Arlington’s Regent takes a bold shot at its musical roots (Boston Globe)

Feb 23, 2012

Arlington’s Regent takes a bold shot at its musical roots

-Rich Fahey, Boston Globe

When you’re involved in live theater, you’re an optimist at heart.

But will people who show up and enthusiastically sing along to the movie “The Sound of Music’’ also show up to see a work-in-progress musical about a woman undergoing a midlife meltdown? The owners of the Regent Theatre in Arlington are eager to find out.

The Regent - which began life in 1916 as a vaudeville palace, became a movie house, and now uses movies, music, theater, dance, comedy, and children’s shows to fill its 500 seats about 200 times a year - will present the musical “Monsters! A Midlife Musical Meltdown’’ for three weekends beginning Saturday.

“Our schedule is a huge mishmash,’’ admits Leland Stein, who runs the theater with partner Rick Stavros. “But musical theater actually harkens us back closer to our roots as a vaudeville house.’’

Drawing theatergoers into the suburbs is problematic, even in Arlington, located close to Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville. For every long-running company such as the Reagle Music Theatre in Waltham, the countryside is littered with the corpses of companies such as the Fiddlehead Theatre in Norwood, which won awards and critical acclaim for its shows but couldn’t draw enough patrons.

“We’re just far out enough that we’re not the city, but people in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville do have so much to choose from,’’ said Stein. “But we can price things modestly, offer free parking and dinner-show packages, and offer an experience comparable to Boston.’’

“Monsters!’’ is the story of Samantha (played by Emily Browder Melville), a New York City stockbroker who decides to celebrate her 40th birthday by quitting her job and going off to find herself in Peru’s Machu Picchu. But arriving on the scene is her skeptical mother, played by Arlington native and award-winning actress Cheryl McMahon, who saw her first movie matinee at the Regent and is reprising the role she first played in the original production in 2006.

She desperately tries to persuade Samantha to reconsider, to do the practical thing. Samantha insists she’s firm in her resolve to strike a new path at 40, but the echo of her mother’s words stirs up a toxic blend of old insecurities embodied by monsters familiar to us all - apathy, fear, and body image.

The Regent is coproducing “Monsters!’’ along with GP Productions and Image Theater.

“The Regent deserves a lot of credit for bringing in live theater,’’ said Jerry Bisantz, the director of “Monsters!’’ and one of the coproducers of Lowell-based Image Theatre with partner Ann Garvin.

The Regent last changed hands in 2001, when Gary Adelson bought the building. Stein and Stavros formed their partnership to lease the theater soon afterward.

Stavros and Bisantz had worked together on other theatrical productions, so when Bisantz and “Monsters!’’ playwright Gail Phaneuf approached Stein and Stavros last summer, they were convinced to journey north to the Deertrees Theatre in Harrison, Maine, to see a production of “Monsters!’’

Stein said he and his partner were very impressed, looked at available dates, and signed the deal.

Phaneuf, who wrote the book and lyrics for the show, and composer Ernie Lijoi, a Dedham native, first presented the work to area audiences in 2006 at CentaStage in Boston to strong notices.

It had been workshopped in New York City since then, as the creators revised and tightened up the piece, which they say is now ready for a return to Boston.

“I’m thrilled to have the show up and running again,’’ said Lijoi, who said he felt the rewrites had transformed the piece “into a truly solid and funny musical. I couldn’t be happier with it.’’

Phaneuf said the original positive critical reaction served as an incentive to refine it.

Lijoi, a fellow at the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop in New York, has been writing music and lyrics for new works since 2001. His work will be represented on Broadway this fall; he wrote the lyrics with composer Barbara Anselmi for two songs in “It Shoulda Been You.’’ The show was recently produced at New Jersey’s George Street Playhouse, directed by David Hyde Pierce and starring Tyne Daly.

Stein cut his teeth doing everything and anything in the music business, and one-night concerts have been one of the staples of the Regent in recent years. One exception was Ultrasonic Rock Orchestra’s Rock ’n Roll Circus, which had a long run last fall.

“We’ve been doing a lot of ‘one-offs,’ ’’ said Stein. “Obviously, we’d like to get some events with longer runs.’’

Whatever happens with “Monsters!’’ musical theater won’t be a “one-off’’ at the Regent. The theater has already scheduled another of Phaneuf’s musicals, “The Love Note,’’ for June.

“There is risk involved, but we’re sharing the risk with other people and believe we have the right audience to make it work,’’ said Stein. “We’re working with good people for three weeks. If it doesn’t work, it won’t kill us.’’