BWW Review: BROADWAY DRIVE-IN THEATRE Offers Socially Distant, In-Person Concert at Fountain Hills Theater
The "Broadway Drive-In Theatre" at Fountain Hills Theater (FHT) is a significant step for the performing arts and a largely successful early attempt to recapture the magic of live performance. In this COVID-19 era, theatre and the performing arts, which rely heavily on large groups of people coming together for a shared, personal experience, are struggling. It is likely that many theatres around the country will not make it through this pandemic due to a loss of revenue and lack of government assistance programs. Naturally, theatres and performers have turned to social media to continue their artistic expression, further their connection with their audiences, and maintain relevance. The content we have seen is inventive, but Fountain Hills Theater is taking "socially distant performance" to the next level.
FHT is the first local company to attempt an in-person concert, but, in their own words, "with an important twist." Patrons stay entirely in their vehicle and tune into the soundboard using their car radio. The sound was rough for group singing, but entirely effective for soloists. Starting on May 28th, FHT began presenting this live, outdoor concert 3 times a week. I attended the Thursday performance on June 11th, and the 8pm start time coincided with a beautiful Arizona sunset and perfect drop in temperature. The FHT parking lot served as house seating with parking set up in a semicircle facing a portable elevated stage equipped with an overhanging roof and small lighting grid. The set up and tech were inspiring to behold. I saw glimpses of how Arizona could be the perfect place for a wide variety of drive-in performances. To the side of the stage, technicians sat at a tiny L-shaped desk with two computer screens and a sound board. With a spot operator in the back, cast in holding, and musical tracks at the ready, the scene was set for a surprising, simple, and all together moving night of entertainment.
There are so many unknowns when attempting to do something new in today's COVID-19 world, but the "Broadway Drive-In Theatre," conceived by Peter J. Hill & Ross Collins, has done its best to think of everything. The evening was hosted by Michael Wallot (FHT Executive Director) and Hill (Artistic/Technical Director) who state that FHT has taken every precaution to protect their audience and performers. As this was my first real outing since March 15th, I'll admit that I was hesitant to attend, but once I was in the audience, I almost immediately felt safe and comfortable. The entire 50-minute experience was completely contactless and respected social distancing. I interacted with two FHT staff, one to check my ticket, and one to guide me to a parking spot, both of whom were wearing masks.
As far as performer protections go, Hill shared that, "everyone has their own mic," which cuts down on possible cross contamination. The concert was split up largely into solos with a handful of duets, but the unfortunate use of group numbers created the only uneasy moments of the night for me. I'm not an expert on contagion but based on information I've been reading, the ensemble songs were not staged socially distant enough to ensure the safety of the artists if someone was in fact a carrier of the virus. But here we are, three weeks after these concerts began, and I've yet to hear of a cast member getting sick. I assume all the artists have accepted this level of risk, so I won't harp on it. Here is some further reading: National Association of Teachers of Singing panel, NY Times "When Will It Be Safe To Sing Together Again?", Actor's Equity Association "Live Theatre Safety Plans Must Be Based On Science."
The concert itself, touted as a "one of a kind in the world," was an odd combination of knockout vocals and uninspired park and barks. Memorable numbers like Nicholas Hambruch's stunning rendition of "This Is The Moment" were countered with awkward performances like the obligatory "Proud To Be An American." There were also a few tasteless jokes and tossing of rolls of toilet paper to the audience. On the plus side, you get to stay in your car, and honestly, after 3 months in quarantine, I was thrilled to be sitting in the audience.
Standout moments included Victoria Fairclough's "Someone Else's Story," and the duet "I Know Him So Well," both from Chess. My favorite performance of the night was Kim Rickels' performance of "As We Stumble Along" from The Drowsy Chaperone. Rickels owned the stage, the character, and the song. She stole the show and offered a vision of the true potential this new performance medium is capable of. Additionally, in this time of uncertainty and darkened theatres, it was uplifting to see Jesse and Kathleen Berger back on stage again. This sibling duo have made their mark throughout our community and to see them reunited here raised my spirit. With stunning vocals and commanding presence, the Berger's represent two of the most seasoned and beloved performers we have in Arizona. Kathleen's rendition of "When You Walk Through A Storm" from Carousel was worth the price of the ticket alone.
The concert ended with the entire cast singing, "One Day More" from Les Miserables, which also happens to be my favorite musical. Although I felt concerned with so many people singing so close to one another, I could not help but weep. I have missed live performance so much and for this surreal evening to culminate with one of the most powerful musical theatre songs of all time, I couldn't help but cry and cry and cry. I know many of these performers personally, and I know how hard this quarantine has been on the arts. To see them standing together, facing the unknown with such fearlessness was one of the most inspiring moments I've seen on any stage ever. As melodramatic as it may seem, I kept drawing comparisons to the musicians on the Titanic, using their skill and passion to ease panicked passengers as they continue to sink into the darkness. No matter the risk, these artists are unwavering in their determination. This experiment needed devoted and talented individuals to pull this off and these daring performers were more than up for the challenge.
Fountain Hills Theater is thinking way outside of the box and they have embraced the post-shutdown theatrical landscape more than any other theatre. In addition to "Broadway Drive-In Theatre," FHT has also produced over 18 online episodes since the shut down, consisting of interviews and performances from both locals and Broadway stars. The most recent episode was a particularly memorable one, featuring a roundtable of "distinguished working artists to discuss the role of People of Color in the arts - in the current environment and the past and hopeful present." It was the most enlightening and inspiring single discussion I have seen in our entire community since the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
I applaud FHT and their adaptable nature. They are daring, experimental, and creative in ways that deserve our attention. I can only imagine how they will continue to pivot, learn, and elevate their entertainment offerings. While this rendition of "Broadway Drive-In Theatre" has closed for the time being, I hope there will be more outdoor productions to come. If you are lucky enough to snag a ticket next time, please honk as loud as you can and flash your lights till your fingers go numb, because everyone involved deserves our respect and support.
More information about Fountain Hills Theater: https://fhtaz.org