The weather outside is far from frightful, so thankfully nothing has dampened the spirits of the spunky foursome serving up a feast of holiday songs, with a lively side of snappy patter and audience participation, in 11th Hour Theater Company’s uplifting Winter Wonderettes. Penned by Roger Bean, Winter is a follow-up to his superior The Marvelous Wonderettes, which 11th Hour performed last spring at the Adrienne’s tiny Skybox space in Center City.
Helmed by Marvelous Wonderettes director Megan Nicole O’Brien, Bean’s sequel reunites the all-girl singing group the Wonderettes in 1968, a decade after we first met them, in the original, as high school seniors. Comprised of four best friends who live in the generic small town of Springfield, the occasion for the reunion is a Christmas party for the employees at Harper’s Hardware, where the group’s leader, Betty Jean (Kat Borrelli, who also handled the production’s wonderfully silly choreography), is employed as an office worker.
Hoping to duplicate the box-office bonanza of last spring’s stellar production, three of the four original cast members are back on board for the sequel; the delightful Rachel Camp is the newcomer. A veteran of several Theatre Horizon productions, Camp has the unenviable task of replacing Colleen Hazlett, who gave a spectacular performance as the group peacemaker Billy Jean Reynolds in Marvelous. In addition to Camp and Borrelli, Janet Rowley is charmingly vulnerable as the pregnant Suzy, and Laura Catlaw is amusingly flirty as the group’s sex kitten Cindy Lou. O’Brien’s creative direction and the work of her tremendously appealing four-member cast result in harmless holiday fun that will lift the spirits of even the grouchiest Grinch.
This time around, however, you won’t find the Wonderettes at the Skybox or any of Philadelphia’s other stages. Instead, 11th Hour’s production is in Norristown at the new ground floor theater belonging to the Montgomery County company Theatre Horizon, which opened its doors in late October with Horizon’s Pretty Fire. It’s located on Norristown’s Arts Hill, a four-block area that includes two theaters housing three companies, a film outfit, restaurants (including one that features live jazz on Saturday nights) and the Norristown Arts Building, which leases space to painters to create new work. 11th Hour’s surprise decision to stage Winter Wonderettes in Norristown is just the latest evidence of the town’s growing cultural scene.
Housed in a building that once belonged to Bell Telephone, Theatre Horizon’s new performance space features an expansive lobby that gives patrons ample room to mingle during intermission. The modern multi-purpose lobby, designed by Doug Seiler of Seiler and Drury Architecture (who designed the entire space), can be quickly transformed into a large, open area suitable for Horizon’s summer theater classes and afterschool activities, which are attended by 600 children a year as part of the company’s extensive community outreach and education programs—including one for 75 children with autism. It features 120 comfortable seats that fan out in front of the large proscenium stage and have ample leg room for even the tallest theatergoers.
Funded in large part by Montgomery County, the municipality of Norristown and a variety of other organizations and individuals, Horizon’s theater is up the street from the Montgomery County Cultural Center, which houses The Centre Theater and, since 1996, has hosted productions by Iron Age Theatre. According to John Doyle, co-artistic director of Iron Age and program director of Centre Theatre, the center was refurbished both last year and this year, adding a marquee and a magnificent 23-foot high blade sign that spells out “Centre Theater” in bright red illuminated letters running down the building’s face. Phase Two of the renovations, Doyle says, will include upgrades to its 70-seat upstairs theater and the development of a permanent 130-seat venue that will host shows on the first and second floors.
Will all this activity attract more theater patrons to the area? Doyle is optimistic. “I think that the political leaders in Norristown see economic advantages to an arts district,” he says. “The county government of Josh Shapiro, Bruce Castor and Leslie Richards are extremely supportive, and the municipality believes that the arts are part of a path to a stronger, more vital Norristown.” Indeed, Theatre Horizon’s number of subscribers has grown each season since 2005 and now exceeds 300. In addition, Pretty Fire, the opening production in the company’s three-show 2012-13 season, exceeded its goal for ticket sales. And with Theatre Horizon able to offer their theater for a rental fee lower than Philadelphia theaters, other area companies may follow 11th Hour.
But, of course, there are challenges. Even with the support of local institutions, funding from state and federal government is lacking. Despite efforts by the Obama administration to generate a stimulus package to address crumbling bridges that included a visit by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood to the 101-year-old Bridgeport Viaduct, SEPTA officials recently announced that the railroad bridge carrying the Norristown-to-Philadelphia high-speed line across the Schuylkill will be forced to close this summer. Depending on the transportation budget that comes out of Harrisburg, the shutdown could be indefinite, so the withholding of funds from essential transportation projects is bad news for Norristown’s theater companies, which not only draw theatergoers from Philadelphia, but also many actors from the city, many of whom rely on the train to get there.
Those woes aside, Theatre Horizon co-founders Erin Reilly and Matthew Decker are happy they chose to make Norristown the company’s home base. “We have found that the kind of work that energizes us also appeals to the audience in Montgomery County,” says Reilly. “The most rewarding thing for us as artists is to have an audience that our work speaks to.”
Through Dec. 30. $15-$31. Theatre Horizon, 401 Dekalb St., Norristown. 267.987.9865. 11thhourtheatrecompany.org