Live theater returns to Geva with outdoor production

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Geva Theatre Center is poised to make a historic return to live theater. After 16 months of silent stages, the regional theater will come back with its first-ever outdoor production: “Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash.” 

Performances will take place on the custom-built Six-String Bandstand, sponsored by Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, located directly behind the theater building. Tickets went on sale this month for shows that run Aug. 3 to Sept. 12.

The custom-built Six-String Bandstand is located behind Geva Theatre Center.
(Rendering courtesy of Geva)

Plans for the event began early this year. While officials weren’t sure if patrons could return to an indoor venue given pandemic restrictions, they felt strongly that summer weather would allow for an outdoor performance. Having access to the space behind the theater has been fortuitous.

“People really like outdoor theater, and there’s actually not a ton of it here,” says Chris Mannelli, executive director of Geva. “It’s going to make for (a) once-in-our history kind of event, which is a great way to come back to the theater.”

“Ring of Fire” will feature a cast of six multi-instrumentalist actors paying homage to Johnny Cash. The jukebox musical leads audiences on a journey through Cash’s life. The original show, created by Richard Maltby Jr. and conceived by William Meade, opened on Broadway in 2006. It has six principal performers paired as three couples—young, middle-aged and older—and features more than two dozen Cash classics, including “I Walk the Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I’ve Been Everywhere,” and “Ring of Fire.”

The artistic team includes actors Margaret Dudasik, Damon Gillespie, Déa Julien, Adrian Lopez, Sky Seals, and Sam Sherwood, along with Mark Cuddy as director. Many others are involved with the myriad aspects of producing and creating the performance. ESL Federal Credit Union will continue its sponsorship as the presenting sponsor for this season. Dawn Lipson serves as honorary season producer.

It is a show that Geva has wanted to do for a while, Mannelli says. 

“The show also lends itself to this kind of concert-like approach, because it’s all the music of Johnny Cash, and so it just fits and works in this outdoor-concert stage setting,” he says. 

This production is included as part of the theater’s 2020-2021 season. Planning the project was intense—from lighting and sound to projection and other elements like building a stage and logistics. 

“It is a massive amount of planning around a project like this, far more than we’d have to do if we were just going back to doing a show regularly at our theater,” Mannelli says.

The production had its first rehearsal yesterday.

“The energy is exciting,” Mannelli says. “We’ve been pent up with that energy for a long time. So, being able to create again is wonderful.”

He hopes to be able to fill roughly 400 seats—fewer than Geva’s Wilson Stage, which holds upwards of 500 people—each time the curtain goes up. 

“We just want to make sure we keep getting the word out so people know that we’re back,” Mannelli says. “Because it has been so long. This is a first step to come back to theater as we knew it before the pandemic. And so, we’ll have this show, this really special show, outside, and then come fall, we’ll be able to come back inside the theater again. That’s what we’re planning for. And that’ll be really special as well.”

Success goes beyond ticket sales to drawing audiences from the city, the suburbs and perhaps even those who might not watch theater indoors. It also includes, Mannelli says, bringing back loyal subscribers to see theater again. Geva serves as many as 160,000 patrons annually, including more than 20,000 students.

“We have been ready for a long time,” Mannelli says of the approaching show launch. “And we’ve wanted to do it. We just haven’t been able to.”

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

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