For the first time since its rebirth in 2009, the Hammonton’s Eagle Theatre is packing up its trunks and taking an original show on the road for the holidays.
It’ll be a very short trip.
While the Vine Street venue does a quick change from its most recent show, “The Fantasticks,” which closed on Sunday, to its next legitimate layout, “Little Women,” which opens a month-long run Jan. 24, South Jersey’s only year-round professional Equity theater company has created an original holiday show.
But with its main stage already under construction with sets for the next play, the theater had to find a secondary stage on which to present the original holiday revue, “Season’s Greetings, A Musical Celebration of Holiday Traditions From Around the World.”
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The new 300-seat Kathedral Event Center in Hammonton, less than a mile from the Eagle Theatre, seems to be a perfect fit, according to Ted Wioncek III, the Eagle’s co-artistic director who also conceived and is directing the holiday show.
“It is the first original Eagle Theatre production to be performed outside the Eagle Theatre,” Wioncek says with unmistakable pride.
That the Eagle Theatre’s main stage wasn’t available may have turned out to be a holiday blessing in disguise. Moving the show from the 200-seat Eagle Theatre to the larger event center is a way of introducing the Eagle to people who may not be aware the theater has been back in the business of entertaining audiences for almost a decade.
“We wanted to reach a completely different audience and demographic, and share what we have to offer at the Eagle Theatre with another venue during the holiday season,” he explains.
“Season’s Greetings,” he says, follows the cast of four performers as they take a musical holiday journey around the world to look at how the early winter holidays are celebrated in other countries and cultures.
“We stop by Germany, Russia, Italy, the U.K. and France,” Wioncek says. “We even have a section devoted to Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and Ramadan. It is absolutely all-inclusive.”
No short cuts with this show, either. Rather than using cheaper, pre-recorded tracks to accompany the performers, music will be provided by a live jazz quartet.
“We are adamant and devoted to the work of live professional musicians at the Eagle Theatre. We always use (live) musicians for our productions and our musicals as opposed to using (pre-recorded) tracks,” Wioncek says. “We feel there’s absolutely a huge difference. You can tell there’s an energy that you cannot replace when you’re using live musicians. (The show has) piano, bass, drums and a saxophone. It is a swinging good time.”
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“Season’s Greetings” also shares favorite holiday traditions, has an audience-participation “carol-along” and takes time to salute America’s veterans.
“We have some other special treats, perhaps (someone) from the North Pole, as well,” Wioncek says, and you could almost see his eyes twinkling over the phone.
If Wioncek has to pick a favorite part of the show, it would be the one with all-American musical roots. The holiday salute to the veterans is easily the show’s most touching moment, he adds.
“We spend a good amount of time singing songs from that great American standard holiday songbook, which is one of the highlights of the night,” he says. “But the part that’s most special to me, and I believe the rest of the ensemble, is our salute to our military veterans. It’s an opportunity to honor all of those individuals who have served our country in the past and present so they can stand up and take a bow and thank them for our freedom. There certainly won’t be a dry eye in the house.”
Wioncek and the rest of the Eagle Theatre staff and production crew are very happy how the theater has progressed since a dedicated group of volunteers brought the theater back on its artistic feet.
The original Eagle Theatre opened in 1914 as a silent movie theater and later a playhouse. It was sold in 1944 and became a church, then sold again in 1959 to a family that used the former theater for storage purposes until 2006. By then, the once-proud Eagle was on the verge of being condemned and demolished.
That’s when the Eagle Theatre’s original troupe of volunteers got together to save the venue.
“We’ve grown, not only into a professional regional theater, but we have a year-round conservatory offering educational programs,” Wioncek says. “And we have touring productions now that are leaving the Eagle Theatre and going to other communities and other states. It just seems that every year we take on a new piece of the puzzle. And in doing so, I can truly see now that the cultural palate of the southern New Jersey area is truly growing and adapting.”