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The Curtain’s Going Up on Fayetteville’s Theater Season

Fayetteville may be more macho than most, but theater thrives here.

It has always been an open secret: this military town has an artistic streak a mile wide. That much became obvious this summer when hundreds turned out for a shot at “High School Musical,” the wildly popular TV movie turned play. Hundreds were whittled to a cast of 70, and the show was so popular that Cape Fear Regional Theatre had to extend its run.

CFRT is the anchor of Fayetteville’s theater scene, the grande dame with 45 seasons under its belt, but it has company. The city has six different places to see a play, so no complaining about nothing to do on a Saturday night.

All six have full seasons planned for 2007 and 2008. Shows are well under way at Cape Fear Regional Theatre with “Oliver!” wrapping up and “Good Ol’ Girls” in the wings. Next comes “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Moonlight & Magnolias” and “Company!” CFRT prides itself on featuring plays by and about North Carolinians. It has been home to world premieres of plays based on writer Clyde Edgerton’s novels. This year, the theater will present “Good Ol’ Girls” by Lee Smith and Jill McCorkle, a Lumberton native.

Another CFRT tradition is the theater’s annual river show; the upcoming production is “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story.” But Cape Fear also likes to try new things. It ups the ante almost every year. This fall, the theater plans to hold an authentic Oktoberfest, complete with beer and oom-pah music, at the new Festival Park.

“Things just aren’t right when we don’t have something going,” said theater founder Bo Thorp.

Sometimes not even she can believe how far the theater has come from the days when actors performed at Alexander Graham Junior High and charged 50 cents for tickets. Now, the theater regularly brings in talent from New York and other places.

Thorp has been with the theater from the beginning. Sometimes, she misses the old days when the late Pat Reese, a long-time Fayetteville Observer reporter, ruled the stage. Thanks to a military draft, Thorp never knew who would walk into an audition, a soldier who could play the piano like a professional or sing like a leading man. But in the decades since, the theater has become more and more professional.

“You don’t find a theater like this everywhere,” Thorp said. “If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times – we’re the greatest kept secret.”

If Cape Fear is the veteran of Fayetteville’s theater scene, Stage Door is the new kid on the block. But Kim Vaquilar points out that the theater has been active for five years.

Active is a good word – the theater is open almost every weekend of the year with its popular improv shows. The theater recently began offering full-length plays. This summer, actors presented “All the Great Books, Abridged.” Stage Door is located beside the Tallywood Shopping Center.

The Gilbert Theater has earned a reputation as the risk taker of the group. It has staged such works as “The Vagina Monologues,” but it offers the classics, too. This fall, the theater will present the audience favorite, “A Christmas Carol.” Lynn Pryer opened the theater in his basement in 1994. Now, the theater has space above Fascinate-U Children’s Museum in downtown Fayetteville. The theater has been busy renovating its lobby where patrons will be invited to continue a Gilbert tradition of complimentary carrot cake after the show.

Local colleges have always been a place to find theater, but the drama program at Fayetteville State University is finally coming into its own. The program had come to a halt when Phoebe Hall was hired as a speech instructor seven years ago. She decided to revive theater at the school on her own time. Only 22 people attended the first play. Now, actors play to a full house with waiting lists for musicals.

“The hard work is paying off,” Hall said.

Fayetteville Technical Community College has slowly been adding shows to its repertoire, and Dennis Johnson hopes the college will one day soon offer a theater degree.

And last but not least is Methodist University which plans to offer “Moonchildren,” “Talking With” and its annual children’s musical.

Bo Thorp says theater is vital for a thriving town. “While the theater is not everything,” she said. “it is an amenity. And it’s the community that makes it possible.”