Summer stocked: The Heritage Theatre Festival returns with guns out

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Annie Oakley (Emilie Faith Thompson) and Frank Butler (Jonathan Elliott Coarsey) are loaded for laughter in Heritage Theatre Festival’s season opener Annie Get Your Gun. “The thing I love most about Annie Oakley is that she is very no-nonsense about what she wants,”said Thompson. Photo Michael Bailey. Annie Oakley (Emilie Faith Thompson) and Frank Butler (Jonathan Elliott Coarsey) are loaded for laughter in Heritage Theatre Festival’s season opener Annie Get Your Gun. “The thing I love most about Annie Oakley is that she is very no-nonsense about what she wants,”said Thompson. Photo Michael Bailey.

The construction is complete, and Robert Chapel is ready to dig in. As Heritage Theatre Festival’s Producing Artistic Director, Chapel is eager to launch the company’s first full season in two years following the opening of UVA Drama’s new Ruth Caplin Theatre.
“I’ll be doing five shows: two in the Caplin, two in the Culbreth, and one in the Helms, and for the last two weeks of summer, all three theaters will have shows at the same time,” he said. “I’m gonna stand in the lobby and watch people funnel off into each theater.”
One of Charlottesville’s revered local traditions, the Heritage Theatre Festival has been offering summer theater variety for nearly 30 years. The addition of a new 300-seat venue has invigorated the department, and Chapel returns to his programming formula with an eye towards fun. “It’s become very apparent over the years that the audiences want musicals and lighter fare over the summer,” he said.
When the UVA Drama buildings were built in 1978, department chair David Weiss and his colleagues conceived of the Heritage Theatre Festival as a way to make use of its new venues in the summer months. Initially the programming was committed to historical, classic American plays like The Patriot, but the limited range of material made it apparent that they would need to expand the content or repeat productions. By the mid-’80s the festival found success with its first contemporary ticket for The Foreigner by Larry Shue, a slightly slapstick two-act comedy built around human nature and absurdity. “It’s the biggest hit we’ve had. Even to this day,” said Chapel.
The 2013 season casts a collection of plays that will engage, provoke and entertain, beginning with Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun (June 27-July 6). The rousing, romantic musical is based loosely on outlaw Annie Oakley and stars Culpeper resident and New York City transplant Emilie Thompson. Thompson performs in two productions this season, but is most excited about playing the notorious cowgirl. “This score is incredible, and Annie Oakley is a character women everywhere dream of playing,” she said.
Chapel is enthusiastic about the choice as a season opener. “I always try to start the summer with a classic American musical,” he said. “It remains one of the greatest musical scores ever written for musical theater.” (Think “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”)
According to legend, Rogers & Hammerstein were asked to write Annie Get Your Gun, but handed it off to Irving Berlin. Chapel enjoys retelling the backstory about how Berlin, “a New York Jewish guy” questioned his qualifications to write about “hillbillies,” and then went home and wrote four songs over one weekend that helped define the lexicon of American musical theater.
While the main offerings are lighthearted, Chapel couldn’t pass up a chance to stage the Tony Award-winning drama Red (July 3-July 13), which takes things in a more complex direction with its moving story about modern artist Mark Rothko and his internal struggle over producing art for commercial use. “I had heard about Red in New York. Then I got the script, and literally began to cry at the end of the play,” Chapel said.
The Tuna, Texas small town satires have been a mainstay at HTF, and this season brings the series finale, Tuna Does Vegas (July 17-August 3). The laughter in this final installment will be provided by performances from Evan Bridenstine and J.P. Scheidler, both UVA Drama grads who return year after year to collaborate for the Tuna shows at the HTF.
Many actors return to the Heritage to hone their craft, while others have built careers that are far too busy with Broadway roles and television gigs. Chapel spoke gleefully about a missed opportunity with one of his most notable UVA Drama alums. “The fun story is that the one person that we should’ve cast that we didn’t was Tina Fey. She was one of our students, but I don’t think she’s ever auditioned for us,” he said.
The crowd-pleasing centerpiece of the season is the Marvelous Wonderettes (July 23-August 3), which came to Chapel through the suggestion of Wonderettes fans and word of mouth from patrons. It’s a feel-good musical tribute to the girl groups of the ’50s and’60s and also features Emilie Thompson in a leading role.
The most interesting, and possibly most challenging offering of the new season is Next to Normal, a vibrant rock opera on a serious topic. Six actors relate the story of a woman’s mental illness and her family’s coping strategy through a performance of 30 original songs. “I saw it on Broadway and it is very moving,” said Chapel. “I have what I think is one of the best casts I’ve ever had in this show.” The play won three Tonys, including Best Original Score, and takes the entire HTF season to a cathartic conclusion.
The high quality of the productions and the caliber of the performances attracts around 18,000 people to the HTF each summer, and while many of the attendees come from out of town, it’s clear among the insiders that Chapel and his team have built something special. “Heritage Theatre Festival is full of hardworking artists who truly want to put on the best theater possible for this area,” said Thompson. “Bob is a wonderful leader for the company, and really makes you feel valued as an actor. This is certainly one of my very favorite theaters.”
Most theater people have it in their blood, but one need look no further than the twinkle in Robert Chapel’s eyes to see his passion for the performing arts. “I get up in the morning, look in the mirror, and say ‘my gosh, I get paid to go to work today,’” he beamed.

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