An experiment to keep theater going at Bradenton playhouse
With theaters around the world closed because of the coronavirus, some forward-thinking companies are trying new formats to keep performances alive in their communities.
On Saturday night, the Manatee Players test-drove an experimental presentation of the musical “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” in the style of a drive-in movie. Actors were onstage inside the Manatee Performing Arts Center while their performance was streamed live and projected on an inflatable outdoor screen in the parking lot.
Let’s start with the good news.
It’s fun to go to the drive-in again. I am just old enough to remember drive-ins as a youngster, and it’s like reliving my lost youth. Waiting for the sun to set so you can really see the screen, the outdoor ambient noise, the “pic” citronella mosquito repellant on the floor of the car, the crinkling sound of candy wrappers, all being revisited in this COVID19 world.
Another marvelous thing is that you can sing along in the car and even say the lines of the show, if you know them. It’s kind of like “Rocky Horror” meets “Charlie Brown” in a good way.
Children can run around the parking lot without fear of being shushed. The family in the neighboring car even brought along a child’s potty seat, something you could never do in a traditional theater. If you have small children and want to expose them to the theater, this is the perfect format. The Manatee Players even kicked off the evening with Charlie Brown cartoon short.
Call me old-fashioned, but I have never been one to bring food or drink into a theater during a show. Movies theaters, yes, but not real theaters. It was fun to actually eat and drink in the car while the show was taking place. And the popcorn gift from The Manatee Players was delish.
Masks were worn, even over the nose, and social distancing was maintained at all times. (Even the actors were face shields on stage.)
I was nervous that the radio sound wouldn’t work well, but I could hear every word.
Saturday’s experiment was not without its challenges, beginning with some minor technical issues that are to be expected as companies experiment with new systems. As each problem arose, the Manatee Players staff handled it professionally and with ease. (The inflatable screen, which momentarily began to deflate a bit, was provided by Realize Bradenton.)
If the theater tries it again, patrons should bring chairs and or be prepared to sit in significant heat. Our car logged in at 93 degrees at one point.
I feel awful for the actors on stage, who couldn’t hear the applause or laughter of the audience outside. The essence of theater is the interaction between the actor and audience.
The performance was considered a dress rehearsal, partly for contractual reasoning to conduct this outdoor experiment. The production, ably directed by Neal Addison and Kristin Ribble, was originally slated to open in March when theaters were forced to shutdown. The cast has continued rehearsing online ever since.
The directors bring a fresh approach to the 1967 musical, based on the beloved Charles Schultz comic strip “Peanuts.” In this version, based on the 1999 Broadway revival, Sally Brown joins Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Schroeder and Snoopy in a charming revue of vignettes and songs.
The engaging cast was led by Josh Devine as a vocally strong Charlie Brown, and Emma Devine as Sally Brown. Austyn Acker’s Lucy has terrific timing and makes the most of her fun role.
The rest of the solid cast — Maverick Wolf as Snoopy, Keoni Monterde as Linus and Noah Roderiques as Schroeder, — each had moments to shine, especially Wolf during Snoopy’s “Suppertime” with some fun choreography by Ribble. Emma Devine singing “My New Philosophy”and the entire cast performing “Book Report” were other highlights.
It’s a deceptively simple revue, sweet without being treacly, chock full of engaging musical numbers that are fun to sing, I mean, to listen to in the car.
During this challenging time, kudos to The Manatee Players for stepping up to the plate and keeping theater alive in the community in a safe and responsible manner.