their performance spaces.

“We’d like to be recognized as one of the premier arts centers in Massachusetts,” said Brian Boruta, 29, director of Emerson Umbrella, which is run out of a former school built in 1929 on Stow Street.

Raye Lynn Mercer, executive director of the Franklin Performing Arts Company, studied music in Vienna, is an accomplished pianist, and was a music major in college. “That got me involved with musical theater,” she said. “It wound up being my passion.”

Bob Eagle, 79, started the Reagle Players in 1969, and has put on musicals with stars including Ann Margret, Debbie Reynolds, and Patti LuPone, using the 1,100-seat Robinson Theatre at Waltham High School. But he hasn’t forgotten the little people. “We have summer and winter camps for children,” said Eagle. That’s just for starters.

Under the Umbrella

“We want to become a suburban destination,” said Emerson Umbrella’s Boruta, a Waltham resident who went to Framingham State and majored in music at Goddard College in Vermont. “We used to do two productions a year. Now we’re up to five.”

It’s an eclectic season he has put together, beginning with “Rabbit Hole,” a heart-wrenching play. “It’s about a family that loses a child in a car accident, and how relationships change through their grieving,” said Boruta. A New York Times review of the play said it “inspires copious weeping from the audience.” It opens on Friday at Emerson Umbrella.

That will be followed by “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” a rock musical that goes up on March 21, to be followed by an ambitious undertaking of “Angels in America, Part 1.” Opening night is April 18.

For information, call 978-371-0820 or go to www.emersonumbrella.org.

Emerson Umbrella’s summer camp for kids offers a half-hour of art and a half-hour of sports. There are programs for adults to get engaged in, too. Classes in drawing and painting, ceramics, and woodworking, to name a few, are available to all ages. “We have an arts and environment program that bridges the gap between art and nature,” said Boruta.

Updating the group’s building is an ongoing process. “It’s an old building,” said Boruta. “It’s been a performing arts space since the 1960s. A new sound system is being put in.” The building has three floors. Besides the main theater, which seats 358, there are classrooms that are used for show and dance rehearsals. “We have a lot of volunteer help,” said Boruta, who was events manager for the Wellesley schools.

To supplement revenue beyond ticket sales, Emerson Umbrella rents out space and pursues state and government grants. The staff and volunteers may work out of an old building, but under this umbrella the thinking is new and creative.

And Shakespeare, too

Thinking outside the box is second nature to Kate Lynn Mercer. Bringing in guest artists from the New York City Ballet, America Ballet, and Boston Ballet as cast members in the Franklin Performing Arts Company’s annual production of “The Nutcracker” has been going on since 1991, the year the company began.

“We started with big ideas,” said Mercer. “We don’t just do musical theater.”

More than 400 productions later, the company’s audiences have seen plays, dance, classical music, and jazz. “We do ‘Shakespeare on the Common’ in the summer,” said Mercer.

You can discover what the company offers all over town. It has utilized the Thomas D. Mercer auditorium at the middle school, and the high school as venues. In September, Franklin High, with an 800-seat auditorium, will provide the ensemble with another venue. “We’ll be able to do big shows there,” said Mercer.

A new theater, to be called the Black Box, is being constructed at the company’s main building on Main Street.

In 1985, Mercer started the Franklin School for the Performing Arts.

“We do one-act plays at the schools,” said Franklin resident Nick Paone, who directs and acts in the company’s big shows. He’ll direct “Little Shop of Horrors” next. “We’re aiming to do it in the Black Box if construction is complete,” he said.

The new venue will be cozy, with seating for 200 to 250. “We’re hoping for a late spring opening,” said Mercer. A fund-raiser to promote the new theater is planned at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. The company has used Gillette’s Putnam Club for fund-raisers in which New York and Broadway performers are invited.

With the Black Box, Mercer said, “We’ll be in control of our own space. We’d like to stage more intimate theater. . .  We want to be a regional musical venue.”

“I love the collaborative quality of this organization, the live music, and the high production of their shows,” said Medfield resident Jackie Evans, who handles media relations for the company.

Hardly a moment passes when Mercer doesn’t have something on her plate. “But we like it that way,” she said. “We’ve always had a big vision.”

For more information about the Franklin Performing Arts Company, call 508-528-8668 or go to www.fpaconline.com.

EAGLE’S SONGBOOK

Bob Eagle saw something missing — a drama club — when he was teaching at Waltham High. So, in 1969 he started one for students. His vision went far beyond that, however. With the school’s facilities at his disposal, Eagle, a lover of musical theater, envisioned doing huge shows, with name-recognition stars that would lead to big box office results.

He couldn’t do it overnight, but it was time to get started. It would become the Reagle Music Theatre. “The first show we did was ‘The Music Man’ in the spring with high school and college kids,” said Eagle. “We did it at the Kennedy Middle School because the new high school auditorium wasn’t finished.”

In 1970, Eagle’s first season with what was then called the Reagle Players, he staged “Our Town,” “Oklahoma,” and “The Wizard of Oz.” It’s been mostly musicals since then.

In 1971, Reagle did a production of “Hello Dolly.” Eagle had some New York contacts. “For ‘Hello Dolly,’ we had the original Broadway costumes, sets, and props. That was extremely exciting. That was a real milestone. Word got out.”

Eagle’s theater became known as a slice of Broadway in Waltham. Eagle, who taught English at Waltham High before starting the theater program, keeps the theater open all year. He has staged a Christmas show for the last 33 years and “Remembering the ’40s” for 25 years. At the latter, “we invite veterans of all wars to stand up and be recognized,” said Eagle.

There’s hardly a big-ticket musical Reagle hasn’t done: “Evita,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “West Side Story,” “A Chorus Line,” “Les Miserables.”

But some shows flop. “We did ‘Hairspray.’ We lost terribly on that,” said Eagle. “People stayed away.”

Eagle tracks what audiences want through ticket sales, especially in the theater’s high-profile Celebrity Series. Robert Goulet sold 3,089 tickets for four performances; Patti Page, with the Mills Brothers, 1,865; Herb Reed & the Platters, 1,369. The Reagle’s audiences tend to be older.

One of Eagle’s favorite’s was Sally Struthers, who when she performed in Waltham, unlike some stars, left her ego at the doorstep. She blended in with the production crew and everyone she met. “She’s been here three times, and I’d have her back in a heartbeat,” said Eagle.

In 2010 Reagle put on “Barbra & Frank,” with Las Vegas impersonators singing the hits of Streisand and Sinatra. It sold 892 tickets for a one-night performance, so Eagle brings the act back for a performance at 2 p.m. Sunday.

On March 15 and 16, Reagle will stage its 16th anniversary edition of “A Little Bit of Ireland,” saluting all things Irish. For more information, call 781-891-5600 or go to www.reaglemusictheatre.com.

It’s not all big-name acts at Reagle. Jerry Walker, a retired history teacher who was in “Showboat” on Broadway, is “a wonderful Irish storyteller,” said Eagle. “You can hear the sound of laughter rolling through the audience.”

Eagle had to persevere in the early years. “I directed all the high school shows. The theater had no air conditioning. I had no office.’ Ultimately, the mayor and the school district’s superintendent saw the wisdom of Eagle’s work. Grants started coming his way.

Eagle was born in Waltham. “Everyone left. I stayed.”

Pushing 80 hasn’t slowed him. “I just love what I do. When I was a kid I did shows in my basement.” Now he’s got his own theater, with a wide and sizable reputation. Well earned.

Lenny Megliola can be reached at lennymegs@aol.com.
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