A version of this story appears in the Sunday Life section of The Oklahoman.
Jewel Box Theatre in Oklahoma City mixes old and new for 2014-15 season
The 57th season of Jewel Box Theatre, Oklahoma City’s oldest continuously operating community theater, is off to the races Aug. 21, with a world premiere of an original farce, the local debut of a buoyant recent comedy and four fan-picked favorites.
For its 57th year, Jewel Box Theatre is betting on a season that mixes something old and something new.
Oklahoma City’s oldest continuously operating community theater’s 2014-15 season is off to the races Aug. 21, with a world premiere of an original farce, the local debut of a buoyant recent comedy and four fan-picked favorites.
“Our continual theme is ‘do that voodoo that you do so well,’” joked longtime production director Chuck Tweed.
“You want to get a season that is relevant, that’s got something they know, something they don’t know. … You want to be current, too. You want something where it’s like, ‘we found this great treasure and we can’t wait to show you what we found.’”
Jewel Box is opening season with the Oklahoma City premiere of the Southern comfort comedy “The Dixie Swim Club,” a recent title from the popular writing team of Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten. Playing Aug. 21 to Sept. 14, it chronicles the friendship of five women who bond while competing on their college swim team and reunite for a long weekend every August for the next three decades.
“I thought it sounded fun, and I also thought it sounded good for the Jewel Box given the space — you know, theater in the round — and the type of material,” said Billie Thrash, a grand dame of the local theater scene who will direct. “I’ve always been fond of that theater. It can sometimes be a little difficult — as any theater in the round can be — but I have loved being able to put shows up in that space. It’s fun for me to figure out.”
Like Tweed, Thrash has a long history with the Jewel Box. She made her acting debut inside the venerable theater in a 1971 production of “You Can’t Take It with You,” and she has been choreographing and directing shows there for many years.
“She brings Billie, what more can I say,” Tweed said. “About 10 years ago, she said, ‘Chuck, I’d like to do “1776” at Jewel Box.’ And I went ‘OK,’ and she goes, ‘That’s it?’ I said, ‘It’s Billie Thrash, of course you can.’ … Why would I say no to Billie Thrash? You just know you’re in good hands. Her perspective on things, her directing, it’s just class act.”
Another longtime local leading lady, Jane Hall, will be showcased in Jewel Box’s Oct. 2-26 production of the Noel Coward farce “Blithe Spirit.” Hall will play the medium Madame Arcati, for which Angela Lansbury received a Tony Award for best featured actress during the 2009 Broadway revival; Lansbury reprised the colorful role earlier this year on London’s West End.
Like Thrash, Hall is another performer who was already at the Jewel Box when Tweed started there 35 years ago.
“It’s fun to work with them for the stories, the talent, and to watch younger actors work with these people and how they evolve into characters. It’s fun to watch people learn from their experience. It never gets old,” he said.
Last season, Jewel Box staged six fan favorites based on the votes of its loyal patrons, and the theater’s new season will include four more plays — “Blithe Spirit,” “Everybody Loves Opal,” “Flowers for Algernon” and “Come Blow Your Horn” — that were popular in the balloting. Tweed said he makes listening to the audience his priority.
“There’s a great trust to have with our audience,’” he said. “I think it’s because they can trust us, they know if they’re gonna come here, they’re generally gonna see a good show and have a good time.”
That trust extends to the world premieres Jewel Box produces as part of its long-running nationwide new play contest. Tweed will direct the winner of the 25th annual competition, “American Farce,” by Florida playwright Michael Reimann, who will be flying into OKC for the Nov. 13-Dec. 7 debut.
The heartwarming comedy centers on a ne’er-do-well named Max who owes a loan shark $20,000 for bad bets on horses races. Just when his life seems like it can’t get any worse, a woman shows up and drops off a 10-year-old boy she claims is Max’s son.
It will be the 12th world premiere Jewel Box has staged through its contest, which will be receiving entries for the 2015 edition in October.
“Our audiences love our new plays, and it’s delightful,” Tweed said. “You only need a tiny Kleenex. Lots and lots of humor.”
Trio of favorites
For the second half of the 2014-15 season, Jewel Box is mixing comedy and drama with three fan favorites the theater hasn’t staged in several years. “Everybody Loves Opal,” the wild tale of three con artists who befriend a middle-aged recluse named Opal, take out a big life insurance policy in her name and then plot her demise, is planned for Jan. 22-Feb. 15.
“Unfortunately, none of them go off,” he said with a grin. “He (writer John Patrick) calls the show ‘a prank in three acts,’ and that’s exactly what it is. … The audiences love it. We haven’t done it in a long time, but it’s a feel-good type show.”
While the season is heavy on the comedies Jewel Box subscribers have indicated they prefer, Tweed said The tone turns more serious March 5-29 with “Flowers for Algernon.” David Rogers adapted the powerful tale of a lab moused named Algernon and a mentally challenged man named Charlie who undergo an experimental intelligence-boosting surgery from the award-winning 1966 novel by author Daniel Keyes, who died in June at the age of 86.
“We’ll make it a tribute to him,” Tweed said. “To me, it’s even more relevant today than it was when it was written, with all the technology that we have now. … one can really relate: The bionic this and that, we’re reconstructing faces, and all types of technology that wasn’t even thought of when that came out. To go through the journey with him (Charlie), I think it’s like asking yourself if you were in that position, would you do it.”
Jewel Box will close the season with esteemed humorist Neil Simon’s first Broadway play, 1961’s “Come Blow Your Horn.” which was made into a 1963 film starring Frank Sinatra. The theater will revisit the story of a rebellious son who decides to follow in the footsteps of his playboy older brother April 16-May 10.
“It’s not done a lot … but everything old is new again – and as only Neil Simon can do it. He’s just got that knack for characters and one-liners,” Tweed said. “We read it, and I found myself sitting there laughing going ‘Gosh, where has this been all this time?’ It’s a good way to close the season.”
Theater boot camp
After “Come Blow Your Horn” has sounded in May, Jewel Box will host its 34th annual Gem Awards, where patrons who have seen all six shows can vote on the best plays and performers for the season.
The theater a new tradition with its second annual Jewel Box boot camps. For each production, fans can attend an audition, a rehearsal or two and then the show, talking to the director, costumer and actors to learn about the process of putting on a play.
“They ask really good questions,” Tweed said. “It’s fun to watch the process through their eyes. That makes it all new to us.”
Jewel Box Theatre’s 2014-15 season
“The Dixie Swim Club”
When: Aug. 21-Sept. 14.
When: Oct. 2-26.
When: Nov. 13-Dec. 7.
“Everybody Loves Opal”
When: Jan. 22-Feb. 15.
“Flowers for Algernon”
When: March 5-29.
“Come Blow Your Horn”
When: April 16-May 10.
Where: Jewel Box Theatre, 3700 N Walker.
Information: 521-1786 or www.jewelboxtheatre.org.