Think Charleston, you think historic homes, great gardens, fabulous food, Charleston Harbor, cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages. If theater comes to mind at all, you probably think within the limited frame of Spoleto Festival USA, the city's big two-week-plus late-spring performing arts extravaganza. But what you probably don't realize is that Charleston is a great city for theater anytime – from Broadway-style productions, Hollywood musical theater and shows dedicated to Southern music to original dramas, experimental theater and improv comedy.
"The thing Charleston theater companies want people to know is that theater does not happen in Charleston just during Piccolo Spoleto and Spoleto," noted JC Conway, former president of Theatre Charleston, a promotional alliance of Charleston theatre companies, and current artistic director for the Flowertown Players in nearby Summerville, Ga. "Good theater happens here in the Charleston area year-round. On any single weekend, we typically have about five different performances going on."
Conway indicated there are eight theaters right in downtown Charleston that are in production year-round, not counting huge performing arts venues like the first-rate Gaillard Center and another five organizations that produce several shows a year at one of those spaces.
"Charleston has among the highest number of theaters in the Southeast for a city of its size," noted Conway. "We have nearly 20 theater companies within the Greater Charleston metropolitan area and they range broadly in types – from the large theaters like Charleston Stage to smaller theater companies like What If? Productions. We have great professional theater operations like Village Repertory Co., Threshold Repertory Theatre, PURE Theatre, and South of Broadway Theatre Company. We also have two very strong community theaters – Footlight Players Theatre, which is in its 84th season, and Flowertown Players in Summerville, which has been going for 40 years."
I've had the opportunity to experience some of Charleston's theatrical artistry myself and found it top-notch. Village Repertory Co.'s production last year of playwright Derek Ahonen's trenchant noir-ish "The Transcendents" at the Wolfe Street Playhouse, for instance, was riveting – and more than a bit disturbing, in a good way (yes, my tastes in theater – movies, books, etc. – tend toward the dark side). The storyline is compelling but it takes talented thespians to bring it to life and make it believable. And Village Rep was up to the task.
But maybe your theatrical tastes don't run as dark as mine. Here's a handful of generally more lighthearted, quirky theatrical experiences available in Chucktown.
Theatre 99 bills itself as "Charleston's Home for Improv Comedy" and it certainly lives up to its moniker. The original trio of quick-witted folks who formed The Have Nots! improv company in 1995 have offered up some very creative off-the-cuff comedic flair in more than 1,500 shows through the years and continue to do so (almost) every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. But Theatre 99 has developed into a comedic company of about 50 performers and several times a year it also presents sketch- and stand-up comedy, cabaret and musical entertainment. Theatre 99 created The Charleston Comedy Festival, which runs every January, and also produced the first Piccolo Fringe Festival, a lineup of special theatrical performances taking place during the Spoleto and Piccolo Spoleto festivals. If all that weren't enough, Theatre 99 offers improv classes and workshops for gutsy people with a funny bone. If you're visiting Charleston and want to try it out, give The Have Nots! a call ahead of time and see if something can be arranged.
Theatre 99, 280 Meeting St. (above The Bicycle Shoppe), Charleston, S.C., 843-853-6687, www.theatre99.com
Sound of Charleston
Alright, maybe I'm fudging a little with this pick. Sound of Charleston is pretty much a straight-up musical performance series more so than a musical theater performance but the truth is with performances this powerful and, well, dramatic, at a venue this special, likening it to theater seems appropriate. Besides, the words for the famous spiritual "Amazing Grace" were inspired as the author worshipped at Circular Congregational Church in Charleston during the mid-1700s, the very church at which Sound of Charleston performances take place. Each performance concludes with the cast singing it. The song also provided the title and inspiration for a Broadway hit last year that should be going on national tour just anytime now. Circular Congregational Church, in the heart of downtown Charleston, is a National Historic Landmark. It may not quite be theater in the strictest sense but you simply should not miss this if you visit Charleston.
Sound of Charleston, Circular Congregational Church, 150 Meeting St., Charleston, S.C., 843-270-4903, soundofcharleston.com
34 West Theater Company
The 34 West Theater Company was created by founders Stephen Wayne and Jeff Querin when they did a production in a rural church 14 years ago. Today, they do a variety of productions that guests may enjoy from their seats at small tables. Beverages and casual foods are available. The summer productions include "The Old Guys," a "whimsical memoir of life, love, and hip replacements" (June 3–June 18) and "Addicted to Love," an '80s-inspired musical comedy (July 1– September 24).
34 West Theater Co., 200 Meeting St., Charleston, S.C., 843-901-9343, www.34west.org
Gracie & Lacy
According to their website, sisters Gracie and Lacy grew up with a deep love for "harmony, retro fashion, tap dance, and the classic music of the WWII / Big Band Era" and they've been putting on shows highlighting just those elements for years. They list among their influences the likes of Frank Sinatra, Andrews Sisters, Bette Midler and Nat King Cole. They often perform at Gage Hall in Charleston and the next few performances will be "Gracie & Lacy's Vintage Hollywood Show" on June 2 and June 10 and "Come Fly with Me" on July 2, with more performances to follow.
Gracie & Lacy, Charleston, S.C., 843-259-8872, www.gracieandlacy.com
Brad and Jennifer Moranz Present
The Moranzes are true Broadway pros who produce three big musical revues a year. Both have appeared on Broadway and done national tours of musical theater. Jennifer was once a Radio City Music Hall Rockette, as well. Now in Charleston, they produce, write, direct, cast and choreograph three musical revues a year: a retro rock 'n' roll show in March, a variety show in July, and an annual Christmas Special. This year's July show will be "Let the Good Times Roll," featuring a professional cast performing the biggest hit songs from Broadway and pop music that will run July 22-24. All shows are at Charleston Music Hall.
Brad and Jennifer Moranz Present, Charleston Music Hall, 37 John St., Charleston, S.C., 843-416-8453, bradandjennifermoranz.com