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A crowd begins to file in for one of the final performances of “Mamma Mia!” at Theatre by the Sea Saturday afternoon. After a trying year in which its scheduled slate of shows was once again postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Theatre By The Sea closed out its summer slate last weekend with five nearly-sold out showings of the popular musical. Owner Bill Hanney said in an interview with the Independent this week that he expects the theater will come back “stronger than ever” in 2022.

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — This year’s season showed that the resilient barn theater — known as Theatre By The Sea in Matunuck — can survive nearly anything, proclaimed owner Bill Hanney as the curtain came down on the last act of curtailed production schedule.

“This year we survived it all. We’re still here and it has built on us coming back next year stronger than ever and with a full schedule of what people expect,” he told The Independent this week.

The theater’s season ended Sunday with a nearly sold-out house for the award-winning “Mamma Mia!” and in overtime through an unscheduled additional performance of the American jukebox musical romantic comedy.

A Year of Change

This production was a taste of what theater-goers missed from traditional offerings and what is planned for next year.

The usual fare of plays were not found this year. Social distancing requirements still in place in January made planning for performances difficult so theater staff pivoted to night club-style acts, he explained.

In July, he opened the 2021 season with a strong cabaret-style act by Westerly native Nicolas King.

For King’s performance, about 350 people coming to 88-year-old stage. Hanney looked to the audience and said simply, “Thank you so much for coming back to the barn. She has withstood so many amazing things…The theater is back and thank you for being here!”

The roll into the remaining summer entertainment season brought various Broadway and off-Broadway musical acts as well as local comedian and singer Poppy Champlin.

Hanney reflected in the interview about the success of that style of performance outside the theater’s wheelhouse.

“They didn’t do that great in terms of filling the house except for Poppy. People like her and will come out. Otherwise, we’re not known for these kinds of acts,” he said.

“People come to the theater to see Broadway shows, not these kinds of musical reviews,” Hanney said.

Yet, something needed to be done to open the doors this year.

Theater staff Tom Senter, Thom Warren and Karen Gail Kessler helped to create the “2021 Summer Concert Series” of comedy, show tunes and Broadway musicals. The highlight was the ever-popular Abba production “Mamma Mia!”

“I have a team of people. They make me look good. There’s an entire team that makes this happen, including the interns who come for the summer,” he said, adding, “It’s almost like having a teaching theater that puts on really good stuff.”

The staff and Hanney were focused on keeping the doors open – despite all the pandemic restrictions still present when planning the season eight months early.

In the end, the lights went on this year in contrast to the 2020 season when the stage went dark for the summer.

The Experience of It All

Hanney said that he is welcoming next year with open arms because it promises – so far – to allow a full operation.

It will include the schedule of plays as well as re-opening the closed restaurant, having an opening night party and offering the weekend after-show cabarets where performers mingle with guests and put on their improvised private shows, he said.

His 2022 lineup includes the Tony-Award nominated musical, “Million Dollar Quartet,” about 1950s rockers Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley.

On the schedule, he said, is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “New Cinderella,” bringing a new version of the romantic fairy tale to life on stage.

In addition, he plans to bring to the stage “Footloose,” a rocking movie musical, and “Kinky Boots,” featuring songs by pop icon Cyndi Lauper and book by Broadway legend Harvey Fierstein.

Hanney said he wants to revive the full “Theatre By The Sea experience.”

“Coming here is more than just a show on a stage, it’s your entire experience that you judge us by. It’s the parking, the seating, the food and the beverages. It’s the atmosphere and the feeling you have about us in this 500-seat barn theater that makes it so special,” he said.

Hanney said that often the public sees just a schedule, but behind the curtain is a massive amount of work.

It begins a year before shows appear on his stage. Contracts, casts, building of scenery, organizing the shows and sales of season tickets are done in the months leading up to the 85-year-old barn theater opening in the spring, he said.

The work isn’t something that can be done in just a few months’ time, the producer added.

“We put on a show, going from zero through opening night, from scratch. When you think about it, that’s for just three to four weeks run, then it’s gone and we’re on to the next,” he said.

Hanney said he takes pride in performances crafted for local showing as well as keeping a landmark in business.

A pause hung for a moment from a man who can talk non-stop.

“I sat in the theater myself. I looked up and saw the rafters. I looked at the lights shining on the stage. I got this special moment – it’s all still here,” he said.

Write to Bill Seymour, freelance writer covering news and feature stories, at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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