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Seeing Things: With new Topfer Theatre, no preview discounts

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
"Ragtime, " production at Zach Theatre, Oct. 17-Nov. 18, 2012.

The first ticket-buying audience filled nearly every seat in the brand new Topfer Theatre on Oct. 17 to see “Ragtime,” the musical based on E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel of the same name.

With music by Stephen Flaherty and a book by Terrence McNally, “Ragtime” offers a kaleidoscopic pageant of America in the dizzying early part of the 20th century, as strivers and immigrants and industrialists all tried to form a cohesive country.

“Ragtime” is the first production in the Topfer, the newest and largest venue for Zach Theatre, which for decades has operated two theaters on city parkland right on Lady Bird Lake and South Lamar Boulevard.

The sleek $22 million, 420-seat Topfer Theatre now dominates the Zach site, the building funded in part by $10.6 million of voter-approved municipal bond money.

The most expensive seat in the house cost $75, plus $10 in fees, on opening night, the first of six shows billed as preview performances by Zach. However, no preview ticket price was offered for any of the first six shows.

And there was little in much of Zach’s marketing materials — its website, advertising and direct mail, for example — that made it clear the first six shows were not-ready-for-a-critic previews. Media critics were not invited to review the show until Thursday, the seventh performance of “Ragtime”s 25-show run.

The American-Statesman went to the Oct. 17 show, paying the $75 ticket price.

Elisabeth Challener, Zach managing director, explained the decision to not offer discounted preview tickets.

“(A preview) is not a performance that’s less than any other,” she said. “In fact most of our subscribers, our best customers, come within the first week and a half. If we thought the preview performances were a work-in-progress, we wouldn’t have seated our subscribers for them.”

Challener said, however, that preview performances are subject to scrutiny by Zach artistic director Dave Steakley. “There will be some tweaks that come out of the opportunity to do a show (in previews),” she said. “Previews are a chance for the actors to settle into a show, know how long the audience might applaud after a certain song or what brings a laugh.”

Before its new theater, Zach Theater ran two to three preview shows with discounted ticket prices before inviting media. The new preview-versus-opening schedule, Challener said, is similar to other regional theaters.

At the Alley Theatre in Houston — the only theater in Texas to have won a Regional Theatre Tony Award — new mainstage productions are run for five shows with slightly discounted tickets prices before an official media opening is presented.

Zach’s ticket prices rival those of touring Broadway shows that come to Austin. The top price for tickets to “Billy Elliott” — which plays Bass Concert Hall on Dec. 11-16 — is $75.

Challener said that she was confident that shows at Zach were as good as any Broadway show. “We believe that you are getting the same quality or better than what you would see in New York, but (at our smaller Topfer Theatre) you have the opportunity to be up close to the show .”

“Ragtime” is indeed an enormous production for a locally produced theater and is a harbinger of the new production scale Zach plans for its new venue.

The cast includes 50 actors, there’s an orchestra of 16 musicians, and during the course of the 2 1/2 hour show some 300 costumes are used. Many of the actors are members of Actors’ Equity, the performers union, and hence have much higher pay rates than most local non-Equity actors.

Beyond the bond money for the new theater, other public funds make “Ragtime” possible.

Zach received a $70,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to produce “Ragtime” — one of the largest allotments of federal NEA monies to an individual Central Texas arts organization in years. And for the upcoming fiscal year, Zach received $172,250 in general support from the city of Austin’s cultural funding program.

There was plenty to compliment about the performance on Oct. 17.

The sheer scale of “Ragtime” — with its three intertwining story lines and long roster of characters — highlights every upgrade the new venue offers.

Perhaps most considerably is the full-size orchestra pit, allowing music director Allen Robertson to lead a smart-sounding 16-piece orchestra through Flaherty’s appealing ragtime-infused score.

Good use was made of the fairly minimal tiered, scaffolding-like set, with elements rolled on and off to quick effect. Even more use was made of the trap (something Zach doesn’t have at its other venues) with actors and props rising up or sinking down into the stage. And as if to flaunt the grand new scale of the Topfer, a full-size Model T — which is central to the plot — rolls off and on stage.

“Ragtime” is less technical razzle dazzle than it is a show about the people who make up the melting pot of America. And in that pot are a white upper-class family, a restive African-American underclass and a swarm of ambitious immigrants. Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan, among other historical figures, trot through “Ragtime” as cameo characters.

As it settles into the considerably upgraded venue, Zach’s artistic leaders will likely master the minor acoustical errors that occurred on the first night when feedback plagued some actors’ mics and other mics picked up offstage noise. By Thursday night show’s, many of the amplified sound problems from the first night had been smoothed out, though more tweaking is needed as Zach moves forward in its new venue.

If the show has flaws, it’s the inherent lightness of McNally’s script. Indeed the kaleidoscopic approach — with such a broad range of story lines and a vast roster of characters — leaves even the most prominent roles pretty thinly rendered. (Though Jill Blackwood as Mother, Kyle Scatliffe as Coalhouse Walker Jr. and Andrew Foote as Tateh gave particularly fine vocal performances.)

“Ragtime” is not subtle, nor is it deeply complex. It’s a great, big American pageant.