“Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches” to open Feb. 25
ROYAL OAK – Theater is all about taking chances. Playwright Tony Kushner risked his career by writing a two-part “gay fantasia on national themes” – in particular, the politics of AIDS during the Reagan administration – and for his courage, not only did “Angels in America” win four Tony Awards in 1993 and three in 1994, but a 1993 Pulitzer Prize as well.
Ten years later, HBO rolled the dice and hoped that star power would attract an audience to its expensive, but beautifully rendered television production. For its efforts, the show received a record 21 Emmy nominations; it was honored with nearly a dozen.
Now it’s Stagecrafters’ turn to tempt fate with “Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches” that opens Feb. 25 on the Second Stage of Royal Oak’s historic Baldwin Theatre.
“It’s one of the most beautifully written shows there is,” director Jamie Richards told BTL last week prior to a rehearsal. “It’s like live, staged poetry. There aren’t many shows like that.”
If Richards has any concerns, it’s certainly not that the HBO miniseries will keep audiences away from his production. In fact, he believes the TV show will have the opposite effect. “It’s like ‘Chicago,'” he said. “When the movie came out, it really helped sell the show. There’s something about seeing it live.”
It’s the show’s special effects that initially had Richards anxious. “The only worry I had was how do I reveal the angel?”
Has he worked it out? “Absolutely,” Richards responded with a grin. “And I’m not going to tell you how!”
Richards suggested the show to Stagecrafters after the group rejected his first idea for the season, a musical called “The Fix.” So he looked through his scripts and submitted two: “Angels in America” and “Jeffrey.”
Guess which play was chosen?
What attracted Richards to the show, he said, is its complexity. “There are so many layers to [it] and so many varying angles to look at. As a director, I get to explore all of that.”
That, and the genius of Kushner, added assistant director Ryan Moore. “In my mind, he has the ability to move between hilarious comedy and raw tragedy at a moment’s notice. He handles it all so deftly.”
The story, according to Richards, takes place in New York during the mid-1980s and centers on a group of people struggling with disease, politics, love and abandonment.
The first character with AIDS the audience encounters is Prior Walter, played by Scott MacDonald. Although the young actor doesn’t have any personal experience with the disease, MacDonald is using a time-honored method among thespians to create his character. “I draw a lot from people I’ve watched get sick with cancer or emphysema. I’ve watched how their bodies decay, but their minds are still there.”
For actress Christa Coulter, the challenge is helping the audience get past the fact that her character, Harper, is a Mormon hooked on Valium. “There’s so much more to her. She’s such a fragile, dynamic character. With each rehearsal I find something new or a different spin.”
Ticket sales are reportedly strong, and that pleases the director. “I think they’ll see a beautifully written and skillfully acted show,” Richards said. “They’ll see something in community theater that’s not typical community theater.”
And if the show sells out or gets a glowingly positive response, Richards might get his wish to stage the second part of this epic sometime this coming fall. “If I don’t get to finish this story, I’m going to rip my heart out!” he concluded.