A theater can't just observe a milestone anniversary with a party. The most fitting way to celebrate a theater is with a big production in its honor.
Stars Bakersfield Music Theatre is marking half a century in local theater with its "50th Anniversary Celebration," a two weekend run opening on Friday. The show will cover the theater's history both through narration and music from its five decades of productions.
"We are featuring a dozen of our finest performers to represent the very best of BMT, and to pay tribute to past performers through a series of photographic images," said director Brenda Baldwin in an email. What will the play be like? "You’ll have to come and see it, but it will feature music and photos from 50 of our favorite shows."
The anniversary production came about when Jim Fillbrandt, the theater's executive producer, approached Baldwin about creating a show to honor the theater's history.
"I came up with the concept, but it’s been a joint effort with our creative team to make it a reality," Baldwin said. "Cody Garcia, in particular, has been brilliant in creating clever choreography to give the show lots of energy."
Joining Garcia and Baldwin on the stage will be cast members Bob Anderson, Tim Armijo, Jim Baldwin, Kelci Cerri, Zachary Gonzalez, Caley Mayhall, Roger Norwood, Jennifer Prow, Spenser Prow and Bethany Rowlee. Baldwin and Norwood will share narrator duties while other cast members will play a variety of roles, augmenting the storyline through musical numbers, Baldwin said.
"The cast represents several generations of performers," said Gonzalez, who is also the theater's marketing coordinator in addition to a cast member of the show. "The people in it are working really hard to represent the people who came before us and respect that as well."
Throughout the show, there will be photos of certain productions throughout the years projected on a screen. For example, Stars' first production was "My Fair Lady" in 1969, a play that has since been on the theater's stage several times. On screen, audiences will see photos of each Eliza Doolittle in the theater's history.
Fillbrandt and Baldwin agreed it was "better to have an entertaining evening than a historical evening," Fillbrandt said.
"It's not an attempt to be historical as far as what's in the show," Fillbrandt said. "It's not going to be a run-through of all the old-timers."
While Baldwin didn't want to give away too much of the theater's history, encouraging those interested to go to the show to find out, Fillbrandt was willing to give a few details.
The theater first started at South High School, created by a group of educators and residents, including Ron Steinman as director. It moved to the Harvey Auditorium in 1974 before opening at the Bernard Street theater in 1989 and then the current theater on Chester Avenue in 1999.
In its earlier years, the theater was "Broadway not just in the city but in this part of the state," Gonzalez said. Back then, it had a much easier time getting the rights to produce a show not long after its debut.
Now it takes longer for the local theater to get the rights for certain shows, because the same show can't be performed within a certain mile radius, and regular tours often put those shows too close to Bakersfield for Stars to get the rights. Earlier this year, it was finally able to get the rights to "Mamma Mia!", which became a huge hit for the theater.
"Against all odds, we're still doing amazing shows," Gonzalez said.
Fillbrandt said while he'd like to credit the theater's 50 years to "brilliant management," he realizes luck has had a lot to do with it, too. Operating as a nonprofit, keeping the theater open is "always a struggle," he said.
Asked what Stars needs to go another 50 years, Fillbrandt was blunt: donations.
"We couldn't possibly sell enough tickets to pay the bills," he said. "We have to have donations."
Baldwin said the theater will also need a new generation of theater-goers with a love for live musical theater.
"Even the world’s most gifted singers, dancers and actors would have no opportunity to express their talents without an appreciative, faithful audience," she said. "They are our life’s blood."
For Baldwin, the anniversary show is personal. She's been performing at the theater since 1978, she said.
"I’ve known and loved so many extraordinary individuals who’ve been part of this journey, and I’m filled with emotion as I reflect on all the years," she said. "This is my way of tying the past to the present."