Now in its 44th year, Homer’s little red theater opens the 2017 season with “The Drunkard,” the play that began it all when Pier One Theatre started in 1973 in a former beer warehouse at the end of the Spit.
Former artistic director Lance Petersen directed that version of the play “all about the perils of the demon drink,” as new artistic director Jennifer Norton describes it.
Lance and Barb Petersen stepped down at the end of the 2016 season after 43 seasons that saw Homer’s theater program grow into a constant of summer culture. While Barb Petersen had no official title, she helped her husband with much of the back-room operation. It was in their honor that Pier One starts this season with “The Drunkard,” a musical melodrama version directed by Brian J. Burton with piano by Johnny B.
“We felt since Lance and Barb were saying good-bye and that was the end of an era of Pier One, we thought we should kick off the new chapter with the same play,” Norton said.
Lance Petersen’s version had an Alaska setting. This season’s version also is the same as the 1986 version, the first play in Pier One’s current location, the red building by the Nick Dudiak Fishing Lagoon on the Spit. Reprising his role as Lawyer Cribbs is veteran Pier One actor Peter Norton — Jennifer Norton’s dad.
That’s another tradition Jennifer Norton continues from Lance Petersen: enlisting help from her family. Peter does poster design. Her mother, Laura Norton, is production manager, and Jennifer’s sister, Carolyn Norton, does the web page and other tasks as needed.
Pier One’s summer season features a solid repertoire of comedy, drama, tragedy and musicals. Much of Pier One theater’s success comes from its youth theater camps, a program that has nurtured the Homer theater scene for generations. The season includes two Youth Theatre productions, “Youth Theater Skills Camp Sharing Performance” and “Honor Among Thieves,” written by Youth Theatre Director Lindsey Schneider and directed by her and Assistant Director Landon Bunting. The second Youth Theatre show comes from its production camp, where campers try out for roles and put on a full play.
“(Schneider) said ‘I could totally write a play that had those qualities that we’re looking for in a play,’ and she did,” Norton said. “It’s kind of a heist play. It’s an orphan story. It’s a little bit of a love story. There’s all kinds of elements in it.”
This season has three musicals that show the range of the relationship between music and dialogue in theater. “The Drunkard” has mostly dialogue, with songs supplementing the acting. “Chicago,” the big splash of the season in July, is a traditional Broadway show, with an equal mix of dialogue, music and dancing. Closing out the season in October is “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera based on the Gospel. In “Superstar,” song and dance tells the whole story.
Set in 1920s Chicago, the musical tells the story of two rival murderesses locked up in jail, Roxie and Velma, and the media machinations of slickster lawyer Billy Flynn to exploit the situation. It has a full jazz orchestra on the stage, to give the feel of a night club cabaret, Norton said. Choreographer Ann Gittenger, rehearsal mistress for the annual Nutcracker production, has tailored the show for the intimate and tight Pier One stage.
The fall musical, like the recent “Les Miserables,” expands from Pier One’s small stage to the Mariner Theatre and usually includes adult and student actors. Directed by Lance Petersen and Mark Robinson, “Superstar” has one problem: most of the roles are for men. “Chicago” has a lot of good roles for women though. In discussing which one to do, Robinson suggested doing both. “Superstar” has a challenging score, with some parts written in a high range. With more women trying out than men, “Superstar” does some gender bending in roles. Carolyn Norton plays Herod and Susan Cates-Blackmon plays Caiaphas.
Other plays include “The Head that Wouldn’t Die,” by Rand Higbee that came out of the Last Frontier Theatre Confernce in Valdez.
“It’s really fun, set in 1958, a science fiction mash-up,” Norton said. “There’s robots and werewolves and disconnected body parts and all kind of fun stuff.”
Last Frontier Theatre plays also are featured in “Highlights of the Last Frontier Theatre Conference,” staged readings of plays selected by Kate Rich from the conference. Each night local actors perform a new play.
“In the Park” features three short plays all set in New York’s Central Park: “The Zoo Story” by Edward Albee and directed by Owen Duffy, and “The Statue of Bolivar” by Eric Lane and “2b (or not 2B)” by Jacquelyn Reingold, both directed by Kathleen Gustafson.
“Stage Kiss,” by Sara Ruhl and directed by Peter Sheppard, looks at the connection between the stage and life when two actors with a romantic history, He and She, perform romantic roles on the stage — and lose touch with reality.
Pier One also features several straight-up musical performances.
Johnny B. brings back his multimedia production for every cruise-ship visit on alternating Tuesdays, “Rhythm of the North.” Back in its sixth year is Outrageous Jazz, an evening of jazz standards and original tunes by Karen Strid-Chadwick on keyboard, Ray Booker on bass, Dale Curtis on trumpet, Cameron Cartland on drums and Brenda Vulgamore-Hune on vocals.