A new creative team dedicated to producing new musicals and plays has been tapped to run the White Plains Performing Arts Center.
John Ioris, chairman and president of the WPPAC board of directors, says the board voted at its annual meeting this month to appoint Laurence Holzman executive director of the Mainstage Season and Annette Jolles its artistic director. Felicia Needleman will serve as literary manager and Holzman’s wife, Lara, will be managing director.
Laurence Holzman and Needleman won the 2006 Kleban Award as the year’s most promising musical-theatre librettists.
Jolles, an award-winning TV producer who teaches musical-theater performance and direction at Yale, has been the go-to director for several Holzman-Needleman musicals. The team recently helped to produce the Tony-nominated play “Looped” on Broadway.
The Holzmans live in Dobbs Ferry, Needleman in Larchmont, Jolles in Queens.
The group is aiming high, pledging to produce three new musicals and two new plays in their first season at the theater on the top floor of the City Center mall in downtown White Plains.
The first two musicals, as it happens, were penned by Holzman and Needleman.
First up is “Wallenberg,” the musical the team wrote with composer Benjamin Rosenbluth. Opening Oct. 28, for a run through Nov. 21, it involves the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who is reported to have saved more than 100,000 Jews in World War II Hungary before disappearing mysteriously when Soviet troops arrived.
The production of “Wallenberg” will be funded, in part, by donations from the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, a champion of the diplomat’s legacy. (Read more about “Wallenberg” at the Wallenberg the Musical website. Read my 2009 story on “Wallenberg the Musical.”)
After “Wallenberg” comes the Westchester premiere of the Hanukkah-Christmas musical “That Time of the Year,” running Dec. 2 through 19.
Feb. 3 through 13 marks the regional premiere of the comedy “The Passion of the Hausfrau,” a comedy by Nicole Chaison and Bess Welden, based on Chaison’s popular mothering magazine.
March 24 to April 3, it’s the world premiere of a comedy-drama “Renovations,” by Andrew Gerle, about a father and son rebuilding a house.
From June 2 to 19, another world premiere, of the new musical, “Enchanted April,” based on the Elizabeth von Arnim novel about four women who find rebirth in a castle on the coast of Italy. It has book and lyrics by Kleban Award-winner Charles Leipart and a score by Richard B. Evans.
As an Actors Equity venue, WPPAC must pay its professional actors a set rate, but Holzman and his team were able to secure a letter of agreement amending the contract with the actors’ union, allowing for a lower pay scale and the use of non-professional actors. This, in turn, lowers the rates paid to other union work, saving the producers’ bottom line.
Still, the season won’t look skimpy on stage.
“These will be full productions,” Holzman says.
Needleman, who culled the season from scores of submitted scripts, says people should get used to seeing the word “premiere” when they see a show at WPPAC.
“We’ve been part of the ASCAP and BMI workshops and we’ve seen these great writers for years writing these incredible pieces and they can’t get them done.
“One of the attractions of this is having the ability to do not only our work but also other people’s work who we admire,” she says. “These should be getting done, but the regionals are either dying or not willing to take chances on new pieces.”
General manager Kathy Davisson says there will also be a “First Look” readings series on select Mondays and a Sunday night series of “Conversations” similar to “Inside the Actors’ Studio.”
Ioris likes what he’s hearing.
“It seemed to be a wonderful way to wrap the theater around the new-works portion of this, allow our youth program — which is now carrying itself — to continue, and expand our concert series,” Ioris says.
This is the latest chapter in the history of the venue, which opened in November 2003 and has gone through several makeovers.
First, the 400-seat theater was a city-subsidized community-minded center that presented its own works, brought in shows from other companies and made itself available for public use. The first act presented was the Flying Karamazov Brothers.
The theater has been defying death ever since, with a rotating chorus of directors, artistic directors and visionaries: From Tony Stimac, who also led Nyack’s Helen Hayes Theater Company until its demise in 2005 to Jack W. Batman, who, in 2007, reimagined the theater as a home for quarter-million-dollar musicals.
Corporate donations kept the theater going for nearly two seasons, bringing Tony nominee Robert Cuccioli here in “Camelot” and “Man of La Mancha” and Broadway veteran Nick Wyman in “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.”
But try as Batman might, he couldn’t succeed in the business of presenting productions in downtown White Plains when the economy soured.
Ioris says businesses lost their appetite for backing shows that continued to lose money.
Pair that with a city in a financial crisis — and the loss of the city’s annual $100,000 subsidy to the theater — and Ioris calls it a “perfect storm of events” that put the venue in peril.
For the past 18 months — Ioris, Davisson and an executive committee have been holding down the fort, overseeing the establishment of a youth theater (under Jeremy Quinn) and programming concerts by Broadway stars. The concerts, Ioris says, fed a subscriber base hungry for Broadway-caliber music and kept the venue on people’s radar.
Laurence Holzman recalls talking with Davisson when Batman’s tenure ended, wondering what was going on.
“Here we were trying to get our show ‘Wallenberg’ presented at a theater in Phoenix or a theater in New Orleans and you’ve got this beautiful theater right here around the corner from my house,” he recalls saying.
The team met with Ioris, originally to talk about staging “Wallenberg.” But the conversation broadened to embrace the idea of WPPAC as a home for new works.
Holzman jokes: “We came with a show and left with a theater.”
Ioris is upbeat.
“I feel we have a great team in place,” he says. “There’s an understanding of where we are financially and most important, we managed to stop the hemorrhaging and we’ve covered our expenses the last two years.”
Photo by Joe Larese/The Journal News: From left, Felicia Needleman, literary manager of the Mainstage Season, Laurence Holzman, executive director of the Mainstage Season and Kathleen Davisson, general manager of the White Plains Performing Arts Center, at the center.
If you go
Here’s a look at the 2010-11 Mainstage Season at White Plains Performing Arts Center. There will also be a Broadway Concert Series, a “First Look” play-reading series, and a “Sunday Conversations” series.
What: “Wallenberg,” Oct. 28-Nov. 21; “That Time of the Year,” Dec. 2-19; “The Passion of the Hausfrau,” Feb. 3-13; “Renovations,” March 24 to 13; “Enchanted April,” June 2 to 19.
Where: 11 City Place, White Plains.