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Old Woes, Young Voices

First, the bad news: Stages isn't able to afford a summer season. Next, the good news: despite being financially strapped, the company is in no jeopardy of folding. It doesn't owe anyone back pay. It's square with its vendors. But many permanent staffers are on "hiatus," as general manager Karen Kauder puts it, which means they'll have the summer off (with no pay) and will return in the fall. "We didn't want anyone onboard when we weren't confident we could pay their salaries," Kauder -- herself reduced to part-time status -- says. "We're doing this so we can be fiscally responsible."

It's a sorry situation when a company that's consistently produced some of the best theater in Houston runs short of funds. The theater has an annual operating budget of around $670,000, which comes from grants and tickets sales. The grants haven't been the problem; the problem was ticket sales -- the company realized only 35 percent of what it had hoped to get from single-ticket buyers, and season subscriptions (the source of most of the fluid cash needed to produce Stages' shows) were a disappointing 70 percent of projections. Kauder surveyed audiences to find out what the problem was, but couldn't come up with a solid explanation for all the empty seats.

At any rate, while the summer season is off, the money is just about in place for fall. And while this past year Stages concentrated on producing crowd pleasers, they'll try a different strategy in the upcoming year, a strategy of big names. Among the stars expected are Ntozake Shange, who will adapt and direct Chinua Achebe's classic novel Things Fall Apart, and Edward Albee, who'll sit in on rehearsals for A Delicate Balance. Marsha ('night, Mother) Norman's Trudy Blue is also on the bill.

Kid's Stuff: On the bill in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat are children, lots of them. Some 40 youngsters from the Houston Children's Chorus and the Spring Branch Girls Choir have been cast as the chorus for the Houston leg of the national tour. In one hell of a marketing ploy, the Dreamcoat producers set up "The Dreamcoat Choir Challenge" in each city the show is scheduled to play. The goal is for at least 16 kids' choirs to compete ("judges are listening for pitch and volume and looking for young smiling faces," or so says the packet). Two choirs are chosen, with each winning member of each choir getting $50 a week donated to his or her choir for the length of the run. The choirs learn the music on their own; a week before the show opens, "musical coaches" are brought in for a final polishing. Or at least that's the plan; in Houston, though 500 area choirs were contacted, a scant six ended up auditioning. The problem apparently was that the auditions coincided with spring break. But those who made the cut seem happy about it. "I can't wait for the fitting," says Katie Balena, an excited eighth-grader from Houston Children's Chorus. Her cohort David Tipps speaks knowingly about how the task ahead is to "add twang" and "create a young sound." Wonder what the national Dreamcoat brass, who say they're including local choirs to make the show feel less slick, would think of that.

-- Peter Szatmary

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat plays June 13-18 at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana, 629-3700.

 
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