By Shera Cohen
GREATER SPRINGFIELD Community theater, though sometimes overlooked, is ripe with local talent here in the Pioneer Valley, especially during the 2012-2013 season.
Community theater, simply put, is theater without the big money, or sometimes any money. In lieu of dollars are people a community of thespians who share the same goal of producing plays. For the most part, community theatre also means actors who are not professional (Equity).
Community means high quality, exemplary, thoughtful, and serious work to present excellent and, yes, professional productions. In interviewing presidents of several troupes, common phrases included "showcase local talent," "the area's best directors," and "Broadway quality."
The Pioneer Valley boasts many such troupes, each with seasons starting this fall.
Black Cat Theater
"Little Shop of Horrors" kicks off the 26th year of Black Cat in Chicopee on Oct. 25. With two plays each year (fall musical, spring comedy), its groups of teens through seniors are especially excited about the many new faces in "Little Shop." Plays are presented at the South Hadley High School.
Exit 7 Players
Ludlow has been the home for Exit 7 since its start 28 years ago. Its plays have included contemporary to classic, musicals to dramas and comedies. The members challenge themselves to put on shows that rival any in the Valley and beyond.
"Aida," the Elton John/Tim Rice adaptation of the opera of the same name, takes the stage for three weekends this month. A big hit on Broadway, "Aida" is set in ancient Egypt with warring nations and forbidden love to a pop-rock score.
Monson Arts Council
"The Secret Garden" begins Monson Arts Council's (MAC) 34th year on Oct. 26. Having completed repairs to its theater following the tornado, MAC returns to the stage. This musical's message is of regrowth and rebirth, set in the same era as the historic building that houses the production.
"MAC is evolving into a strong theatrical presence in the region while continuing to maintain its mission to serve the small community of Monson," Darcie Farber said.
Opera House Players
Founded in 1968 as St. Martha Players, the group moved to the historic Broad Brook Opera House (circa 1892) 10 years ago and later changed its name to reflect the new venue. OHP exclusively mounts musicals four major family-friendly musicals annually, in addition to producing smaller cabaret-style shows and specialty musical performances.
"You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" highlights the Peanuts characters in song and dance beginning Nov. 9.
Located in downtown Springfield, Panache starts its 14th season on November 2nd with the contemporary drama "G-d of Carnage." Panache is known for their presentation of edgy dramas that are not usually mounted by community theatres. For instance, the mystery "Deathtrap" follows in March. Panache has been fortunate to have received several grants from the Springfield Cultural Council to support its work.
Suffield has been mixing successful and award-winning drama, comedy, and musicals for six decades. This year marks its 60th anniversary, aka Diamond Jubilee Season. Making the troupe unique is, most particularly, Suffield's venue. The players own and maintain historic Mapleton Hall (built in 1883), where they produce three mainstage productions annually, as well as three free staged readings.
The contemporary comedy "Regrets Only," began its three-weekend run on Oct. 11.
Westfield Theatre Group
Westfield Theater Group (WTG) takes the prize as the oldest troupe in the Valley, going back more than 80 years, and having started at a separate department of the Westfield Woman's Club. In fact, WTG is one of the longest running community theatre groups in the country. An average year's bill includes three to four plays comedy or drama in the fall, a Christmas production, ending with a spring musical.
Next up is "The Odd Couple: Female Version." "Holiday Spirit," an original musical written by two WTG members, follows in December, with "Godspell" in the spring.
Wilbraham United Players
One of the oldest of the troupes is Wilbraham United Players (WUP), having started in 1956 with "HMS Pinafore."
For nearly 40 years, WUP only produced Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. There are 95 active members quite a high number by community theatre standards.
On Nov. 9, the group presents "The Great Gatsby," and in May, the Players celebrate the Town of Wilbraham's 250th anniversary with the musical "1776."
The annual "Candy Cane Cabaret" takes place on Dec. 14 with a tribute to television holiday shows of years past. Deborah Trimble, whose name is synonymous with WUP, has produced every play (with one exception) since 1994 is especially excited about this season's play selection of "Gatsby."
"We have the opportunity to bring a story that is a classic of American literature to the stage for the first time in the area. It's something new and different," she said.
Other troupes in the Pioneer Valley include Country Players, Arena Civic Theatre, Hampden Players, and Greene Room Players. Naysayers who think that the Valley lacks for theatre would be pleasantly surprised that talent abounds.