Aurora theaters gear up for new season with exciting prospects

As actors, directors and crews put the final touches on productions in the city’s arts district and beyond, it’s clear that the local theater scene has grown by leaps and bounds in the past decade.

By ADAM GOLDSTEIN Staff Writer

AURORA | Ten years ago, we would have been hard pressed to write an Aurora-centric theater preview for the fall season.

Tupper Cullum who plays Freddy recites his lines with castmates at rehearsal Wednesday evening, Aug. 29 at Aurora Fox theater. Steve Martin’s comedy “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” in which Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein fortuitously meet in a Parisian bar in 1904, will open September 14 for a one-month run at the Aurora Fox Theatre, 9900 E. Colfax Ave. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Local theater-goers would likely have had to head west to big cultural centers in Denver for the season’s most compelling productions. Not so now. As actors, directors and crews put the final touches on productions in the city’s arts district and beyond, it’s clear that the local theater scene has grown by leaps and bounds in the past decade. Aurora’s theater community has a wide range of shows on tap for the coming months, from a brainy comedy about the cultural and scientific revolutions of the twentieth century to a subversive rock opera questioning the corrupting power of the U.S. presidency.

Here are a peek at the shows we’re most excited about for the coming season, productions that are apt to draw audiences east to Aurora.

“Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. on Sundays; Sept. 14 through Oct. 14. Tickets start at $26. Information: 303-739-1970 or aurorafoxartscenter.org. 

Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein and Elvis Presley walk into a bar and belt out the chorus of “Don’t Be Cruel” with a shared gusto.

This isn’t the intro to a cheesy joke. It was the scene at an impromptu jam session at a recent rehearsal for the Aurora Fox’s production of Steve Martin’s comedy “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.” Actors playing Picasso (Benjamin Cowhick), Einstein (Jack Wefso) and Elvis (Jonny Barber) joined other cast members and director John Ashton for a guitar-driven performance of Elvis tunes. The performance seemed to capture the spirit of Martin’s brainy comedy, a show that melds the most important cultural and scientific movements of the twentieth century in a single setting. In the show, an imagined meeting between Einstein, Picasso and Presley in a French bar inspires debate about the most important innovations of our modern era.

“It has Steve Martin’s cleverness, the delight in mixing up ideas,” Ashton said. “It’s smart and yet it’s also goofy.”

The comedy in “Picasso” has a solid foundation in history, in the most profound ideas and cultural shifts of the modern era. In some ways, the playwright explores the tension between the creative mind and the scientific impulse, a conflict that finds an illustration in the debates between cultural giants.

“What Steve Martin does that’s so smart in this play is that he sets you up with this conflict, the idea of the intellectual artist and the intellectual scientific critical thinker. Which one is more profound?” Wefso said. “At the end of the show, he demonstrates that they are the same thing. It’s all passion.”

Breaking down the barriers between scientific and artistic achievement is a fitting theme for the debut piece in the Fox’s coming season, Cowhick said.

“The push and pull is the beginnings of cracking that separation,” Cowhick said. “That’s one of the fun parts of the script. Picasso and Einstein realize that they do think the same in a lot of ways.”

Those deeper questions will be paired with curtain-call musical performances led by Barber, a local musician who’s earned the title “Velvet Elvis” for his spot-on tributes to the king of rock and roll.

“I’ve got this guy who does Elvis and virtually every male in this show plays a guitar,” Ashton said. “The temptation was too, too great.”

“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays; 6 p.m., Sundays; Sept. 7 through Oct. 28, Aurora Fox theater, 9900 E. Colfax Ave. Tickets start at $25. Information: 303-739-1970 or aurorafoxartscenter.org.

Ben Dicke doesn’t hold back when talking about his goals for the upcoming production of the guerilla musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.”

“I want this to be the best locally produced musical this town has ever seen,” said Dicke, who serves as the show’s director and star. “That seems ridiculous, but everything I do, I want it to be the best,” he added between laughs.

Dicke’s efforts thus far to bring the Broadway show to the stage in the Aurora Fox studio theater shows that commitment. In May, Dicke took to a treadmill on the 16th Street Mall in Denver, running a full 24 hours in an effort to raise $10,000 for the show. The effort paid off, and three months later, the cast is putting the final touches on a show that promises to be one of the most compelling selections in the metro area’s fall theater season.

The show explores U.S. President Andrew Jackson’s muddled and violent legacy in a decidedly rock-and-roll framework. The show explores the deeper imprints of Jackson’s time in office — the impact of populism, the human toll of the Indian Removal Act and the consolidation of executive power.

It’s no accident that the show is running in the months leading up to a presidential election.

“The message that the show brings, it’s about the American people and what they want,” said Norrell Moore, who plays Rachel Jackson in the show. “It brings up so many thoughts … It’s the ups, the downs and the personal relationship between the president and his people, what he thinks and what his roots are.”

Those messages come in a visceral, vibrant framework. The score is loud, unapologetic rock and roll. The set is disorienting — a massive band platform will fill the modest space of the studio theater and, for the first time, the doors to the Fox’s shop will be open as part of the layout.

“Any time the space is more intimate, you immediately have a deeper connection with your audience,” Dicke said. “The show is very confrontational. There’s no fourth wall — it’s completely obliterated … I want this to be a platform for discussion, a platform for an examination on the part of our audience about who we are as a country 200 years ago, and who we are now.”

“The Cider House Rules Parts One and Two,” performances run Sept. 7 to Sept. 30 at the Vintage Theatre, 1468 Dayton St., Aurora. Tickets start at $25. Information: 303-856-7830 or online at vintagetheatre.com.

Bigger wasn’t better for Sheri Davis.

The director of the upcoming production of “The Cider House Rules” had access to the full capacity of the Vintage Theatre’s new home in Aurora. The Jeffrey Nickelson auditorium holds more than 150 — more than double the size of the troupe’s old home in Denver. But Davis opted to mount the show in the Vintage’s new black-box theater, a recently completed addition that holds about 70.

“This is a very intimate story. We want to bring it right to the audience,” Davis said, adding that that immediacy comes despite the fact that the show spans 60 years and features 20 actors. “A lot of the actors immediately got it. We were going to be right there like in the old Vintage.”

“The Cider House Rules” is an intriguing selection to kick off the Vintage’s new space. The show, based on John Irving’s sweeping novel, centers on Homer Wells (Jose Zuniga) and Dr. Wilbur Larch (Paul Page), two characters whose lives are inextricably linked across decades. The narrative of Wells upbringing in an orphanage and Wells’ subsequent role as an adopted father finds a wealth of depth in a vast array of supporting characters; people who appear over a timeframe of decades.

The breadth of that timeframe drove the Vintage troupe to break the story into two parts, an ambitious move that’s already proved successful in the company’s production of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.”

“It’s a highly stylized show and it takes a different skill set. You need more stamina,” Zuniga said. “The play represents almost 40 years. I’m born in the first show. Through several time jumps, I’m 19 at the end of the first play. At the end of the second, I’m in my late 30s.”

The show also jumps backwards in telling the story of Dr. Larch, an obstetrician with a complicated past.

“It goes back in time to when my character was in his early twenties and it ends in my early nineties,” Page said. “I approach it with greater fear,” he added. “The natural inclination for an actor is to see what you can do visually to change your appearance. We don’t have that option. We have to do a lot with our physicality.”

It’s an approach that seems tailor-made for the Vintage’s newest space.

ON THE HORIZON

Other compelling shows heading to Aurora in the coming months.

  • Firehouse Theatre Company’s production of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the novella “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson; Oct. 5 to Nov. 3; John Hand Theatre, 7653 E. 1st Place in Lowry; Tickets start at $20. Information: 303-562-3232 or firehousetheatercompany.com.
  • Ignite Theatre’s production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler; Oct. 19 to Nov. 11; Aurora Fox theater, 9900 E. Colfax Ave.; Tickets start at $25. Information: 720-362-2697 or lucentperformingarts.org
  • Vintage Theatre’s production of “Kiss of the Spider Woman” by John Kander, Fred Ebb and Terrence McNally; Oct. 26 through Nov. 2; Vintage Theatre, 1468 Dayton St.; Tickets start at $25. Information: 303-856-7830 or vintagetheatre.com.

Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at agoldstein@aurorasentinel.com or 720-449-9707

FindIt!