There's No Theater Like Live Theater / by Jefferson Geiger

I rang in the New Year by seeing the charming musical “Finding Neverland.” The adaptation of the 2004 movie was the eighth stage production I saw in 2016, the most I’ve even been to in a calendar year. Why do I see so many musicals and plays? Because there is literally nothing else that captures the essence of a live performance.

After you see something performed on stage, you can’t see it again. Yes, you can see it later that day after the matinee or later that week. But it won’t be the same. The script, score, and even the cast may remain unchanged but the performers will add and subtract nuances each time. 

In the spring I saw “Sweeney Todd” at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts with music performed by local gypsy punk band DeVotchKa rather than a traditional orchestra. They took Stephen Sondheim’s iconic songs and made them their own. It wasn’t recorded for commercial release and it can never be heard again.

When I saw “Phantom of the Opera” in October, the stage had a rotating center that didn’t exist in the production of the show I saw in New York in eighth grade. And neither of those had Michael Crawford or the movie’s Gerard Butler as the phantom. Each version brings something unique and worthwhile to the table. Yet while I can watch the movie and listen to the soundtrack nonstop, they can’t match the thrill of two nights.

Besides “Phantom of the Opera,” the only non-Shakespeare production that I’ve seen more than once is the hilarious play “Noises Off.” The classical slapstick farce reverses the stage in between acts, filling the set with action and references all the way out to the periphery. Every play and musical has a director, but you, the audience member, are the true director. Wherever you choose to look decides how the story is framed.

Did you see what that ensemble member did during the scene in the bar? Did you catch that gesture during the opening dance number? 

Since the human eye is the lens, it’s impossible to do post-production. There are no computer-generated effects. J.M. Barrie’s dog Porthos in “Finding Neverland” was played by an actual dog. The dancer performed that outrageous backflip and the actor caught that sword from across the room because of weeks—if not months—of practice, not camera tricks. A human being accomplished everything before you without a second take.

If we lived in a perfect world, almost every actor would prefer to stay on Broadway rather than go to Hollywood. They feed off of the audience’s energy and get hit with a rush of adrenaline that a studio lot can’t replicate. Our being there in those plush theater seats adds to the variably because a different audience alters the performance of the actors.

This is especially true for productions that require audience participation, like the comedy “An Act of God.” Though the question and answer portion is scripted there are other interactions that aren’t. When I saw it, the lead made fun of a man’s name minutes after the initial exchange. “Cabaret” and other shows that have shows within them frequently have the cast walking around the aisles, too.

The multifaceted relationship creates a special trinity between the audience, actors and orchestra. Everything must be perfectly in sync to propel the momentum of the experience further into euphoria.

As I sat so many rows from the orchestra that I was surprised my ticket still said “orchestra section,” I could feel the music reverberate in my body. The booming bass drum from “Finding Neverland,” found my chest better than any sound system.

Theater’s magical qualities shine when these elements synthesize and truly place the audience into the illusionEveryone in the audience gasped when the chandelier fell in “Phantom of the Opera.” Everyone clapped to save Tinkerbelle in “Finding Neverland.” For a few hours everyone believed that they weren’t in Denver.

There’s a reason “big name” actors return to the stage during their downtime. Theater is a living organism that’s constantly evolving as it unfolds with each performance.

Do you remember the last time you gave a standing ovation to a projector screen?

However, what’s given as an example of a pro can easily become a con. Theater does have an accessibility issue. The impermanence leads to costly tickets and there’s usually a trek involved that’s longer than visiting the local cinema. But if you can make it out for a night on the town, I highly urge you to do so.

The first performance of 2017 I’ll see is “Fun Home.” Maybe I’ll see you there, too.

This column was originally published in the January 4, 2017 edition of the Valley Courier.