Sunday, July 19, 2009

An evening at the Burnsville Performing Arts Center

Burnsville, Minnesota

That "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" won seven Tony Awards after its Broadway premiere in 1979 may have owed more to the weakness of its competition that year than to the strength of its own merits. It is a dreadful story of maniacal revenge told using a torturous score. Easy listening it is not. Still, it won for best musical, actor (Len Cariou), director (Harold Prince), score (Stephen Sondheim), book turned into musical, scenery, and costumes.

Staging the work requires ambition and endurance by any who would attempt it, including those of the Summer Theatre program of Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District 191. Working with a cast of 10 principals, a chorus of 30 men and women, and an orchestra of 20, director Randy Day and his colleagues opened a decent production at the Burnsville Performing Arts Center, July 16. Several hundred people attended the July 18 performance.

The impressive range and facility of Javier Ferreira's voice in the title role stood out for its competence and clarity. For the rest, a dampening of sound from the main hall's orchestra pit, by whatever means, would have been welcome, as the un-miked instruments often overwhelmed the miked singer/actors as they faced-down the challenging lyrics and melodies.

Sally Graff's costumes conveyed a convincing authenticity of mid-19th century London styles. While serviceable, the un-credited set design made for awkward changes of scenery and failed to fully utilize the huge proscenium opening; resource limitations may have accounted for these results. The production runs through Aug. 1.

The access of student thespians to the grand facilities of BPAC had to inspire. A central feature of the complex is the all-glass, two-story lobby that defines an entire side of the building, with the second level lobby area accomodating 300 in banquet settings with views over the Minnesota River valley. A proscenium stage theater (45' x 100' – with 48' proscenium opening and orchestra pit) provides excellent sightlines for at least the lowest 700 (of 1,000 total) seats, while a black box theater can seat 150 in various configurations. The Center also includes a 2,000 sq. ft. art gallery, meeting rooms, and large rehearsal room.

Beginning this fall, BPAC also will be home to the Envision Academy of the Arts, a magnet school featuring dance, music, and theater, offered tuition-free to students in the District 191 communities, plus neighboring Lakeville. The Academy will have connections with MacPhail Center for the Arts, Minnesota Orchestra, Gustavus Adolphus College, and the Children's Theatre Company.

The BPAC is part of Burnsville's Heart of the City development, combining housing, retail, parks, plazas, arts, and eventual hotel in a central walking district. It is operated by VenuWorks, a management firm for venues throughout North America. Executive Director Wolf Larson hails most recently from northern California. Stephen Rueff, production manager, may be familiar to many Minnesotans as a longtime stage manager and event producer. Steve's early days included stints as a dancer for New Dance Ensemble and Zenon Dance Company. While living in New York, he toured with Meredith Monk and the Blue Man Group, among others.

The Center's only discernable misstep to-date has been its affiliation with TicketMaster. No self-respecting venue that respects its patrons should work with an operation that charges a $5.75 per ticket "convenience fee," on top of a $2 per ticket facility charge, and $2.50 for the convenience of printing the ticket on one's own computer/printer. Adult tickets for "Sweeney Todd" at BPAC were listed at $18 – before these add-ons.

Much more user friendly is the series of late-night meet-ups to introduce the facilities to artists, audiences, and their friends. The first of the series was held July 18, with two more scheduled for Sat., July 25 and Aug. 1, 9pm to midnight, in the first-floor lobby and art gallery. Live music and live-working visual artists will be on hand to facilitate conversation and networking.

Those attending the July 18 event included Denise and Rick Vogt, co-directors of Ballet Royale, a classical academy opening in September in Lakeville. Both are former dancers, and Denise is certified by the Royal Academy of Dance.

As a sign of the excitement and interest that the new Center is generating, the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council will hold its annual meeting at the BPAC, July 28.

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