Arts groups proceed with caution as COVID cases surge

Dayton Playhouse presents Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's musical "Into the Woods" Jan. 14-30.

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Dayton Playhouse presents Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's musical "Into the Woods" Jan. 14-30.

‘We’re crossing our fingers and planning numerous contingencies,’ says Katherine Kilburn of Human Race Theatre Company

As the omicron surge continues to impact local and national arts, theatrical organizations remain firm in their varying perspectives of how to juggle health and safety with live entertainment during a pandemic.

There was a time when box office affordability and quality of performance were top of mind for troupes, but handling COVID has become the chief priority. In fact, Dayton Playhouse, currently offering the Stephen Sondheim musical “Into the Woods,” is going beyond its mask mandate to assure audiences the show has a fully vaccinated cast.

“Cast members needed to show proof of vaccination at the time of auditions and that practice will continue for the remainder of the season,” said Matt Lindsay, Playhouse board chair. “I saw a data point from an economist from the University of Minnesota that unvaccinated persons were more than two times more likely to miss a week of work than vaccinated persons in December. For our purposes, that could mean missing a week of rehearsal or even a weekend of performances. So, this policy not only encourages prevention and keeps people safer it also reduces the Playhouse’s risk of losing performances. The vaccination policy also applies to musicians, set crew and the production team.”

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The Broadway tour of “Hamilton” will include a two-week run in Dayton at the Schuster Center during the 2021-22 season. JOAN MARCUS/CONTRIBUTED

The Broadway tour of “Hamilton” will include a two-week run in Dayton at the Schuster Center during the 2021-22 season. JOAN MARCUS/CONTRIBUTED

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The Broadway tour of “Hamilton” will include a two-week run in Dayton at the Schuster Center during the 2021-22 season. JOAN MARCUS/CONTRIBUTED

Two months ago, Dayton Live, presenting the national tour of megahit “Hamilton” at the Schuster Center beginning Jan. 26, eliminated its requirement for proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test at its venues. Based on Dayton Daily News readership feedback, the decision divided audiences but organizers say they have seen positive stats that speak otherwise.

“Since we re-opened in August, we have seen consistently strong sales for most of our shows,” said Ty Sutton, Dayton Live President and CEO. “December was one of our best overall sales month in our history for shows at the Loft Theatre, PNC Arts Annex, Victoria Theatre and the Schuster Center. Obviously, COVID has had an effect on all walks of life both nationally and locally. We are continuing to work towards presenting shows in a safe and secure manner but all of us in the entertainment industry have had to remain flexible and adapt to changing circumstances. Our local resident companies make their own decisions on what is best for staff, cast and audiences. The important message is that theater continues to be presented despite the current challenges.”

ExploreDayton Live revised COVID-19 health policy fuels concern
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Marcy McGuigan as Tallullah Bankhead and Jaryl Draper as Danny Miller in the Human Race Theatre Company's production of "Looped."

Credit: SCOTT J. KIMMINS

Marcy McGuigan as Tallullah Bankhead and Jaryl Draper as Danny Miller in the Human Race Theatre Company's production of "Looped."

Credit: SCOTT J. KIMMINS

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Marcy McGuigan as Tallullah Bankhead and Jaryl Draper as Danny Miller in the Human Race Theatre Company's production of "Looped."

Credit: SCOTT J. KIMMINS

Credit: SCOTT J. KIMMINS

At the Loft Theatre, plans are ongoing for the Human Race Theatre Company’s regional premiere of Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder’s progressive, gender-identity drama “Everything That’s Beautiful” beginning Feb. 17.

“As of today, we are still moving forward as planned,” echoed Katherine Kilburn, executive director of the Human Race Theatre Company. “However, I am keeping a close watch on what shows in New York City, regionally and locally are doing and working with Actors’ Equity to continue to work within strict safety protocols. My hope is that since we won’t have audiences back in the Loft until February, we will have a clearer picture of health safety measures and what is best for the company. We’re crossing our fingers and planning numerous contingencies.”

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‘It all depends on where this virus goes’

Broadway experienced a very promising fall with vaccination and mask requirements in full effect, but omicron ushered in a brutal winter, forcing numerous cancellations and postponements during the holidays, one of the most profitable times of the year. In some cases, shows closed for good, particularly acclaimed productions such as “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations” and “Thoughts of a Colored Man.”

However, the productions that managed to stay afloat shortly after the holidays relied on the dedication, skill, talent and professionalism of understudies and swings, the unsung heroes prepared to inhabit a role at a moment’s notice.

On Jan. 4 and 5, Wright State University musical theater graduate KJ Hippensteel stepped out of the ensemble of the new family-friendly Broadway musical “Mrs. Doubtfire” to portray Daniel Hillard, the down-on-his-luck dad disguising himself as the titular nanny in order to remain close to his children. The plum comedic role, made famous on film by Robin Williams and played on stage by Tony nominee Rob McClure, is one of the most physically demanding on Broadway complete with 31 costume changes. Even so, he says he felt well-prepared.

“Recently, I’ve been thinking about what it is to be an understudy,” said Hippensteel, whose credits include Elder Price in “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway and London’s West End. “I imagine it’s what skydivers feel, a feeling of fear and excitement, a rush. I was scared but also oddly excited because I’ve been doing all the work on my own. Due to the holiday schedule, COVID and canceled shows, I never ran two scenes in a row with anybody. So, it was kind of crazy. With this show in particular, from the beginning, I knew what this role was going to be because I did the out-of-town tryout. From Day One I was running lines. I felt good about the final product for the amount of rehearsal I was able to put in.”

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Wright State University musical theater graduate K.J. Hippensteel (left as Elder Price) with Delroy Atkinson (General) in London's West End production of "The Book of Mormon." Hippensteel is currently an ensemble member and understudies the role of Daniel Hillard in the Broadway production of "Mrs. Doubtfire." CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/JOHAN PERSSON

Wright State University musical theater graduate K.J. Hippensteel (left as Elder Price) with Delroy Atkinson (General) in London's West End production of "The Book of Mormon." Hippensteel is currently an ensemble member and understudies the role of Daniel Hillard in the Broadway production of "Mrs. Doubtfire." CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/JOHAN PERSSON

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Wright State University musical theater graduate K.J. Hippensteel (left as Elder Price) with Delroy Atkinson (General) in London's West End production of "The Book of Mormon." Hippensteel is currently an ensemble member and understudies the role of Daniel Hillard in the Broadway production of "Mrs. Doubtfire." CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/JOHAN PERSSON

“Mrs. Doubtfire,” which had 11 canceled shows in December, is closed for nine weeks yet plans to return March 15.

“It all depends on where this virus goes,” Hippensteel said. “It’s something we don’t have control over. We’re kind of along for the ride at this point. It was exciting being an understudy at this time, but it seems as if we’re in kind of a scary moment for (Broadway).”

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‘We encourage guests to use their own judgment’

La Comedia Dinner Theatre in Springboro was among the first arts organizations to return full-scale post-quarantine in the spring of last year with “The Sound of Music.” Currently staging Stephen Schwartz’s musical “Godspell,” the venue, which seats 600, is not requiring audiences to be vaccinated or wear masks. However, they continue to follow guidelines implemented by the Warren County Health District in terms of disinfecting and regular cleanings.

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The cast of La Comedia Dinner Theatre's production of "Godspell."

Credit: JUSTIN WALTON

The cast of La Comedia Dinner Theatre's production of "Godspell."

Credit: JUSTIN WALTON

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The cast of La Comedia Dinner Theatre's production of "Godspell."

Credit: JUSTIN WALTON

Credit: JUSTIN WALTON

“Our audience came back last year but the biggest problem we ran into was not being able to get the employees,” said La Comedia producer/owner Joe Adkins. “Without a doubt, people are wanting to see theater. They’re tired of sitting at home. They feel enough is enough. They started coming back slow but they’re coming back. We’re so happy our loyal patrons have hung in there with us. We encourage guests to use their own judgment but with the way things are going now we will likely see more guest wearing masks.”

Three weeks after the national tour of “Hairspray” was presented Dec. 14 at the Clark State Performing Arts Center in Springfield, the production postponed its engagement at Cincinnati’s Aronoff Center due to breakthrough positive COVID cases within the company. The timing was another critical indication of today’s precarious climate as venues try to weigh what’s best for them and their audiences.

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Niki Metcalf (left) as Tracy Turnblad and Andrew Levitt as Edna Turnblad in the national tour of "Hairspray."

Credit: Jeremy Daniel (www.jeremydanielphoto.com)

Niki Metcalf (left) as Tracy Turnblad and Andrew Levitt as Edna Turnblad in the national tour of "Hairspray."

Credit: Jeremy Daniel (www.jeremydanielphoto.com)

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Niki Metcalf (left) as Tracy Turnblad and Andrew Levitt as Edna Turnblad in the national tour of "Hairspray."

Credit: Jeremy Daniel (www.jeremydanielphoto.com)

Credit: Jeremy Daniel (www.jeremydanielphoto.com)

“We are a state venue so we can’t enforce vaccination requirements, but we still have in-place a mask mandate and I don’t foresee that going away this season,” said Adele Adkins, executive director of the Clark State Performing Arts Center. “I was extremely nervous in December starting with ‘Hairspray’ as omicron really started being in the news. The tour required anyone who had to be backstage, which included some staff and local crew, had to test negative on the morning of the performance. The Clark County health commissioner spoke to Clark State College recently and said things are going to get better in February and the spike would be coming down. I’m feeling very optimistic.”

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Stephanie Jae Park, portraying Eliza Hamilton in the forthcoming “Hamilton” tour, is confident Dayton will host the production intact in spite of other engagements around the country that have been canceled or postponed due to breakthrough positive COVID cases.

“Personally, I’m really feeling hopeful about Dayton,” she said. “We all want to be there, and if we don’t, we all will be devastated together.”

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