Stage & Dance

With tight schedule, SummerFest officials fell behind on 'Rent'

While Chip Becker, left, Katie Berger and Johnny Dawson rehearsed a scene from Rent on July 20, workers were busy finishing construction of the set. A thunderstorm the previous day wiped out precious prep and rehearsal time at The Arboretum, and cast and crew scrambled to be ready by opening night.
While Chip Becker, left, Katie Berger and Johnny Dawson rehearsed a scene from Rent on July 20, workers were busy finishing construction of the set. A thunderstorm the previous day wiped out precious prep and rehearsal time at The Arboretum, and cast and crew scrambled to be ready by opening night. staff

Reading Candace Chaney's review of SummerFest's production of Rent for the Herald-Leader, I felt like I was reading a review of a dress rehearsal.

In a sense, that's what it was.

In its journey to be this year's SummerFest finale, Rent ran into a perfect storm of adversity. It was a show with a new director and a mostly new cast for the Arboretum stage, where SummerFest presents its shows.

The show incorporated a tremendous amount of movement and some challenging singing.

Then, during production week, Rent had its already-brief two-night dress rehearsal schedule reduced to one when a violent thunderstorm wiped out its first night on stage.

So, by opening night, the Rent crew had about as much prep as most shows have had by the night of their final dress rehearsal.

In historical terms, they had less. In the past, all shows have had Arboretum stage time before the festival started. But this year, with each show setting up its own stage configuration, Rent didn't get to the Arboretum stage until the night before it opened.

So it was not surprising the opening-night audience saw a host of technical glitches, performance mishaps and a little lethargy.

It's understandable, but it doesn't give SummerFest a pass. There was a paying audience that night, expecting to see a complete production.

SummerFest's efforts to diversify its lineup and the look for each show is admirable. But the festival needs to find a way to give all its shows the best chance for five nights of success. And it needs to recognize that musicals often have a slightly higher mountain to climb.

Musicals have been a boon to SummerFest and its predecessor, the Lexington Shakespeare Festival, since it started staging them in 2004. They've drawn big crowds, attracted a new group of artists to the event, and in general have created a fresh buzz about theater in The Arboretum. The festival also has been smart, carving out its own place in local musical theater by focusing on contemporary, edgy fare.

Musicals are usually bigger puzzles to put together. That's why most musicals put in at least a couple dress rehearsals, if not more. Heck, on Broadway, they'll do months of "preview" performances, with an understanding that the show isn't ready to open at full price and for critics.

Overall, SummerFest has done very well with musicals, and when I saw Rent on its third performance night, it seemed to have shaken off a lot of the problems that Chaney described and that I had witnessed the night before opening.

But organizers might want to take that production as a cautionary tale, as impetus to figure out how to give its musicals the main-stage prep time they need.

An obvious answer, putting the musical up first, also has an obvious drawback: SummerFest clearly likes putting the musicals last, so the festival will end with a bang. That's conventional wisdom, but there have been plenty of non-musical bangs in Arboretum theater history, including blockbuster productions of To Kill a Mockingbird and Hamlet. Maybe the musical doesn't have to be the grand finale.

If it does, could the Fest extend the rehearsal schedule? Maybe the musical doesn't open until a Thursday or Friday night and runs two weekends.

Certainly the SummerFest directors know about creative solutions. Four years ago, they took an event that the Lexington Shakespeare Festival board had given up as unsustainable and made it an integral part of the summer arts season in Lexington.

And word is that we can look forward to SummerFest expanding its offerings soon.

Those expansions should include a better chance for great musicals despite a little bad luck or Murphy's Law.

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