Highlight of anniversary will be 'West Side Story'


June 23, 1991|By Eric Adams

You're running a summer arts festival that, by all accounts has gotten bigger and better every year. The programming has expanded, the size of the audience has nearly quadrupled, so the question is: How do you celebrate your 10th anniversary in a fitting manner?

If you're an organizer of the Maryland Arts Festival, you mark the occasion by staging the event's largest-ever production -- "West Side Story" -- in a newly renovated state-of-the-art theater -- Stephens Hall, the landmark structure on the campus of Towson State University.

The festival, a multidisciplinary celebration of music, theater, dance and art, this year is also being held in conjuction with TSU's 125th anniversary and will be dedicated to the school's retiring dean of fine arts and communications, Gilbert A. Brungardt, under whose aegis the event began in 1982.

The scope of this season's offerings reflects those grand purposes: In addition to "West Side Story," there are a stage production of "Driving Miss Daisy," an opera and ballet film series, a children's theater production, an art exhibit and two world premiere theater performances by, respectively, the Argentine troupe Diablomundo and a Towson State/Theatre Project production destined for the Edinburgh International Theatre Festival.

"We have made tremendous inroads in terms of the quality of what we do," said artistic director Michael Decker. A professor in Towson's music department, he attributed the gains in part to greater participation by student and professional actors in the area.

"I think we have become much more community-based," he said, explaining that auditions are open and are not limited to students. (Though university-based, the festival since 1987 has had a statewide focus.)

The growth can be quantified as well: When the festival began in 1982 it drew just a fraction of the 15,000 to 20,000 people expected this year. Performances begin Thursday with Alfred Uhry's "Driving Miss Daisy" in the Studio Theatre of Towson's Fine Arts Center, across the campus from Stephens on Osler Drive. "West Side Story" begins its run the following night.

Mr. Decker, who also serves as the latter's musical director, said the Laurents-Bernstein-Sondheim classic was chosen because it incorporates so many aspects of performance. "We wanted something that would have legitimate singing as well as acting and ballet," he said. Broadway veteran Ken Urmston, who directed last year's sold-out production of "Evita," is at the helm of "West Side Story," pulling together the cast, orchestra and production staff of nearly 75.

Organizers also selected "West Side Story" because thewanted a show that would highlight the new facilities at Stephens Hall. The renovations, which took four years and cost about $11 million, have made the 75-year-old theater one of the most advanced in the state, Mr. Decker said.

Formerly, the theater had no dressing rooms, no fly gallery and no wings. If actors had to make dramatic exits, said Mr. Decker only half-jokingly, they would often "jump off stage and smash into a brick wall." Now it has more than adequate space on both sides of the stage, as well as elaborate dressing rooms and a computer-controlled 16-line fly system for automatic control of scenery and curtains.

In addition, an orchestra pit has been installed and the stage has a fully trapped floor to allow entrances from below. The seating capacity in the theater was reduced from 900 to 723 to accommodate the orchestra pit, but facilities were added for the handicapped.

The renovations also improved the sound quality of the theater. Newly renovated buildings are often acoustically dry, with little echo, Mr. Decker said, but in Stephens the sound is now richer and warmer than it was in the original hall. The new sound system features a fully automated console, like those found in recording studios, and the speaker system is wired with a digital delay so spectators in the back won't hear the dialogue twice -- once when it's electronically transmitted through the speakers and again when the real sound catches up.

Despite all the modern technology, the theater retains much of its original appearance, including late Victorian architectural elements such as gargoyles, wood paneling, original seats and brass fixtures.

"Driving Miss Daisy," a much- honored Broadway play and later an Oscar-winning movie, will run on selected nights through July 13 and feature an all-professional cast including Maravene Loeschke, the head of Towson State's theater department, New York actor Larry Woody and WBAL-TV's Doug Roberts.

Also at the Fine Arts Center, July 20-28, will be the Pumpkin Theater's children's production, "The King of Ice Cream Mountain."

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