Through July 13
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road
A year and a half after taking the helm as artistic director of the Olney Theatre Center, Jason Loewith is still figuring out his audience.
“We rely on a particular audience to keep us going and those are the folks who love Agatha Christie’s ‘Mousetrap,’” he says. “But all of Montgomery County and including the area around Olney have become increasingly vibrant and younger. We want to keep the Christie crowd, but I’ve been finding that there’s a lot more we can do.”
For Olney’s summer musical, Loewith has selected and staged “Avenue Q,” the funny 2004 Tony Award-winning musical send up of “Sesame Street.” But unlike with the kid’s show, these Muppet-like puppets (manned by seen actors) and humans sing side-by-side about more grownup stuff including prolonged adolescence (“I Wish I Could Go Back to College”), porn (“The Internet Is for Porn”), political correctness (“Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”), being in the closet (“My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada”), and their own inadequacies ( “It Sucks to be Me”).
“The show is such a machine,” says Loewith, who is gay. “You just need to find the right funny people. Get out of the way and not fuck it up.”
For his production he’s assembled a cast that includes Sam Ludwig, Rachel Zampelli, and the reliably excellent Stephen Gregory Smith. He’s tapped popular out actor Bobby Smith for associate director/choreography, and the talented Christopher Youstra for musical director and onstage accompanist.
But not everything that does well in New York is an automatic hit on the leafy campus of Olney Theatre. A director’s point of view is important.
“My approach is to not let the heart imbedded in the show get lost in its snarky humor and satire. In the suburbs, a play must have a way into the heart as well as the mind. ‘Avenue Q’ has that,” says Loewith who lives with his partner on Capitol Hill. “It’s about why you need to love people. Ambition and success mean nothing if you can’t share it with those you love. And that’s a path that I follow and believe in.”
When Loewith lived in New York, he worked at the Classic Stage Company just two blocks from the Vineyard Theatre where “Avenue Q” was created.
“It really spoke to me at that moment. I’m the same generation as its creators (author Jeff Whitty and composers-lyricists Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx.).Ten years ago I was 35 and, like the characters in ‘Avenue Q,’ was still trying to figure out my place in the world. I also happen to be very snarky myself, though not as snarky as some in show biz.”
He believes it’s the perfect follow-up to last summer’s “A Chorus Line,” another smart with heart, which won the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Resident Musical, Olney’s first such award since “Lucky Stiff” won in 1990.
In September, Loewith plans to open Olney’s fall season opens with “Colossal,” a new play that he expects to resonate with LGBT theatergoers. Penned by Andrew Hinderaker, “Colossal” is the story of Mike, a disabled man who became paralyzed after taking a bad hit for his co-team captain and first lover Marcus in a college football game. Seated in his wheelchair, Mike (to be played by Patrick Thornton, who is disabled) repeatedly watches the video of the bad hit. On stage, the hit is recreated by actors through movement and dance.
“Colossal” is slated to be staged by Will Davis, a transgender director. “When I hired Will he was a she. Now he’s a he and it’s upsetting my male-female ratio of directors. But that’s OK.”
Loewith brings energy and innovation to the job. He meets his challenges with a sense of humor. And perhaps most importantly, he holds the company to a high standard: “I don’t care if we’re doing ‘The Little Mermaid’ (which Olney is mounting for the holidays), we’ll attack the project with artistic rigor and that means working with the best directors, designers and actors in town.
He cites Broadway director David Esbjornson, best known for directing Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?” on Broadway, as an influence, especially his mantra that “art must lead.”
“That means if it takes another thousand dollars to bring the right person to make the cast work, you have to do it,” Loewith says. “A theater will not stay alive by sending out another appeal letter or making a cut in the marketing budget. A theater survives by putting excellent work on the stage.”