Willows Theatre reborn in Concord!

The mystic mime seems to be standing amazed at the marvelous news, the Willows Theatre returns to Concord!
Great news for East Bay theater aficionados as the Willows Theatre Company has just announced that they’ve turned back the clock, re-opening the Willows main-stage facility in the Concord Willows Shopping center to accommodate the exciting Caribbean Musical, “Once on this Island”, set to open on March 25th of this year.

This past week, I met with the Willows Theater’s new management team, including David Faustina (managing director) and Eric Inman (artistic director), who took over after former artistic director Rich Elliot resigned from the theater’s leadership role to take a teaching position in a school in Arizona. Everyone involved in community theatre is aware that Rich Elliot and his business partner Andrew Holtz had taken some huge risks in opening the new John Muir Amphitheater at the Martinez waterfront marina and the Campbell Cabaret Theatre in downtown Martinez both within a very short time of each other. Unfortunately, when the economy went south, and the rent for the Willows Shopping Center space went north, the company had no choice but to close down the Willows Main Stage. Eric and David spoke about the 36 year history of the Willows Theater while it was engaged in the Concord shopping center location, and more important, the broad diversity of theater they were able to produce in that more versatile venue. This desire to reengage the City of Concord and the City of Martinez and the Willows Shopping Center has come at a time when both cities and business enterprises are dealing with difficult financial problems and has met with some justifiable skepticism by a number of people interested in the theater company’s welfare. However, now after a year of re-organizing, the new Willows management team is pulling out all stops to re-ignite the interest of their very loyal theater fan base, many of whom were greatly disappointed when the company had to close the main-stage theater in the Willows Shopping Center. Many people in the Diablo Valley area found the Willows Theatre in Concord to be a very comfortable, convenient and popular theater destination. The management team says they have met with very positive and constructive intercourse among all interested parties, and while they admit they “are not out of the woods, yet” the progress is very measurable. The company has sought the input of its present season ticket holders as to what their preferences are and they are very excited by the outpouring of support for their re-engagement in the Concord Willows Theater.

In addition, the company wants to broaden the mission of the Campbell Cabaret Theater facility in Martinez to allow more opportunities for experimental theater and an infusion of new works by local authors and playwrights, while encouraging more submissions from schools and colleges around the country.

I have to admit that when I received my first copy of the Willows 2011 seasonal program offering, I was surprised at the fact that of the six shows being offered to season ticket holders, five were musicals. At that time I had no knowledge of the company’s quiet “behind the scenes negotiations and carefully orchestrated plans” to re-open the Willows Concord main-stage theater. I just could not imagine how they could mount the kind of musicals they had announced in their season offering in the “little” Campbell Cabaret Theater in Martinez.

The first musical to open in January, on the 31st, is “Rags, The Musical”, and it will be opening in the Cabaret Theatre. Rags is a wonderful story about the trials and tribulations of an immigrant family coming to America; the promises, the pain and transitions and growth that such a process brings into one’s life.

Next, will be the Caribbean musical, “Once on This Island”, which will usher in a breath of refreshing calypso music as the Willows Main-stage Theater re-opens on March 25th. This captivating story is a modern re-incarnation of a little mermaid-like story about a peasant girl, Ti Moune, and a rich boy, Daniel Breauhomme, whom she saves from Pappa Ge, the Demon of Death. They fall in love, but because of their differences in social class and family responsibilities and commitment, it is an ill-fated, hopeless love.

On June 20th, “King O’ The Moon”, will be opening in the Willows main stage. This humorous and thought provoking play is the sequel to a thoroughly delightful family play entitled “Over the Tavern”, a show that my wife and I truly enjoyed a number of years ago in the old Concord Willows Theater. This sequel will see the return of most of the original cast from “Over the Tavern”, a wonderful cast that elicited standing ovations for their acting in the earlier production.

Following this dramatic comedy, on August 4th, one of our all time favorite musicals, “Show Boat”, will take possession of the John Muir Marina Amphatheater, the perfect venue for this very powerful romantic production. “Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, I gotta love one man till I die, can’t help lovin’ that man of mine.” How can any of us forget the great lyrics from this American masterpiece? Captain Andy and his Mississippi river show boat, The Cotton Blossom, will come churning up the delta and drop anchor in Martinez (figuratively speaking) with a whole bunch of memorable songs and poignant stories and heart-felt music.

Then in October, “Chess, The musical”, with music and lyrics by Tim Rice, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderson, will open on the Concord Willows main stage. This musical was a big hit in London in 1986 and takes us back to the days of the cold war when two super powers, America and Russia, attempted to make propaganda for their political interests by one of them winning the world chess tournament. This is a fast moving tale of chess masters at work, enhanced by the underlying tale of the woman who manages one of the chess masters, who falls in love with the other country’s chess master. Deadly circumstances create a tale of political intrigue and romantic spice, all set against a backdrop of super power competition on an international stage. The music is the byproduct of three of the greatest musical names in the business; Tim Rice (known for his collaborations with Andrew Lloyd Webber), Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderson, the two musical powerhouses known for their famous music and song stylings created when they were part of a group known as ABBA! I have wanted to see this show for years and now I will have an opportunity.

Bringing this inaugural season to a close, the Campbell Cabaret Theater in Martinez will wake you up from your winter somnambulistic musings with the upbeat music and styling of the “Winter Wonderettes”, a delightful girl singing group from the late 60’s, who invite us all to a grand “1968 Holiday Party” with all the wonderful songs we love, such as Winter Wonderland, This Christmas and even the sultry Santa Baby (made famous by Eartha Kitt).

All in all, I know a lot of my readers truly enjoyed the experience of theatre in the moderate sized, comfortable Concord Willows Theatre in the Willows Shopping Center. I have been told how much people have enjoyed the feeling of safety in that environment and the ease of finding adequate “free” parking within easy walking distance from the theater.

The Box Office is currently in the Martinez Cabaret Theater, but when the improvements are done, the company will re-open a part-time box office in the Willows Concord Theater. You can subscribe to the new season offering or simply order individual tickets by calling (925) 798-1300 or by visiting the company’s web site at http://www.willowstheatre.org/. The Concord Willows Theatre is located at 1975 Diamond Blvd., in the Willows Shopping Center in Concord and the Willows Cabaret Theatre is located at 636 Ward Street in Martinez.