The Cherry County Playhouse, a Michigan summer stock tradition since 1955, has a new leader in artistic director Lawrence Thelen, known on the East Coast as producing associate and literary manager of Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut.
Thelen will spend part of the summer in Muskegon, MI, where Cherry County presents at the Frauenthal Center for the Performing Arts, and part of the year back at Goodspeed, the prestigious musical theatre company. Thelen, a Los Angeles native and former actor who previously worked as a dramaturg and artistic director in Michigan, got the gig after Cherry County artistic director Bill Castellino and the Cherry County board parted ways earlier this year. Knowing Thelen's background, the board asked Thelen, who had been engaged to direct one show this summer, to produce the season.
Thelen told Playbill On-Line he'll stay on the first year and see how "he fits" at the theatre, adding that he's "fitting like a glove" so far and the operation is similar to places he's worked before. Should he return to Cherry County, he would like to make new works a part of the troupe's mission, just as premieres are the life blood of Goodspeed. His Goodspeed leave this summer is five weeks.
Thelen was a staff dramaturg at the Boarshead Theatre in Lansing, MI, in the 1990s, and ran the professional non-Equity Thunder Bay Theatre in Alpena, MI. His girlfriend's move to the East Coast lured him away; they are now married and living in Connecticut. Thelen is also a free-lance director who'll helm the upcoming Footloose for West Virginia Public Theatre before the Cherry County Playhouse season begins July 24.
Opening the Cherry County season July 24-25 is an appearance by Jack Jones and the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, followed by My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra, written and directed by David Grapes, July 30-Aug. 3; Bye Bye Birdie starring Priscilla Lopez and Jim Walton, Aug. 6-10; You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown Aug. 13-17; and Jesus Christ Superstar, with Muskegon native Gilles Chiasson, directed by Thelen, Aug. 20-24. Thelen was originally going to direct Charlie Brown, but took over Jesus Christ Superstar, which was to be Castellino's swan song (he had planned to leave after 2002). Shows are presented at the 1,750-seat Frauenthal Center for the Performing Arts in Muskegon, on the west coast of Michigan. The name "Cherry County" is a bit misleading. The theatre was founded by actress Ruth Bailey in northern lower Michigan in 1955 in the cherry-producing area of Traverse City. It all began in a tent, as one of the first professional theatre companies in Michigan. Stars came to Cherry County for the next 30 years (Bailey sold the operation to comedian Pat Paulsen and writer producer Neil Rosen and shows were staged at the Park Place Hotel). The operation was moved south to Muskegon (not in "cherry county," but the name stuck) and into its largest venue yet.
For Cherry County Playhouse information, call (800) 585-3737 or visit cherrycountyplayhouse.org.
Thelen is author of "The Show Makers: Great Directors of the American Musical Theatre" (Routledge).
— By Kenneth Jones