HUNTINGTON, Indiana — If you've been one of the 20,000 patrons to attend the New Huntington Theater's Supper Club since 2008, you may be familiar with owners Joel Froomkin and Richard Najuch.
The two theater veterans left Manhattan for Huntington in 2007 to turn the town's old movie palace into a fully professional theater where they re-envision classic and contemporary plays. The Supper Club was a spur-of-the moment detour to transform the theater's lobby into an intimate cabaret while the two completed the rest of the building.
But after seven years of renovations - 90 percent of the work completed by Froomkin and Najuch - the two now have a fully remodeled home for their professional theater company, Different Stages. The inaugural theater season opens Tuesday with "The Sound of Music."
The 1959 musical classic focuses on a high-spirited governess named Maria who is able to capture the heart of stern, widowed Capt. Von Trapp and his seven children. Featuring songs like "Do-Re-Mi," ''My Favorite Things" and "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," the musical would be the last collaboration for renowned writing team of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The 1965 film adaptation starring Julie Andrews was awarded best picture at the 1966 Academy Awards.
"We have been saying since the beginning that 'The Sound of Music' would be our first show," Najuch tells The Journal Gazette (http://bit.ly/1qv36cS ). "We know it's a really good show and it's a show that people love. The combo of those two things made it very attractive for us because people recognize it and will take a risk because they like the show. On top of that, it's a well-written, well-constructed show that we could artistically do with justice."
"Because it is something people have a very clear reference frame, it gives us a chance to show why what we have to offer is special," Froomkin adds. "There's something there for them to measure it against. That is a fascinating challenge."
The name Different Stages is inspired by how the two have gone through several phases over 10 years - from the idea of owning a theater, to the 12 locations they scouted out, to the renovation of the Huntington Theater, and finally, to creating productions with their vision.
Froomkin serves as the artistic director while Najuch manages the financial side as executive director.
"I think the most important thing to Rich and I is the thrill we get from seeing really great theater. We want to do work that gives the audience that feeling," Froomkin says. "There's just an enormous amount of care put into every element of the production, which we think makes us different."
The two had an open house last week for patrons who have been curious to see what the former movie theater looks like now.
"Every day, we have people knocking on the door, peering inside, asking, 'Can I come in and look?' " Najuch says. "We always invite them in to do that, but we thought, for every one who has the guts to knock on the door, there are 20 more sitting at home thinking it would be nice to see."
The open house invited guests to see the sets for the upcoming "The Sound of Music" and a sample performance by Lauren Lukacek, who plays Maria.
With 220 actresses auditioning just for the role of Maria, Froomkin says they held auditions in New York as well as online through Skype conversations for the adult roles; the younger roles were filled by local children.
Najuch says there's nothing unusual about professional actors traveling to regional theaters not in large theater hubs like New York. He says the goal is to make the New Huntington Theater a premier regional theater on the circuit.
"There's only so many theaters in New York, and there are hundreds of thousands of theaters across the country, so actors of all levels are really traveling around and going to different regional theaters," he says.
"I think the new trend, for us certainly, is with technology, we are able to audition people in a way you haven't been able to in the past. We hold Skype auditions with people who are working in other theaters not in New York or on tour, which helps us work with better people, because the best people aren't auditioning every day because they are working."
Najuch says the first theater season will feature "Moonlight and Magnolias," ''The Full Monty" and the annual Christmas Revue at the Supper Club this year.
They hope to add a show or two to next season's schedule, but for now it's about trying new things and learning how receptive their audience will be. He says the success of the Supper Club has been a good place to start.
"We really don't play down to the audience at the Supper Club. We keep it at a level where we think it should be," he says. "That helped guide us, because audiences reacted so well to the format and so well to the sophisticated level we were trying to present. It showed that there are audiences that want a broader opportunity for theatrical productions."
Froomkin adds, "Even the configuration of the theater was not originally what we intended, but the audience's response to the intimacy of the previous venue led us to think outside of the obvious and developed a way for the theater that maintains that close relationship with the audience and the actor."
Whether the two get it right the first time or have to iron out a few wrinkles, Najuch says as far as their creativity is concerned, the possibilities are endless.
"One of the wonderful things that has happened over the past seven years there are really no boundaries to what decision we make or how we accomplish something," he says. "Of course they are financial boundaries, real-life boundaries, but we're not stuck in, 'We always have done it this way.' "
Information from: The Journal Gazette, http://www.journalgazette.net