Sunday, August 20, 2000

Theater Classics' season opens with 'Horrors'

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It's been a busy six months for Anton Shilov.

        Back in February, Mr. Shilov, then 23, was scenic designer for Downtown Theatre Classics, a theater whose first bumpy years had degenerated into near chaos.

        Mr. Shilov, an impresario at heart, is now artistic director as Downtown Theatre Classics stands poised for a do-or-die leap into the 2000-2001 theater season.

  What: Little Shop of Horrors presented by Downtown Theatre Classics
  When: opening Friday, playing 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday through Sept. 10
  Where: Aronoff Center Jarson-Kaplan Theater
  Tickets: $31.25, students and seniors $26.25. 241-7469

        With an Equity contract, a season of five musicals and a $1.2 million budget, the re-envisioned DTC will show itself off to the Tristate starting Thursday when Little Shop of Horrors opens in the Aronoff's Jarson-Kaplan Theater.

        Last week Mr. Shilov looked back at the last few months and recalls what he thought then. “There was an opportunity for a theater company to come out of the (Aronoff) center, but we had to do it now, fast.”

        So he did.

        Mr. Shilov talked the board into making him producer, then artistic director.

        Downtown Theatre Classics had been employing community theater actors with one or two professionals rounding out every cast. Mr. Shilov made a passionate plea to end half-measures and make a commitment to be a professional company. “I want to do this for a living, I want to support people who do this for a living.”

        He tracked down Worth Gardner, a man with an audacious, almost 20-year reputation in Cincinnati theater, and got a commitment for his return to a local stage.

        He made up a budget that was double the amount of the existing one — which had never been raised in the first place.

        “That was scary,” Mr. Shilov reflects now.

        Late last week, Mr. Shilov, his hair moussed into artistic disarray, was prowling a basement rehearsal room in the Aronoff.

        Even as Mr. Shilov sweats the million details in the debut of a newer, bolder Downtown Theatre Classics, he's sweating a few thousand more as he takes on his first real directing gig with Little Shop of Horrors.

        The musical is a fractured fairy tale about nebbishy Skid Row flower shop assistant Seymour who nurtures a carnivorous plant from outer space into man- (and woman-) eating life.

        With the cast taking a lunch break, Mr. Shilov is surrounded by small, medium and large Audrey II puppets. He sticks his head in the “mouth” of the mid-sized one. “This must be an allegory for being up to my neck,” he laughs.

        Getting a $1.2 million theater project from concept to even near-reality is not easy.

        What has Mr. Shilov been doing these last months?

        Selling his dream to the theater board and potential patrons. Finding start-up money. Hiring staff, firing staff, hiring staff. Completing the process of an Equity union contract.

        He credits right-hand man and technical director Harwood Gordon for finding an abandoned General Motors storage building in Norwood.

        DTC signed a lease for about one-third of the 52,000-square-foot space. Now it's transformed into bare-bones administrative offices and set construction site.

        There are dreams of prop and costume shops and even a funky theater space in the remaining 36,000 square feet. With its broken window panes and graffiti, it feels more like New York's East Village than Norwood.

        Mr. Shilov put together a season, changed his mind and put it together again. He announced and dropped an original revue last spring. He's booked a tour of off-Broadway's favorite musical send-up Forbidden Broadway. He's done New York and local auditions.

        “I think my inspiration (to take control of DTC) was coming out of Worth,” Mr. Shilov says during a rehearsal break. “He said, "just do it.' ”

        Mr. Shilov isn't one to do a show for the sake of doing it. He's envisioning Little Shop “more as a rock opera — menacing.”

        When he couldn't find a director who bought into his high, dark concept of Little Shop, Mr. Gardner said “just do it” again, and Mr. Shilov listened again.

        So he's augmenting his producing duties by spending several hours a day in the rehearsal hall.

        Part of his passionate presentation for Downtown Theatre Classics has been to create a home for University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music grads in between campus and New York careers. Mr. Shilov is a former student in the CCM scenic design program.

        Horrors' biggest professional credit belongs to Andrea McCormick as hapless hero Seymour's love interest Audrey. Ms. McCormick, a New York University grad, was seen last year on stage at the Aronoff's Procter & Gamble Hall in the Footloose national tour.

        Last weekend Mr. Shilov replaced the actor hired to play Seymour with Eric Solomon, who starts his freshman year at CCM next month and happily has played the role before.

        The CCM connection will intensify with the next show. CCM grad Melvin Tunstall ('98) conceived and will choreograph Hey, Big Spender, a world premiere revue set to the Broadway songs of Cy Coleman.

        Casting for the holiday Pirate Blitz (a daffy adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan's divinely silly Pirates of Penzance) is under way. Mr. Shilov has “a list of old CCM people to hunt down,” primarily grads from Mr. Gardner's tenure as CCM department head.

        You wouldn't think Mr. Shilov could have found any spare time with that work load, but he did find enough to annoy some people.

        Invariably intense (something for which he credits his Russian heritage), when Mr. Shilov started his producing career diplomacy wasn't his strong suit.

        “I'm excitable,” he acknowledges mildly, then points out that he's now turned 24. “I've matured,” he laughs.

        DTC's $1.2 million skims DTC past Ensemble Theatre's $1.1 million in size of operating budget. It took ETC 15 years to get there.

        “What people don't understand,” Mr. Shilov says, typically intense, “is that this is a bare bonesnumber. We needed another (half-million) to do it right.”

        Ticket prices will be steep by Cincinnati standards. Little Shop tickets average $31, admission for the remaining shows shoot up to $36, putting DTC in range of the Playhouse, which eases the strain on wallets with a half-price day of show discount. By contrast, non-discounted ETC tickets are $25.

        Musicals are expensive, and DTC ticket prices are also victim to the relatively small size of the 440-seat Jarson-Kaplan. That's a low number to absorb high costs.

        Mr. Shilov is only too aware of those numbers, and aware that he has to hit 67 percent attendance in the depths of August and over Labor Day weekend. There are two performances scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 3, putting Little Shop up against the fireworks on the riverfront and the related traffic and closed streets.

        Mr. Shilov is aware, too, that “we'll have to do this like we've been promising” even though it isn't unreasonable to expect the re-invented DTC to need a little time to find its stage legs.

        In this “all or nothing” enterprise, “it will take a little time to oil the machine,” says Mr. Shilov. “We should be where we want to be by Pirates” (Dec. 8-31).

        There won't be any rest for Mr. Shilov after Thursday's opening. He's planning a board retreat for October and “I have to start thinking about next season.”

        He likes this season's formula of producing four and presenting one and expects to repeat it. “I'm trying to start a relationship with another company, with the idea of trading shows.”

        It hasn't been easy, it won't be getting easier any time soon. Mr. Shilov, however, has a dream and a will to work at it. “This is an honest attempt at getting another professional theater company in Cincinnati and making it work.”

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