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New stage company competes for patrons, performers

Jimmy Ferraro is artistic director of the Center for Art & Inspiration, which has announced more than 40 performances in 2019. Jimmy Ferraro is artistic director of the Center for Art & Inspiration, which has announced more than 40 performances in 2019.

Jimmy Ferraro’s first paid singing gig was in a Long Island nightclub, accompanied by his parents. He was 16.

He was in his 20s when he first performed in the ensemble of “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway. The beloved musical would become his career. He played the lead role of Tevye for years.
“I’m the last one to have starred in the national tour,” in 2012, he said in an interview last week. “I’ve done over 3,000 performances. If someone called me tonight and said, ‘I need you tomorrow to come in and do Tevye,’ I’d say OK. It’s ingrained.”
He’s embarking now on what might be his biggest challenge yet, managing a theater production company that’s staging murder mystery dinner theater, musical tribute shows, national touring productions and a standup comedy workshop. The shows are scheduled starting in March in what used to be the Flat Rock Playhouse Downtown and (for the national touring shows) Bo Thomas Auditorium.
Ferraro is here because of Jeannie Linders and “Menopause: The Musical.” The comedy about the change of life vaulted a struggling actress and writer to success.
“It’s been playing for I’m going to say at least 12 years in Las Vegas. That’s how I met Jeannie,” Ferraro said. “My wife was in the show. She did it for eight years. I was company manager for ‘Menopause: The Musical’ and managing artistic director for her theatrical company in Orlando.”
“She moved to Hendersonville, loved it here and decided that this is where she wanted to have her dream come true,” he said. “And then she contacted me and originally asked me if I wanted to produce and direct my murder mysteries here once a month.”

Downtown space ‘changed everything’

Linders rented a commercial building at 927 Greenville Highway and called her new venture the Center for Arts and Inspiration. Last year she was planning to stage a variety of performances on a small stage in the Greenville Highway building.
“Then the new place came up and everything changed,” he said.
The Playhouse announced last fall that it was pulling out of the South Main Street location. Now, the Center for Arts and Inspiration plans to open a Malaprops bookstore popup and the Artful Cup coffee shop daily in the space and stage dozens of performances. Besides the dinner theater, the company has announced a 1940s musical revue, a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis tribute show, John Denver and Barbra Streisand tributes, the standup comedy workshop, a lineup of children’s shows, even the Hendo Story Club (five-minute true stories, told without notes).
“That’s what’s exciting about it,” Ferraro said. “We’re not a theater, we’re really more of an entertainment center, because there’s so much more going on than theater. We just want to embrace the community because that’s what we’re all about.”
The season opens with Ferraro’s “My Big Fat Italian Wedding Murder,” which plays March 2-3 and June 1-2 downtown.
“We have prizes and the audience participates in getting involved — if they want to,” he said. “Each table is their own little agency, they kind of put their heads together and decide who the murderer was and we collect those and then we see who really got it correct and we award a prize at the end.
“I’ve been producing My Big Fat Italian Wedding Murder for like two years and the people come again and again because there’s always a different killer. I’m the only one that produces — how do I put it — interactive musical comedy murder mystery,” he said, then roared with laughter.
For the dinner shows, fifteen tables seating eight will be placed in the stage area itself, with the performance going on around the diners.
The wedding murder will be followed by “Murder on the High C’s,” a dessert show, and “An Improper RoyalTea Murder,” catered by A Southern Cup Fine Teas in Hendersonville.
The national touring shows are “All that Sparkles: Martin Preston IS Liberace,” May 16-18, and “ABBAmania” in October, both at BRCC.

Auditioning for local talent

The grandson of Italian immigrants and son of a homemaker and New York City Transit Authority bus mechanic, Ferraro was born in Queens and grew up there and in Long Island. A performer from an early age, he won a scholarship to the University of South Florida in Tampa, where he double majored in theater and voice.
He got the nightclub work in high school “and then when I was 19 I got my first Equity job in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ at the Country Dinner Playhouse in St. Petersburg, Florida, and I’ve never stopped doing ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’”
“We came up with a lot of entertainment in a very short time,” he says, in what sounds like an understatement. “From here (the Greenville Highway space) to there (downtown) was a big difference. What we could produce here and produce there is two different things. We’re talking about 80 seats compared to 250 seats. I’ve been in show business for over 40 years so I called up people that I knew. People like Martin Preston, he’s performed as Liberace all over the world. These are not like concerts or ‘Songs of …’ These are productions. He has $150,000 worth of costumes.”
Ferraro has checked out community theater here and in Asheville and come away impressed with the local amateur talent. He’s auditioning aspiring actors Jan. 27-28 by appointment. Most of the actors will be non-union performers. “But you can be Equity for all of the murder mysteries, which are not under Equity jurisdiction,” he said, referring the Actors Equity union.

What’s capacity for performing arts?

The ambitious schedule of 38 performances downtown and a half dozen more at BRCC raises the question of whether an embarrassment of riches is, well, too rich.
The Center for Art & Inspiration plunges into a performing arts scene that’s already busy.
The Flat Rock Playhouse and Hendersonville Community Theatre both stage musicals, comedies and dramas throughout the year, not to mention bigger auditoriums that draw national acts and touring shows to Greenville, S.C., and Asheville.
“They’re definitely doing different things than what we do,” said Lisa K. Bryant, artistic director of the Flat Rock Playhouse. “I don’t think it’s apples to apples in theatrical offerings. We try really hard to schedule shows that everybody will love but of course that’s not possible. If they’re able to capture the wishes and desires of folks not finding what we have here to their liking, then all the better. The more arts in the community the richer the community. I don’t feel like it’s direct competition.”
While dinner theater, for instance, is “not in our wheelhouse,” Bryant acknowledges that tribute shows of featuring the music of popular artists like John Denver and Barbra Streisand are a form that the Playhouse has tried.
“We’ve done both of those,” she said.
Many craft breweries, wineries, cideries and restaurants offer free music now; the city of Hendersonville and Henderson County sponsor free Rhythm & Brews, Friday night music and Monday night street dance shows. After a while, it got harder for the Playhouse to sell $20 tickets to Music on the Rock (MOTOR) shows.
“All of those events certainly cut into our MOTR sales because people can go get most of that for free,” Bryant said. “Music is competitive for everyone everywhere.”
Hendersonville Community Theatre faces a double challenge. The new stage company will compete for ticket sales and non-Equity actors.
“We’re always excited about new theater because it gives people the opportunity to get plugged into something we’re all passionate about,” said Colby Coren, who was just named HCT’s artistic director for 2019. “We have some actors that have already shown some interest in what they’re doing.”
Ferraro attended HCT’s Christmas show and talked with the actors, one of whom had worked with him in Atlanta.
“I think we all offer something unique,” Coren said. “Flat Rock is the State Theatre and it’s the cornerstone of theater in the community. We are the official theater of Hendersonville. Both us and Flat Rock are established. I think there’s enough talent in the area. It’s just a matter of people choosing which direction they want to go and it’s all about all of us making quality theater.”
HCT’s 2019 lineup includes “Steel Magnolias,” David Mamet’s “Oleanna,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
“It’s kind of the Year of the Woman, because we have shows that all have very strong female leads,” Coren said.
The proliferation of entertainment options may increase quality all around.
“In 2018, we really raised the bar of professionalism not only of our production but of our company as well,” Coren said. “That’s something we talked to our team about, is raising the bar. That’s something you’re going to continue to see from Hendersonville Community Theatre, is that we’re raising the bar in all aspects.”
The audience for live performance will find a bunch of choices. Any given weekend will bring a buffet of shows, professional, amateur and in-between, in what must be the richest small town around for performing arts options.
“I’m excited,” Ferraro said of the Arts & Inspiration Center’s venture. “It’s just a wonderful venue. People that we’ve spoken to our excited about our type of programming. It’s something different. It’s all about fun and being entertained and feeling good.”

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