I have a confession to make; this past Sunday was the first time I’ve been inside the Old Town Temecula Community Theater. We all know it’s there. We see it as we drive by, maybe see a flyer or hear the talk about a production, possibly even think about going but just haven’t taken the time. After all, it’s Community Theater, what could we be missing? Well, I’m here to tell you the answer is quite a lot!
For one more week and little more than the price of a movie ticket you can see an engaging rendition of the Musical Oklahoma! Tickets range from $20-$28 and $14-$22 for children. Admittedly, this is a bit more than a movie but the concessions are a steal so in the end I’d call it a wash or even a bargain. Besides, a movie can hardly compare to live theater; especially when it’s this good.
Growing up I used to go to the local theater in our town with my mom. It was small, the sets were simple, the casts were, well, in community theater – yep I said it. Before you stop reading because I’ve offended you, this was not at all the experience I had at the Fine Arts Network Theater Company’s production of Oklahoma!
Nothing said small town about it other than the early 20th Century farmhouse setting on the stage. The theater is relatively new yet manages to retain the Old Town Charm that provides the perfect setting for this period piece. The box office is located in the historic landmark Mercantile Building and the theater itself is a stunning 361 seat proscenium theater housed in the Dan & Beverly Stephenson Auditorium. Big enough to feel worthy of the production that was to come yet small enough to feel intimate and ensure there is no bad seat in the house.
Despite my own personal bias, ‘community’ when preceded by theater does not have to be a bad word. In this case its meaning shines through in the truest sense of the word and embodies everything I hold dear about Temecula; flair, warmth, talent and an eclectic presence are echoed in both the cast and crew. When you enter take note of the locals greeting you and showing you to your seat. They aren’t paid staff they are dedicated volunteers whose name badges let you know how long they’ve been helping at the theater. You just might be lucky enough to strike up a conversation with Claire or Peggy G. who have both been greeting patrons since the theater opened in 2005. Peggy has lived here since 1972!
I was fortunate enough to sit down with the Director Rob Hodo before the show and discover how his community involvement and love for the theater arts goes beyond the playhouse. He’s been a choir and drama teacher at Margarita Middle School for the past 10 years. This was Hodo’s first directing job for the Fine Arts Network. After performing with the group in last summer’s Bye Bye Birdie he asked Producer Beverly Stephenson for an opportunity to direct. Hodo was excited to have an opportunity to work with adults during his summer break from teaching. The toughest part was casting enough ‘guys’ while the most rewarding has been “seeing it come together” and working with such a great cast. Hodo can take a lot of credit for this, not only is the cast full of very talented experienced performers but he managed to recruit fresh local talent as well.
When local resident Marti Shelley decided she wanted to return to performing her husband Craig Shelley agreed to drive her to her audition. Next thing Craig (who has no theater background) knows Hodo is asking him if he would consider being part of the Men’s Ensemble with the promise that he “wouldn’t have to say anything.” Craig now quips that he has bragging rights over his wife because he indeed does have a speaking role. Craig, you are on your own to defend having that published but maybe this will help take the sting off: your performance was as seamless as the more experienced actors and no one would suspect you’re a novice.
The Shelley’s are not the only husband and wife duo in the production. Christopher Krug plays Andrew Carnes and not only is his wife Christine part of the Women’s Ensemble so is daughter Shelby and son Zachary is very entertaining as a quintessential Will Parker. Hodo’s own wife and daughter are also part of the Women’s Ensemble.
Both lead actors Caroline Nelms (Laurey Williams) and Johnny Fletcher (Curly McClain) are recent transplants to the area and bring a wealth of theater experience with them. Nelms’ credits include Gretel in the Inland Valley Opera’s 2010 production of Hansel and Gretel. She has “wanted to participate in Oklahoma! since High School and has always had a love for the Classical Musicals”. Her passion is evident in her skilled portrayal of Laurey. Fletcher is no stranger to Oklahoma having performed it five different times, four of which as the role of Curly. He could also relate to Craig Shelley’s story having gotten his start when High School baseball teammates told him if he did theater he’d get to, “dance with pretty girls”. Not only were they right, we owe them a debt of gratitude! One of my favorite moments was the harmony between Fletcher and John George Campbell (Jud Frye) at the conclusion of Poor Jud is Daid followed by Campbell’s haunting Lonely Room which was a definite show-stopper.
Don’t take my word for it though; check it out for yourself this week because the final curtain call is Sunday, August 14th. I’m confident you’ll be equally impressed by our Community Theater and will enjoy the production as much as I did. I’m already making plans to attend the Fine Arts Network Theater Company’s next endeavor Evita, October 13-23.
Photos by Amanda Schwarzer except where noted