As the company prepares to launch its 2016 season, Harlequin Productions has lots to celebrate.
It’s the company’s 25th season, and the 18th in the historic State Theater. And after four years of lagging ticket sales, things turned around last year.
Scot and Linda Whitney, the husband-wife team that manages the company, haven’t planned any big anniversary events.
They’re just going to keep doing what they love to do — tell stories, whether written by William Shakespeare (“The Two Gentlemen of Verona”), Henrik Ibsen (“Hedda Gabler”), 2013 Tony winner Christopher Durang (“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”) or the mysterious Harlowe Reed, who has penned the company’s Stardust musicals.
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The latest, “The Stardust Christmas Dazzle,” opens Nov. 27.
In a break with the pattern of recent years, this season will feature three musicals. Besides “Stardust” and a summer musical that’s the theatrical equivalent of a beach book (“Little Shop of Horrors”), the company will produce Jason Robert Brown’s “The Last Five Years,” an intimate look at the birth and death of a relationship.
“We added the third one as kind of a celebratory activity,” Linda Whitney said. “We’re kind of celebrating all year long.”
The biggest reason to celebrate is the turnaround in audiences. The Whitneys aren’t quite sure what happened, but the slump in sales ended in October 2014 as quickly as it began.
“In October 2010, we had an enormously successful production of ‘The Taming of the Shrew,’ and the next show was Stardust, which is always the huge smash of the season,” Scot Whitney said. “Ticket sales just plummeted for Stardust, and it was a downward ramp for four years.”
“Clybourne Park,” a play whose themes included race relations, depression, post-traumatic stress and suicide, might have seemed an unlikely hit. But sales soared during that show, which sold out in its final weekend, at the end of the season in 2014.
“We hadn’t done that with a straight show in almost five years, and it used to happen all the time,” Scot Whitney said.
Strong sales continued for most of last season’s offerings, radically improving Harlequin’s financial picture. The theater sold more than 22,000 tickets during its 2014-2015 season, compared to slighly more than 19,000 in the 2013-2014 season.
The turnaround happened just in time.
“We had reserves four years ago, and we went through those,” he said. “If it hadn’t picked up when it did, we were looking at going into the hole, which we had decided we weren’t going to do.
“And then boom, everything took off, and we wound up replacing the reserves. We covered the losses of two years last season.”
Despite economic ups and downs, and despite the plethora of entertainment offerings available today to stream on electronic devices, theater’s appeal is perennial, Linda Whitney said.
“It’s back on the upswing again,” she said. “The PC and cellphone culture was just moving into place when we opened 25 years ago, and now everyone’s used to it. It’s not the huge distraction that it was there for a while.
“People want to go out; they want to have dinner and see a play.”
Live theater has endured through the rise of radio, film and television, too, and she believes it always will.
“Theater has always been with us,” she said. “It goes back to people sitting around the campfire acting out the story of the day’s hunt.
“I don’t believe that it will ever go away.”
HARLEQUIN PRODUCTIONS’ 2016 SEASON
What: Harlequin’s 25th season kicks off Nov. 27 with “The Stardust Christmas Dazzle,” the theater’s 20th holiday musical about a swinging nightclub. The season will include three musicals.
When: Evening shows at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays.
Where: State Theater, 202 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia.
Tickets: For plays, $34, $31 for seniors and military, $20 for students and youth; for musicals, $41, $37 for seniors and military, $25 for students and youth. Rush tickets are available for $10 a half-hour prior to curtain, and pay-what-you-can shows happen on the first Wednesday after opening weekend.
Season tickets: $150-$199 for the full seven-show package, $127-$214 for flex passes that allow you to choose available seats for any performance of four, six or all seven productions.
Also: Harlequin’s improv troupe, Something Wicked, returns with shows at 7 p.m. Dec. 9, Feb. 3, May 18, July 6, Aug. 31 and Oct. 12. Those; tickets are $15 per show or $60 for the season.
Information: 360-786-0151, harlequinproductions.org.
THE 2015-16 SHOWS
“The Stardust Christmas Dazzle”: Nov. 27-Dec. 31. Harlequin’s tradition of nostalgic holiday musicals continues with an original show that blends a plot full of secrets with the music of 1959.
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”: Jan. 21-Feb. 13. Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-winning comedy combines Chekhov with Greek tragedy and pop culture.
“Hedda Gabler”: March 3-26. This Henrik Ibsen classic, published in 1890, follows the plotting and scheming of a woman bored with her marriage and stifled by society.
“The Language Archive”: May 5-28. Julia Cho’s comic drama follows the story of a man who studies dead languages and struggles with communication in his own marriage.
“Little Shop of Horrors”: June 23-July 24. The musical by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman blends sci-fi, horror and comedy to tell the story of a meek fellow named Seymour and his bloodthirsty plant Audrey II.
“The Last Five Years”: Aug. 18-Sept. 10. Jason Robert Brown’s two-person musical is an intimate story about love, with Cathy telling the story from end to beginning, and Jamie from beginning to end.
“The Two Gentlemen of Verona”: Sept. 29-Oct. 22. This romantic comedy by William Shakespeare, said to be the Bard’s earliest play, tells the story of two friends who fall in love with the same woman.