Hats off to a sleeper hit

Taylor's 'Crowns' sets records on regional circuit

WASHINGTON — Eyebrows were raised in the Washington, D.C., theater community last spring when “Crowns,” a gospel musical written by Regina Taylor, walked off with four Helen Hayes Awards, including the season’s resident musical prize for its production at Arena Stage.

The low-budget show about African-American women and the hats they wear to church had edged out several higher-profile, higher-cost productions.

But for folks at Arena, the official accolades represent just another reason to celebrate a musical that’s prized for more than its artistic merits. It is also the biggest success ever at Arena’s 514-seat Kreeger Theater, playing to full capacity during its nine-week extended run that began last December.

So popular was the show that Arena brought it back for a five-week summer reprise — a first for the resident theater — where it is again enjoying boffo biz. When the run ends Aug. 29, total box office will have exceeded $2 million there.

Arena’s good fortune could not have been better timed. The musical is drawing large numbers of new patrons amid the theater’s campaign to diversify its audience and raise $100 million for capital improvement.

The production also is a magnet for area schools, helping to attract unprecedented attention to Arena’s educational programs. The theater’s new friends include the eBay Foundation, which will help sponsor a new educational program called “Between the Lines.”

Arena’s experience with “Crowns” is shared by numerous regional theaters across the country. SRO business was reported last season at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Seattle’s Intiman Theater and Chicago’s Goodman, to name just three.

At least nine theaters will climbed aboard the “Crowns” express during the upcoming season, reports licensing agent Dramatists Play Service.

“Crowns” was written and directed by Taylor, an artistic associate at Chicago’s Goodman Theater, from a book of oral histories and photographs by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry called “Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats.” With its cast of seven plus two musicians, the one-act 90-minute show is embellished by rousing gospel music.

It was originally produced in 2002 by the McCarter Theater, in Princeton, N.J., and by New York’s Second Stage Theater later that year. Arena co-produced with the Goodman Theater and the Alliance Theater Co. in Atlanta.

“Crowns” is a low-overhead production with its small company, minimal props and scenery (mostly hats) and score drawn largely from the public domain.

Most importantly, “Crowns” is attracting appreciative auds of all races and generations with its homespun vignettes about those proud women bonded by their colorful chapeaux.

Among those flocking to the Arena production have been more than 200 church, civic, educational and other groups — compiling yet another record for the house.

” ‘Crowns’ is not only a grand-slam home run, it is an off-the-charts, self-perpetuating community celebration,” exults Stephen Richard, Arena’s executive director. He says it neatly ties together two key goals for the theater — diversifying its audiences and presenting stories of all kinds of Americans.

So strong was the word of mouth that Arena pulled most of its advertising early in the first run, Richard says.

The show has even spawned a cottage industry of sorts; local milliners have been invited to sell their handmade hats in Arena’s lobby after each performance.

The praise is seconded by Tom Pechar, managing director of the Alliance Theater, which opened its season last year with the production currently playing at Arena. “This universal human story has cemented the diversity of our audience,” he says. The same company moved to the Goodman in March for a six-week sold-out run. And when the weary “Crowns” troupe completes its second visit to Arena, it heads for the Hartford Stage to fill September, its final stop.

Jeff Woodward, managing director of the McCarter Theater, says he is ecstatic about the success of his theater’s multiyear project to develop the musical, as well as its partnership with Second Stage. He says they initially considered touring the show but rejected the idea. “This is a perfect vehicle for regionals, which spend time and energy on audience development,” says Woodward.

Indeed, that word of mouth has already filtered up to Rochester, N.Y., where the Geva Theater Center will mount “Crowns” in February in a co-production with Buffalo’s Studio Arena Theater. “We are extremely excited about the musical’s ability to bring a racially mixed community together in a celebratory way. That does not often happen,” says artistic director Mark Cuddy. He says group sales are already brisk.

Other productions are planned this season at the Geva Theater Center in Rochester, N.Y.; San Diego Repertory Theater; Palo Alto’s Theatreworks; Repertory Theater of St. Louis; Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park; Cleveland Play House; and Austin’s Zachary Scott Theater.

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