Sept. 9 2009 12:00 AM

Theater looks to keep good thing going this season


It takes more than name recognition, longevity and critical accolades for an arts organization in our region to stave off the matter-sucking powers of today’s black hole economy. For proof, look no further than two long-standing companies, 2 Into the Woods 9/9 & 16 Lansing Civic Players and BoarsHead Theater, which have had to modify their schedules, and in the case of the latter, staff for financial reasons this season.

But on the eve of its 51st season, Lansing’s Riverwalk Theatre seems to have found a way, at least for the time being, to buck the trend and actually grow. Unlike many local companies, Riverwalk owns its own performance space, and last spring the theater put the final touches on a three-year development campaign to develop unused space in the building, including the construction of an on-site black box studio, which will get broken in this season.

“Member support is much higher this year than it was last year and has been in years past,” said Bill Helder, Riverwalk’s former board president. “Given the times we’re living in, that fact is absolutely incredible. Our patrons have really been a key part of making our theater continue to work, and have helped us extend our lobby, install new bathroom facilities and construct the Black Box auditorium that we have today.”

Featuring smaller, edgier productions that often unfold in a single act, Riverwalk’s Black Box series, staged in Lansing’s Creole Gallery since 2003, has become something of a popular showcase for lesser-known, language-driven pieces and original works by Lansing-area playwrights.

“It’s given a lot of local authors and actors the opportunity to really take the lead in developing their stories for the Lansing community,” said Mike Siracuse, theater manager at Riverwalk. “This year we’ll be featuring a staged reading of a play by MSU professor David Bailey, and in May, well be promoting a script from Brad Rutledge, one of our actors.”

Last year, City Pulse’s critics heaped awards on Riverwalk Theatre (the community theater company took home 13 trophies in all) for its Black Box productions of “The Substance of Fire” and “Under Milk Wood,” and main stage musical “Little Shop of Horrors.”

This season, the company will open the season with another big name musical, James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” which follows the foibles of several iconoclastic fairy tale characters.

At a preliminary run-through of the show last week, cast members displayed a natural camaraderie, often playfully chiding each other between scenes and making an extra effort to help each other succeed. The close-knit cast is bound by more than chemistry; many cast members are blood relatives, as real life mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, and siblings comprise more than a few key players.

Along with the offstage fun comes a healthy onstage charisma, too.

“I thought this play and this theater company sounded like a lot of fun to participate in,” said Charlotte Rupert, who plays Cinderella’s Wicked Stepmother and whose real-life daughter portrays one of Cinderella’s stepsisters. “She’s an archetypal character, but I’ve never really seen her as wicked, just self-serving and bitchy,” Rupert said. “That’s how I tried to play her.”

“My character is a part of what all of us are, but don’t want to admit to,” said actor Joe Baumann, who plays one of two Prince Charmings. “He’s arrogant and self-absorbed, which most people can be, but don’t want to see themselves as.”

With increased member support, a recharged and revamped facility and a steady commitment to bringing shows for all ages and tastes to downtown Lansing, it seems as though Riverwalk has at least another 50 years of life left in it.

‘Into the Woods’

10 – 20 7 p.m. Thursday 8 p.m. Friady & Saturday 2 p.m. Sunday
Riverwalk Theatre, 228 Museum Drive, Lansing $18/$20 (517) 482-5700