It's been a good run.
After nearly 10 years, the theater group O'Connell and Company will pack up and move out of its Cabaret in the Square Theatre, a cozy space tucked beneath a quaint shopping center in Snyder.
Mary Kate O'Connell, the company's founder and artistic director, cited increased rent for the company's decision to move out of the space. The theater has not yet located a new space, but O'Connell said she was exploring several promising options.
In the meantime, the company will close out its current season with one final show at the Cabaret and continues to plan a 2008-09 lineup for a new location -- both of which O'Connell hopes to announce within weeks. The company will also present a co-production of the the musical "Hats!" at North Tonawanda's Riviera Theatre starting May 1.
"We are moving out because we can't afford to be here," O'Connell said. The landlord, she said, "has been very generous, but they just can't afford [for us] to be here anymore, and we can't afford not to move.
But O'Connell isn't going away mad. Instead, in a poetic move, the theater will close in the same way it opened: with a custom-tailored production of the musical revue "Side by Side by Sondheim," a look at the early work of lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim. If the title rings a bell, that's because it had been slated to close out the season of Studio Arena Theatre before it announced it would file for bankruptcy in February.
O'Connell and Company, like most others in town, will accept Studio Arena subscriber tickets for the show, which opens Thursday.
"Things change, and we grow, and we've grown out of it in many, many ways," O'Connell said of the theater.
The venue, one of the many tiny spaces that theater owners optimistically refer to as "intimate," is a cramped space with a bifurcated stage setup that requires great ingenuity on the part of actors, directors and designers. Still, fans of the company, which has mounted a wide range of plays and musicals since its inception in the early '90s, have grown fond of the close-range, cabaretlike atmosphere the space offers. But without its own restroom and tucked into a low-profile location that O'Connell said is "the best-kept secret in Snyder," she views its move as a blessing.
"Our audience deserves a place that's a little bit easier access to reward them for their continued allegiance," O'Connell said. As for finding a new space, O'Connell is optimistic.
"I have a lot of people who are very eager to help us find a place, because they really feel that we're an integral part of theater in Buffalo," O'Connell said.
One of those people is Roger Paolini, who directed "Side By Side by Sondheim" when the theater opened and will reprise that role with the forthcoming production. Paolini has directed a handful of other shows in the space since it opened, including the recent popular production of "Musical of Musicals: The Musical."
"It really is such a great space to work in, because the actors are so in your face," Paolini said. "The intimacy, you don't get that so much in other theaters. It dictates what shows you do and how you approach a show."
>Novelty and discovery
As for mounting "Side by Side," the show was a kind of off-the-cuff, last-minute project. The cast, which had previously been slated to perform the musical "Dames at Sea," was asked to switch over to early Sondheim, a transition that had to prove jarring.
When O'Connell called Paolini about "Side by Side," he said, "I was watching a DVD of '42nd Street,' preparing myself for a Busby-Berkeley musical." He was surprised to learn about the rather odd switch, but went at the task with great relish. Many of the cast members were unfamiliar with the early segment of Sondheim's career, which saw collaborations with composers Leonard Bernstein ("West Side Story") and Jule Styne ("Gypsy"), along with his own music and lyrics for "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," "A Little Night Music" and others.
That process of novelty and discovery, O'Connell and Paolini said, serves as his directorial approach for the challenging show. The role of the narrator (which was slightly rewritten by Paolini) will be played alternately by several prominent members of the theater community, including Studio Arena CEO and Artistic Director Kathleen Gaffney, Irish Classical Theatre Artistic Director Vincent O'Neill, Buffalo United Artists founder and Artistic Director Javier Bustillos, Saul Elkin of Shakespeare in Delaware Park and Jewish Repertory Theatre, Meg Quinn of Theatre of Youth and O'Connell herself.
In an atmosphere where every theater needs to hammer out its own niche to survive, O'Connell and Company is in many ways ahead of the curve. Paolini pointed to the theater's healthy following for its weekly production of "Diva by Diva: A Celebration of Women" as an asset to a female, suburban segment of the community that previously ventured to the theater only on rare occasions.
"All those hundreds of women who find their way into that little hidden theater all the time, they know who [O'Connell] is and follow her for her shows," Paolini said. And if all goes to plan, they'll follow her to wherever she winds up next.
"Mary Kate is always about good karma," Paolini said.
"Side by Side by Sondheim"
Opens at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and runs through May 11 at Cabaret in the Square Theatre (4476 Main St., Snyder).Tickets are $25. For more information, call 839-3949 or visit oconnellandcompany.com.