The Off-Broadstreet Theater (OBT), the 30-something year-old theater company in Hopewell, is launching its new season with an emphasis on the new — as in a newly renovated space.
The former 1940s-era movie theater turned Gallup Poll survey center turned family-run, non-Equity professional theater has reopened after a year or so of changes.
Former building owners, OBT producers, and married couple Bob and Julie Thick sold the theater to Jon McConaughy (of Double Brook Farm), Mitchel Skolnick (Bluestone Farms), and Sky and Liza Morehouse (Morehouse Engineering) who renovated the outdated interior.
Now the Thicks are back with a new lease on theatrical presenting — literally.
“We have a two-year lease,” Julie Thick says during a recent visit. “It will give us time to think about the future and get the kinks out of renovations.”
From the casual visitor’s vantage point, the place looks fine. The seating area — arranged in nightclub style with tables covered by rose-colored table cloths — is freshly painted and carpeted. A bright metal lighting-truss rises up the walls and crosses the ceiling. New lighting instruments wash the pre-show stage in blue. A powerful air-conditioning unit amply cools the space (something appreciated on a recent hot and humid evening). A new sound systems pumps out upbeat music. And new bathroom facilities are on both floors, saving a trip upstairs for some.
What hasn’t changed is the performing and backstage areas and the trademarks of this self-described “dessert theater:” a table of pastries and fresh brewed coffee scenting the air (sweets and beverages are included in the admission price).
“Welcome to the new Off-Broadstreet Theater,” says Bob Thick proudly as part of his pre-show welcome. But that’s just one of Thick’s old duties. Others include selling tickets, directing, designing the production, running the lights, and whatever else pops us. Julie Thick, meanwhile, continues to serve her old role as house manager, PR person, and choreographer. And since the couple met while performing and directing elsewhere, they’re also ready to step into the stage lights when the need arises.
It’s that old-styled personalized approach that makes OBT what it is and connects the “new” to its first show, fittingly called “Starting Here, Starting Now” — which I reviewed for the Trenton Times.
Now fast forward to the current production, “The Dixie Swim Club,” a choice that reflects the Thicks’ taste for light fare and diversion.
And considering that about four-fifths of the 130-seat capacity playhouse seemed filled during a recent holiday weekend, the Thicks know their patrons, who on this particular night range from their early-20s to someone signaled out for his 85th birthday. That was retired Princeton University music professor Peter Westergaard, whose wife, Barbara, is a writer who has reviewed for U.S. 1 on numerous occasions.
“The Dixie Swim Club” is less a character driven drama than an unfolding reminder. Part “Steel Magnolias,” part TV’s “Golden Girls,” and part “Same Time Next Year,” the show deals with five longtime friends, former college swimming teammates who meet every year at a North Carolina beach cottage. Here a sun yellow cottage facade, lattice fence, and white wicker furniture against a wall of sky blue paint are all illuminated by a bright lights on and bright lights off approach.
Peopled with types, there’s Sheree (played by Christy Milliken), the captain who never gives up organizing and giving orders; Lexie (Janet Gray), whose flirting, vanity, and penchant for marrying mask her deep understanding and care; Dinah (Victoria Benn), a lonely lawyer who secretly keeps the gal-pals together; Vernadette (Robyn Mandalakis), the flip-talking star of “her own country song”; and Jeri Neal (Judy Venturini), a former nun turned unwed mother.
Playwrights Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wootan’s 2008 script rotates around four cottage visits starting in 1979, with three scenes separated by five years, and one by 23. In each the women share their ups and downs and fears and hopes — with dialogue generally following a pattern of off-beat statements followed by sharp-tongued retorts. When ex-nun Jeri Neal says she had a calling to “stop being a sister and be a mother” and got pregnant through artificial insemination, Vernadette fires back that there are more fun ways to do the job. And so it goes and goes, until later scenes when age and mortality reminds the club members — and audience — that in the end all that matters is friendship and memories.
Thick and his game quintet of performers — three OBT returnees and two newcomers with various stage credits — emphasize busy talk and stage movement. And while everything is predictable (and with friends aging together, inevitable), there is a spark of fun watching time pass in costumer Ann Richard’s fashion show of sundresses, faux leather miniskirts, crazy blouses, and even a clown suit — not to mention the wigs that take these southern-styled belles from wild hair to gray.
“Good to be back,” says one of the patrons to Julie Thick as he comes in and looks around at the new theater. She smiles as she did more than 30 years ago, bringing the mood of the show down home.
The Dixie Swim Club, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Through Sunday, June 11. Performance are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with doors opening for dessert at 7 p.m., and Sundays and 2:30 p.m., with dessert at 1:30 p.m. $27 to $31.50. 609-466-2766 or www.off-broadstreet.com.
Upcoming at OBT are “Sherlock’s Veiled Secret,” July 1 through 30; the musical “Summer Stock Murder,” August 19 through September 17; “Lombardi,” a bio-play about football coach Vince Lombardi, October 7 through November 5; and “Altar Boyz,” about an unusual Christian boy band, opening November 25 and on stage for the holidays.