It's been 41 years since the Orpheum Theatre saw a theatrical production. That changes Feb. 25, when The Rocky Horror Show opens live at the vaudeville and movie palace. Cabaret will follow in May.
The productions represent the revival of what was once one of the city's most important stages. From a technical standpoint, however, it's going to be tough.
Rigging, overhead supports for lighting instruments, lights themselves and backstage space are gone. Even most of the stage is missing - it was walled off to create the Orpheum's Stage Door movie screen.
"There's no doubt that the facility has its challenges," says Michael Stanek, Rocky Horror director and choreographer. He and Barb Davis own the nonprofit production companies Broadway Kidz Wisconzin and Broadway Madison, which hope to make the Orpheum a home.
"This first production is going to be a learning experience," says Stanek, a veteran of Disney staged entertainment, off-Broadway and regional theater. "But it's exciting, and that's why we picked Rocky Horror. It's not like we picked something traditional and classic. It's more along the lines of the concerts that are produced there now."
Fish Callaway, of WZEE-FM/Z104's "Connie and Fish," will narrate. A thrust stage will be built out from the act curtain. Davis and Stanek will bring in their own equipment. "We're going to be doing a lot of lights in the balcony," says Davis.
"We're pretty excited about it," says Orpheum owner Henry Doane. "I hope it works out as well as they expect it."
Besides movies and concerts, the Orpheum once hosted vaudeville acts, plays and other performances. It still contains a warren of dressing rooms. Bob Hope played there. So did George Burns and Gracie Allen, Charles Laughton, Mort Sahl, Rod Steiger, Jose Greco, Benny Goodman, the Smothers Brothers, Johnny Mathis, Johnny Cash, Dick Clark, Pete Seeger, Frankie Avalon, Ray Charles and Bette Davis.
That's a glorious past but, given the challenges, why not choose an easier venue?
When the Overture Center for the Arts modified the Capitol Theater across the street, Stanek says, "I was really worried about Madison losing a space with such depth and detail, and which is so ornate." Both theaters share the same theatrical architectural firm, Chicago's famed Rapp and Rapp. The Capitol was designed in a faux-Moorish style, retained through its Madison Civic Center restoration, now all but obliterated. The Orpheum was designed as French Renaissance.
"The Orpheum has so much of that left," says Stanek. "I love doing shows in that kind of space."