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Cockpit in Court Summer Theatre marks 40th season

The Cockpit in Court Summer Theatre is in the midst of its 40th anniversary season, a significant milestone for a company that has tackled a sizable breadth of repertoire, from "Lysistrata" to "Hairspray," and maintained wallet-friendly ticket prices the whole time.

This year, the troupe, based at the Community College of Baltimore County in Essex, has offered productions of "The King and I" and "Steel Magnolias," as well as a children's show, "Dr. Dolittle."

An eager, if uneven, production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical "Sunset Boulevard" opened last weekend on the main stage; "Laura," a play version of the hit 1940s film, opens Friday in the cabaret theater. The shows will run concurrently through next weekend.

Cockpit in Court, named for the 17th-century theater built in London, traditionally packs a full season's worth of activity into a couple of summer months. The annual budget is about $120,000.

"It's mostly generated by ticket sales and concessions," said company artist director James Hunnicutt. "We get 6,000 to 8,000 people each summer. I think we will make our budget this year, but it will be close."

With a top ticket price of $20 for musicals ($16 for plays), one might expect a pretty sparse set for "Sunset Boulevard." But this production boasts classy scenery (designed by G. Maurice "Moe" Conn) that many a community theater would lie, steal or even throttle for, and a well-honed stage crew to handle it.

There's even a cool antique car (a crucial plot element); it's the one built by Glen Sears that was also used in Signature Theatre's recent staging of the show.

Such assets reflect well on the company, which has a couple of full-time technical personnel and constructs its own sets. It provides lots of opportunities for those interested in gaining theater experience, backstage or on. Cattle-call auditions are held in early March.

"The original premise behind Cockpit in Court was to give teachers an outlet in the summer to be creative," Hunnicutt said. "There were so many of them who had a talent for the arts. But things expanded, and we really are community-based."

The "Sunset Boulevard" production may not be the strongest example of the company's work. Then again, this is not an easy show to bring off.

For one thing, it's hard for any staging to erase thoughts of the iconic film version, with Gloria Swanson's larger-than-life portrayal of faded silent movie star Norma Desmond, and William Holden as Joe Gillis, the screenwriter who helps keep her poignant dream of a comeback alive.

Then there's the fact that Webber's version is mostly sung, putting extra demands on the performers.

As Norma, Nadine Haas can be quite touching, especially during the Paramount Studio scene. But a mannered delivery takes a toll, as does a singing voice that needs greater firmness of tone and pitch. Tom Burns, as Joe, gets the job done, but rather stiffly.

In both vocal and dramatic skills, the standout is Kelsey Lake as Betty, the script editor who falls for Joe. John Amato is bland as the loyal butler Max; he's also challenged by the music, as are several of the supporting cast members.

Conductor Terri Matthews has the score well in hand; some of the players in the pit ... not so much. And the orchestra sounds quite muffled.

That said, director Eric J. Potter has the action flowing with admirable smoothness through that evocative set, which gains vivid flavor from the costumes by Wil E. Crowther and Ed Lake's deft lighting.

Whatever bumps in the road dot this "Sunset Boulevard," the end result easily reflects the kind of spirit and commitment that have helped keep Cockpit in Court going for four decades.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"Sunset Boulevard" runs through Aug. 5 at CCBC (Essex campus), 7201 Rossville Blvd. Tickets are $18 to $20. Call 443-840-1369, or go to ccbcmd.edu/cockpit.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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