This holiday season, Rhode Islanders get to unwrap the gift of a new theatre. The fine folks of Ocean State Theatre Company (OSTC), former producers of Theatre by the Sea in Matunuck, open their state-of-the-art Warwick space this month. Unlike a certain bearded gentleman, they don’t judge whether we’ve been naughty or nice this year. Instead, they offer options for both, staging the devilishly funny Santaland Diaries and angelically sweet Winter Wonderettes. And this theatre is a gift that keeps on giving, with a full line-up of great shows scheduled through the spring.
“There are 409 seats and, really, not a bad seat in the house,” Producing Artistic Director Amiee Turner says of OSTC’s new home on Jefferson Boulevard. At the time, the dramatic transformation of the repurposed building, previously a vacant garage, nears completion. Turner reports, “The seats are almost ready to be installed, all of the walls are put up, the stage has been laid, and the pit’s been dug, so it’s well on its way.”
Turner and her team spent the last five years at Theatre by the Sea, producing large-scale summer seasons of musical theatre and comedy. They originally planned to continue there, operating their Warwick location during the months that the historic barn theatre closed. But, since owner Bill Hanney has decided to take over the production end of Theatre by the Sea next season, he and OSTC have parted ways. Turner takes a positive stance on the change of plans, noting, “Everyone is focused on this new tradition that we can start here.” That said, she adds, “It’s always going to feel a little bittersweet.”
Remaining on the bright side, Turner hopes that the central location of the Warwick theatre will translate to better accessibility and the potential to reach broader audiences. She also expects some of the challenges and limitations the group faced when mounting plays in a barn to be eliminated in this new, more conventional theatre space. Plus, she enthuses, “The staff has been unbelievable.
They’ve been splitting their time between packing up the Theatre by the Sea property, building the sets for the winter shows, and also helping to facilitate a great deal of the construction.”
OSTC kicks off December with a finger-snapping musical revue, The Winter Wonderettes by Roger Bean. Similar in format to the popular Forever Plaid, recently staged at Theatre by the Sea, the show features a quartet of fun gals who sing in sweet four-part harmony as the entertainment for their company’s party. Though set in 1968, the music spans decades, from traditional “O Tannenbaum” to retro “Santa Baby,” swinging “Jingle Bell Rock,” and contemporary “This Christmas.”
While Wonderettes celebrates the spirit of the season, The Santaland Diaries gets giggles out of Grinches everywhere. The one-man show, based on a clever essay by humorist David Sedaris, stars Lennie Watts as a disgruntled – and hilarious – Macy’s Christmas elf.
“We thought it would be fun to do something eye-catching but also to give people a whole range of different things they could see. That’s why we went with the ‘naughty and nice’ [theme],” Turner explains. “It’s not too nice and it’s not too naughty, but there’s really something for everybody.”
Following the winter shows, the not-for-profit OSTC plans an ambitious schedule. Neil Simon’s funny Fools opens in January, Jonathan Larson’s rock opera Rent in February, David Mamet’s provocative Race in March, and Rodgers and Hammerstein classic The King and I in April. As far as casting goes, Turner notes, “We have chosen to use folks that have been with us since our inception, so there will be a lot of familiar faces on stage.” With professional talent, passion, and a new home in Warwick, OSTC brings tidings of good drama to Rhode Island audiences.