Chicago Actors Find a Second Home in Ft. AtkinsonÂ—ItÂ's the Central Coast!
The scenic and historic town of FT. Atkinson, Wisconsin, is about a two hour drive from Chicago's northwest suburbs, though if you're starting from the Loop (or it's raining) it may take you an hour or so more. And you can pick either the Kennedy or the Edens Expressways to take you a good ways toward it, though Mapquest measures it to be only 112 miles from the Loop, straight up US 12. It's in southeastern Wisconsin on the beautiful Rock River, close to Madison but with ties to Milwaukee and Chicago. And the Fireside Dinner Theatre, offering a combination of family-friendly Broadway fare and Christian concerts, has been an Equity venue there seemingly forever. Ask any veteran Chicago actor--they've all worked there. And they've kept their survival jobs here at the same time--often working both on the same day!
I'm glad to report that this tiny farm and tourist town is now the unlikely home of TWO Equity dinner theaters, as the Central Coast Restaurant has entered the market with Theater at the Central Coast. Owners (and now producers) Larry and Sherry Starkweather have mounted a production of "I Love You, You're Perfect! Now Change" with Chicago and New York talent onstage and off, matched with some really delicious food to create a high quality evening in a place where you would never look to find it. I was there last Thursday evening, and I would definitely go back. It's a place where Chicagoans, whether as audience members or as working theater artists, will feel at home.
Founded in 2007 as a ballroom dance club, and now boasting a high-end weekend restaurant, hosting many weddings and corporate events and throwing parties large and small, the Central Coast (www.centralcoastrestaurant.com) is the first sign of your arrival in FT. Atkinson if you are driving up Route 26 from Janesville. It's on a large tract of former farmland, I'm guessing, with plenty of parking. The young and attractive staff, the interior design touches and the selection of central California wines available (hence the name) are designed to pull you into a new frame of mind.
Larry Starkweather himself, a gentle sort of dot.com multi-millionaire, I think, gave me a tour of the large facility that he and his wife created to run as a labor of love, as they were thinking about their next big life project. Executive Chef Richard Sweed told me about his Pennsylvania roots and his love of eclectic new American cuisine, as eager to cook sautéed asparagus as Vietnamese spring rolls for the restaurant, the dinner theater (separate large rooms, by the way) and the banqueting and catering operation he oversees. (It's a big kitchen!) I was offered beef, chicken and vegetarian options for the theater evening, and I had a dessert, too. I'm no restaurant critic, but I thought it was all really good.
Oh, and the show! You may know that "I Love You, You're Perfect! Now Change" ran off-Broadway in New York for years and years (book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro ["Memphis"] and music by Jimmy Roberts). New York-based Tricia Brouk has directed and choreographed this show with spunk, charm and insight, and cast it well, with three Chicago actors and one New York actor. Starkweather told me that he was amazed at the high level of professionalism the actors had shown throughout the rehearsal process (complicated by the fact that this is the first production mounted in the space, and in the winter, no less). I'm not sure that he knew exactly what "Equity" means in the theater world when he contacted the union, but I do think that he wants to do everything right, and well.
Well, I was not familiar with New Yorker Mia Gentile or Chicagoan Sarah Armstrong, but I very familiar with the work of Chicagoans Karl Hamilton and two-time Jeff Award winner Courtney Crouse. And I can tell you that their reputations are fully enhanced by their work on this show, as the audience loved their performances. I think they are both really character actors, who are so good that you think they are leading men! That could go for the ladies as well. They are all sexy, versatile and engaging. And the understudies, Stephanie Souza and Andrew Tebo, are Chicagoans, too. They were loving the performance last Thursday from a front table, surrounded by friends and the warm, sleek ambience of the room. The audience was very enthusiastic at the curtain call.
I am glad to report that Starkweather indicated to me his interest in producing a lot of small-cast, contemporary musical theater material at his venue. It's probably a good thing to differentiate from the Fireside (just up the street, actually) and to pull in the sophisticated urban, pre-urban and ex-urban audiences that mirror his tastes. He told me he's working very hard to find those audiences, and the shows and actors to entertain them. But for now (through March 17, 2012) on Thursdays-Sundays, he's throwing open the doors and offering a great meal and a hilarious and thoughtful, thoroughly professional musical comedy for $45-$65. And the owner-producer I saw was simultaneously hands-on and respective of his staff's ability to do their jobs well. I wish him all the best. And you should too. If you're looking for a quick getaway, it's well worth the trip.