Annapolis Summer Garden's again steps outside theatrical box

For The Baltimore Sun
Annapolis Summer Garden set to open outdoor season.

Anne Arundel has major cause for celebration in the 50th season of the outdoor Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre.

At the historic former Colonial blacksmith's shop at 143 Compromise St., across from City Dock, the challenges of presenting 50 seasons under the stars have shaped the troupe's identity.

The theater is dark in early March when the board chooses shows, selects directors for the three-show season and begins to rally volunteers. The outdoor location of the performances shapes everything from show selection to production logistics.

Sets must be designed and built to withstand sun, heat, wind and rain — as well as deal with the noise coming from City Dock on summer evenings. Two years ago the sound system was replaced with a weatherized system designed for outdoor use.

The opening show benefits from the most concentrated attention; by midsummer, the theater will have one show in performance, one preparing for tech week and one in rehearsals — all needing lighting, sound, costumes, props, a crew, a set and a band.

The director and actors spend about five weeks in rehearsal, with nightly rehearsals during tech week. Performances are offered four nights a week for four to five weeks per show.

Lauren Winther-Hansen, Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre's communications director, says volunteers work so hard because they treasure the fact that "Annapolis Summer Garden has always been an outdoor theater and always will be. We will never cover it, because it wouldn't be ASGT anymore."

On May 28, the season opens with "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," an interactive musical murder mystery scheduled for 8:30 p.m. performances Thursdays through Sundays through June 20.

Based on Charles Dickens' novel, which was unpublished at his 1870 death, the show is a humorous adaptation that premiered outdoors in New York's Central Park in 1985 and moved to Broadway four months later to win the 1986 Tony Award for Best Musical for songwriter Rupert Holmes. Holmes wrote the book, music and lyrics for this show, refashioning Dickens' story into a lively game for theater audiences.

The mystery is told by a Victorian musical hall troupe, presenting the story of choirmaster John Jasper, who is in love with music student Miss Rosa Bud. But Rosa is engaged to Jasper's young nephew, Edwin Drood, who disappears one stormy Christmas Eve.

If he was murdered, whodunit? The play within a play asks the audience to vote on the solution to the crime, which results in a different finale every night.

This production is being directed by Maryland native Andy Scott, who is making his local directorial debut. "This production exclaims, 'What a bloody marvel we survive when you think of every risk we face,'" Scott said. "What could be more perfect?"

The season's second show is another area premiere, "Catch Me If You Can." The musical, running July 2-25, is based on the film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks and tells the true story of con artist Frank Abagnale Jr. This musical version was created by the Tony-winning team of Terrence McNally, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.

The story follows a teenage runaway who successfully poses as a pilot, doctor and lawyer, living the high life and winning the girl of his dreams. The globe-trotting Abagnale is pursued by FBI agent Carl Hanratty, who ultimately forges a friendship with his prey.

Summer Garden's production is directed by Johns Hopkins University graduate Mark Briner, who is active in community and regional dinner theater as a performer, director, set designer and producer.

Briner says he's "ecstatic" to direct "Catch Me If You Can" and calls it "the most exciting show to have premiered in the last decade. It's a fast-paced song-and-dance-filled journey through an unbelievable true story."

The show also features a score by Shaiman and Wittman.

From Aug. 6 to Sept. 6, the troupe will offer another musical with "The Addams Family," based on the cartoon characters created by Charles Addams. The show, with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa and book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, ran on Broadway from April 2010 to December 2011.

The play centers on daughter Wednesday Addams, who has fallen in love with a nice young man from a respectable family. When she invites his family to the Addams' ghoulish home for dinner, it sets the stage for antics between Addams parents Gomez and Morticia, as well as the entire Addams clan.

"The Addams Family" will be directed by Annapolis Summer Garden alumna and veteran director Debbie Barber-Eaton, who admires the Addams family for their "fierce loyalty to one another and their tolerance for quirks in people. Audiences will adore spending an evening with this creepy, kooky, mysterious and spooky family."

To order single tickets or reserve for the season, call Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre at 410-268-9212 or go to summergarden.com.

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