There are a couple of new kids on the block that is the Atlanta theater scene.
On second thought, that probably isn’t the best way to put it, considering those kids are named Brandt Blocker and Shuler Hensley. Never mind their ages — 45 and 51, respectively, just for the record — but both of their theatrical resumes are decidedly extensive and relatively legendary, here and beyond.
New kids to show business? Hardly.
Accomplished veterans embarking on their first joint venture, sharing a new adventure with City Springs Theatre Company, a new troupe performing out of the new Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center? That’s more like it.
Blocker is a native of New Orleans, where he worked for several years with the city’s historic Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre, first as a stage and music director, and later as its director of marketing and development. He relocated to Atlanta in 2007 to take over as producing artistic director for the long-running Atlanta Lyric Theatre.
During his hugely successful 10-year tenure, Blocker produced, directed and/or conducted a vast number of increasingly popular musicals for the company (from 2007’s “Little Shop of Horrors” to 2016’s “Peter Pan”), and the Lyric’s season-subscription base flourished accordingly (from 264 when he got there to roughly 2,500 when he left).
Hensley was born and raised in Marietta. He originally left home for the University of Georgia on a baseball scholarship, before making a dramatic about-face and transferring to the Manhattan School of Music to pursue a career in the performing arts.
He eventually debuted on Broadway playing Javert for a year in “Les Miserables,” and quickly won a Tony Award as Jud Fry in a revival of “Oklahoma!” Despite creating such a name for himself in New York (and London) — in shows ranging from “Young Frankenstein” to “Waiting for Godot” to “Twelfth Night” (now running through Aug. 19 in Central Park) — he continues to make Georgia his home, at least for several months every year.
The new City Springs Theatre Company was formed in 2017, the brainchild of a small group of Sandy Springs residents and longtime arts patrons, with a particular interest in musical theater: Jan Collins, Steven Hauser, and Jerry and Peggy Stapleton. When they originally approached Blocker about the idea of running the fledgling operation, he wasn’t entirely sure, so at first he simply agreed to act as an independent consultant for them.
“I was still in the process of rejuvenating myself (and) truly didn’t anticipate getting back to work quite so quickly,” he remembers. “My 10 years at the Lyric were incredibly rewarding, but at the same time, the world of nonprofit arts administration can be pretty grueling, too.”
Fundraising began in August 2017, beginning with a generous contribution of $500,000 from another couple of Sandy Springs arts patrons, Ken and Trish Byers. To date, the company has raised more than $1.7 million.
“That’s an amazing achievement, something I’ve never seen before in all my years of working in nonprofit theater,” notes Blocker, who officially signed on as City Springs’ executive artistic director in October.
“I started out wondering whether metro Atlanta really needed another theater company, but those kinds of numbers don’t lie, and they’re a real testament to the Sandy Springs community. After seeing that kind of passionate support, it proved to be too great an opportunity for me to pass up,” he says.
Blocker enlisted Hensley as the troupe’s associate artistic director, and the two of them came up with an inaugural season of five shows: opening next month with “42nd Street,” followed by “Elf” in December, “South Pacific” in March, “Billy Elliot” in May, and “Hairspray” in July.
Season subscriptions went on sale in March, single tickets in May — to the tune of approximately 4,100 subscribers thus far, and many of the performances have already sold out. That’s no small feat, given the size of the company’s lavishly appointed new Byers Theatre venue, a three-tiered auditorium with a seating capacity of 1,070. (By comparison, Blocker’s Lyric shows at the Cobb Civic Center seated around 600.)
Blocker also recruited a highly experienced staff comprised of a dozen familiar names on the local scene, known for their work on stage and/or behind the scenes: among them, Natalie Barrow DeLancey (as managing director); Christy Baggett (business manager); Bradley Bergeron (production manager); Marcie Millard (company manager); Judy Cole (resident music director); Jeff Macko (orchestra manager); and Cindy Mora Reiser (resident choreographer).
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As for Hensley, he has never lost touch with his Georgia roots. When he’s here, he still lives in the same home where he grew up. He also lends his participation and support to the regional chapter of a national musical-theater program that recognizes high-school students with scholarships and awards (known here as the “Shulers”).
“My mom was always encouraging community involvement, stressing the importance of the arts in a community, and she raised me to believe in that, too,” Hensley recalls. “It’s an idea, a feeling that’s still really important to me.”
Just as that annual “Shulers” ceremony helps to discover and showcase young local talent once a year, he describes the creation of City Springs Theatre as serving a similar purpose, “embracing that same idea or feeling, except doing it on a year-around basis.”
Hensley committed to the plan without hesitation. “It’s like getting in on the ground floor and being part of a developing theater program, building community support with a season of good old-fashioned musicals, but also branching out into arts education. We want to celebrate all the talent there is right here in Atlanta, as well as bringing in some national or international talent to work with us,” he explains.
Fittingly, as someone who is both an Atlanta-based artist and an internationally renowned performer, Hensley will be front and center for City Springs’ upcoming “42nd Street,” in the leading role of a blustery Broadway producer. The show represents a comeback of sorts for the actor, whose only previous local credit of note was starring in the Alliance Theatre’s offbeat Stephen King/John Mellencamp collaboration “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County” in 2012.
“I think of it as a best-case scenario, not only in the sense of getting the company off and running, but also as a way of basically introducing myself to local audiences in a more traditional piece of musical theater,” Hensley observes.
After a pause, he adds, “For lack of a better phrase, it feels like all of this was somehow magically written in the stars.”
City Springs Theatre Company
The inaugural season includes productions of “42nd Street” (Sept. 14-23), “Elf” (Dec. 7-16), “South Pacific” (March 8-17), “Billy Elliot” (May 3-12) and “Hairspray” (July 12-21). Season subscriptions range from $150 to $310, single tickets from $30 to $62. Performances will take place in the Byers Theatre at the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center, 1 Galambos Way in Sandy Springs. 404-477-4365, cityspringstheatre.com.
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