By Kristi Casey Sanders
“Our focus this year was to reacquaint people with traditional, big musicals, so all the shows we’re doing we’ve either done before, or they are shows that are new, but feel like an old show,” says Nicholas F. Manos, managing director of Theater of the Stars (TOTS).
The season kicks off this month with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (June 26-July 1), a 1982 stage adaptation of the hit 1954 movie musical. “It’s a comfort food show,” Manos says. “It’s not going to change anyone’s opinion of musical theater. It’s not going to stretch your brain. You’re not going to have long discussions about it after the show. You are going to be entertained for two to three hours.
“I think there’s a need for that, for pure and simple entertainment,” he adds.
Not that pure and simple entertainment is always in vogue. When Seven Brides opened on Broadway, happy-go-lucky shows were not the ones audiences were paying big bucks to see. “The mood of America in 1982 was very different from the mood of America in 1954,” Manos explains. “The types of musicals popular at the time were like Phantom of the Opera — serious epic shows. But regional theaters recognized the kind of show [Seven Brides ] was, and that it was what audiences like, and it’s been a staple ever since.”
The “challenge” dance, when the titular brothers compete with local boys for the affection of the girls of their dreams, is the show’s signature number. “When it’s done on stage [it’s] pretty remarkable,” Manos says. “It’s not like the movies, where they can cut and edit. In the stage production it’s eight minutes of very athletic dancing; it’s a rousing number with 20 people dancing their feet off. It’s very entertaining, and the audience just eats it up.”
Atlantans are in for a special treat with Dreamgirls (July 19-29), starring Jennifer Holliday. Twenty-five years ago she originated the role of Effie on Broadway, receiving the Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical, a Grammy for her recording of the showstopping Act One song “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” and Drama Desk and Theater World awards. Last year, the movie of Dreamgirls , starring Beyoncé Knowles, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx, was wildly successful; the movie’s Effie, Jennifer Hudson, won an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
“We did [Dreamgirls] 20 years ago, 10 years ago and five years ago, and every time we’ve done it with Jennifer,” Manos says. “The audience reaction to her is phenomenal. And she’s only doing it here, not anywhere else in the country. In light of the interest that’s been drummed up by the movie, I think it’s going to be the highlight of the summer.
“I’m not sure how many more times we’re going to see Dreamgirls with Jennifer Holliday in it,” Manos adds. “It’s a not-to-be-missed moment.”
In August, TOTS presents two classics: The Wizard of Oz (August 4-11) and West Side Story (August 21-26). Local child actors will play the munchkin and people of Oz roles in The Wizard of Oz .
“It’s part of our mission to introduce young audiences to not only seeing shows but participating in the theater; engendering love for the theater in future audiences by participating, not just watching,” Manos says. At least one show every season has a cast featuring local kids. Last year, Manos’ 13-year-old daughter got the chance to play one of the East Side High School students in TOTS’ production of Disney High School Musical .
“The local teens from Atlanta were doing the same dances that the professional actors from New York were doing,” Manos recalls. “It was challenging for her, and one of the best experiences she’s had in her 13-year-old life. … It’s a blessing for me to be able to allow her to do that. And to have kids and parents who also want their kids to do live theater at the Fox.” By the time you read this, the children’s chorus will have been cast, but auditions normally are held three to four months prior to performance dates; notices also are posted online .
This year marks the 50th anniversary of West Side Story’s Broadway debut. “It’s one of my personal favorites and one of my dad’s [Theater of the Stars Producer Christopher B. Manos] personal favorites, and it encompasses many of the aspects of why people love musicals,” Manos says. “It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s entertaining and it’s thought-provoking. It’s a classic story that’s been updated. It’s a love story, yet there’s conflict. It’s got fabulous songs … [and] the show’s choreography is considered iconic in the theater world.” To ensure that TOTS audiences are exposed to the same high-quality choreography the show is known for, Manos says the musical’s choreographer will be someone approved by original choreographer Jerome Robbins’ estate.
High energy dancing also is a feature of Stomp (September 18-23). “It’s not a musical,” Manos explains. “It’s a group of people who make unique rhythmic sounds with everyday items.” Zippos, brooms and trashcan lids all are transformed into musical instruments, and the infectious rhythms will have you dancing in your seat.
The TOTS season closer is one of the new shows that seems old: White Christmas (November 6-11). “The movie has been around for a long time, but they never made it into a musical until 2002,” Manos says. Featuring a song list of Irving Berlin greats, the show has been successful because it follows the movie closely, Manos says. “Back then, movie musicals were concerned about going from song to song and from dance to dance; they didn’t worry about the subtleties of the plot.” This will mark its debut in Atlanta, but Manos says, “We think it may be one of those shows we do every year or so as an audience favorite.”
For more information on Theater of the Stars’ season, visit theaterofthestars.com .