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Jonathan Pennington’s ROXIE THEATRE MAKES ITS MARK

By Jasmina Wellingho f Photography Nancy Doan

When Jonathan Pennington returned to San Antonio last summer after an eight-month stint in New York City, he proceeded to do what he had already done successfully twice before =- he launched a new theater venture. And he had the foresight to locate it in the middle of the burgeoning area north of 410 where there are few arts institutions to serve the huge and growing loop-land population.

Named after his beloved dog, the Roxie Theater opened its doors this past October and has been going strong ever since. A play, two musicals and two youth musical productions have already been staged, including one, The Paisley Sisters’ Christmas Special, that has never been produced here before. Pennington is looking forward to introducing many more shows to local audiences, as well as his own original pieces in the slightly more distant future.

Most will likely be smaller productions that put performers and audiences closer together to enhance the theatrical experience. Before Pennington remodeled it, the Roxie space was a bar and it still retains that intimate vibe, with the actual original bar still intact and serving drinks to theatergoers.

“I wanted it to have a studio feel,” says the producer/ director. “My style is interactive and this space creates an immersive environment which is what I wanted to accomplish. While I was in New York, I saw performances in several intimate places like this and I felt like a part of the show just by sitting there. I want the focus to be on the actors and actors feed o the energy of the audience.”

The intimate bar setting is perfect for Roxie’s January o ering, The Rat Pack Lounge, a show that features the

real-life “Rat Pack” members – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. – as characters in a ctional stage story set in a nightclub. While the plot is ction, the songs are the real thing, and there will be lots of them. The musical aspect of the show will be in the capable hands of Tom Masinter, one of the best musical directors in the city.

“These are songs made famous by the characters in this play, songs like My Way, Young at Heart, What Kind of Fool Am I, Everybody Loves Somebody, and a bunch of others. They are still very popular with the theater-going public,” notes Masinter. “As a pianist, I play for a number of private functions and I play these songs. There’s a sophistication about this music that people respond to.”

Cast as the famous protagonists are Ryan Guerra as Sinatra, Sean Salazar as Martin and Dwight Robinson as Davis, all of whom have worked with Pennington before. The single female character identi ed only as Angie (most likely based on Angie Dickinson) will be played by Lauren Mitchell, while the owner of the bar where the action takes place will be portrayed by Chad Collins. Also in January, the theater will bring back the very successful youth production, The Lion King Jr., for two more performances.

To retain exibility in programming, Pennington avoids announcing a pre-determined season. So far, only three other shows are being advertised for 2017 – All Shook Up, Saturday Night Fever and Cry Baby. He describes the rst of these musicals as a take on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, set in the 1950s and punctuated by Elvis’ songs, such as Heartbreak Hotel, Love Me Tender, It’s Now or Never, Don’t Be Cruel, and many more. “It’s a great love story,” he adds, “and what is better for Valentine’s season than a love story. It’s a really good show.”

January/February 2017 | On The Town 21

LOVE OF THEATER STARTED IN CHURCH

Pennington fell in love with music and drama as a young boy thanks to a music minister who knew how to combine the two to tell the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection in an especially powerful way. “It was much more than the typical church production,” he recalls. “It was very polished, very theatrical. It de nitely captured my attention.” Young Jonathan started singing in the church choir at age ve and stayed involved through the end of high school. Encouraged to pursue music as a career, he did just that, rst at Texas Tech and later at UTSA from where he graduated with a degree in musical education. Both vocal and instrumental music were part of the curriculum, including an emphasis on operatic singing, but his heart belonged to musicals, he says.

Soon after graduation, Pennington launched his rst theatrical production company at the Woodlawn Theater, a building that at that point had been dark and neglected for some time. With a loan from his family, he managed to whip it into shape, and then started producing one musical after another for six-and-a-half years. Unlike most local companies, his Pennington Productions never became a nonpro t, a tradition he still follows. Why bother with boards and meetings when he can spend his time putting on shows!

Following the stretch at the Woodlawn, the young producer moved to the Cameo Theater in St. Paul Square where he pursued his passion while also learning a great deal about the business side of running a playhouse from Jim Zaccaria. Along the way, Pennington won multiple ATAC Globe Awards not only as producer and director but also for sound and scenic design. His last show at the Cameo was Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story, which is his very favorite musical, so favorite, in fact, that he could do it “all the time,” he admits wistfully, as our interview is winding down.

Altogether, he has nearly 100 shows on his resume, which prompts Masinter to suggest that they should have a party to mark the actual 100th one, likely to occur this year. The two men have worked on many projects together and sing each other’s praises. Masinter says Pennington is good to work with because he has “an easy touch,” “He allows me to be creative and bring the best out of the music and performers.” For his part, Pennington observes that he has learned an important lesson from his partner: “Tom taught me to make everything fun. I tend to be a perfectionist, always working hard, and he reminds me to enjoy it and have fun while I work. We are a good team.”

http://therivardreport.com/the-roxie-360-degrees-of-theatre-one-former-nightclub/

The Roxie: 360 Degrees of Theatre, One Former Nightclub

KURT GARDNER

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There’s a new theater coming to town, and it’s unlike any other showplace in San Antonio.Jonathan Pennington, formerly of the Cameo and Woodlawn theatres, is getting ready to open the Roxie Theatre, which will provide a “360-degree theatrical experience,” on the city’s near Northwest side on Saturday, Oct. 1.The theater is housed in a remodeled nightclub which still retains the trappings of its previous life, but has been greatly enhanced for theatrical effect. It’s a uniquely different performance space for San Antonio, and Pennington’s hope is that it will blossom into a destination for people to come not only for the theater but also to meet up with friends, have a drink, and enjoy some live music.In the midst of round-the-clock construction at the Roxie’s location near the intersection of Fredericksburg and Callaghan roads, Pennington spoke to the Rivard Report about his journeys in the theater world – both here and New York – the birth of the Roxie, and his aspirations for the continued growth of the arts community in San Antonio.Roxie Executive Artistic Director Jonathan Pennington. Photo by Kurt Gardner.Roxie Executive Artistic Director Jonathan Pennington. Photo by Kurt Gardner.

RIVARD REPORT: YOU WERE WITH THE CAMEO UNTIL IT CLOSED IN JANUARY, CORRECT? 

Jonathan Pennington: Yes, the last show we did at the Cameo was The Buddy Holly Story.

RR: TELL US ABOUT YOUR JOURNEY BETWEEN THE CAMEO AND THE NEW ROXIE THEATRE.

JP: I had the opportunity to move to New York and got involved in some new productions there. The actor and teacher Patrick Page also took me in as one of his students for the summer. He originated the role of Scar in first national tour of The Lion King and he played the Green Goblin in Spider Man: Turn off the Dark. He became a mentor for me. All in all, it was an enriching experience.

RR: HOW DID THE FORMATION OF THE ROXIE COME ABOUT?

JP: I ran the Cameo for three-and-a-half years, and the reason for the move is that the owner sold the space to City Church, and they told me that they didn’t want to have sets built in there anymore. They wanted to use the space for services.

In searching for a new home, I looked at the space now occupied by the Roxie, but I wasn’t really sure about it at first. It felt too much like a theater for the modern age, and I didn’t know if I was ready for that kind of leap yet. I went to New York, and I was there five months when my grandmother passed away, so I came back and spent a week with the family. While I was here, I was invited to look at the space again. By this time, I had seen about 60 shows in Manhattan, and they really inspired me to literally think outside the box.

I saw a show, for example, where you didn’t sit down at all – you followed the actors around. Then I saw a show with a thrust stage and seating all around it. In Vegas, I saw a production that also had circular seating around the stage, and people just raved. They loved the interaction it provided, so when I looked at the space here again, I thought, “Well, maybe this will work.” Having visited all these venues with their unorthodox but successful arrangements, I was really ready to introduce San Antonio to something more modern.

The Roxie has a rectangular thrust stage with seating all around. There are two bars, one on the main floor and one upstairs. It’s a really great arrangement. You can purchase a seat at the bar and watch the show, you can sit in stadium seating on the floor, or you can sit in the balcony. Basically, we wanted to create a theater environment that was interactive, one that the audience could really be a part of. The actors who have to come audition for Rocky Horrorand Evil Dead: the Musical, the Roxie’s first two shows, are thrilled by the concept.

There’s another room under the main floor that we’re converting into an intimate cabaret space. We also plan to put tables outside so that people can come relax and get a refreshment or coffee during the day.

RR: IT’S CERTAINLY A COMPLETELY NEW IDEA FOR SAN ANTONIO.

JP: Yes, I’ve been working on the concept for three years. Once I came back and decided that this was the space, I sketched out ideas for about three months, and we’ve been working nonstop for 31 days to make it happen.

RR: IT’S COMING DOWN TO CRUNCH TIME ISN’T IT?

JP: It’s been really crazy. We have an all new, state-of-the-art lighting and sound system and neon lighting around the building. Even the new signage was designed and put up in such a short time.

In terms of programming, I thought there was no better way to launch the theater than with Rocky Horror and Evil Dead: the Musical. This town is very Halloween-oriented, after all. I’m also thinking more of the physical space for future productions. Take, for example, the musical Rock of Ages, which takes place in a bar – it would be perfect here. Any shows that are really interactive and in-your-face will be really cool in this spot.

RR: AND IT’S A GREAT LAYOUT FOR BANDS TO PERFORM THERE, TOO.

JP: It’s a perfect setup for bands. My brother-in-law, who’s a musician, looked at the space and was stoked at the potential for intimate concerts.

RR: WHAT’S YOUR OPINION OF SAN ANTONIO THEATER IN GENERAL?

JP: I see San Antonio evolving in wonderful ways, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to come back. I see great potential here. There’s a rise in quality and talent all across the board.

At the same time, it’s also become really competitive. Everyone seems to compete for the same ticket sales, but I think we should all work together as a team. We’re seeing that San Antonio audiences want to go to the theater, and not just one theater. If we all support each other, that would help to keep the community vibrant – working together will help bring audiences to all the theaters.

And ticket prices in San Antonio are extremely reasonable, compared to New York, Chicago, or even Austin. For example, I saw a community theater show in Austin that cost $44, but at the Roxie our tickets are priced at $23.

RR: WHAT ABOUT THE FUTURE?

JP: When the smaller theaters around town flourish, the arts grow. Actors and artists are able to do what they love. In a nutshell, I really want to see everyone support each other as much as possible and create a positive force for arts in the city. I truly believe the whole city will flourish because of the arts. It’s certainly my hope.

The Roxie Theatre is located at 7460 Callaghan Rd., Suite 333. Tickets for The Rocky Horror Show (opening Oct. 1) and Evil Dead: the Musical (opening Oct. 7) can be purchased here.