Sunday, June 21, 2009

Michael Wainstein, Jacques Brel: Alive and well in Newburyport

Hey, wait a minute ... That guy over there. See him? Yeah, looks familiar. Sort of. You know? But who is it? Wait a second, wait .... Yeah, I've got it: It's Michael Wainstein, remember? The executive director of the Firehouse Center all those years ago — over a decade. During the glory days, when, if you stood between the Market Square venue's front door and an open date, you'd probably get trampled to death by a theater company trying to fill the void. Yeah, that's definitely him, a little older, a little thinner and sporting a shaved head, tramping the streets of the city again.

"Yeah, I'm back in Newburyport getting my 15 minutes of fame — again," says Wainstein, now professor of performing arts at Savannah College of Art and Design, in Savannah, Georgia, and, for this month, anyhow, a hired gun. He's been in the city for the past two weeks to beat a new Actors Studio production of "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" into shape and then beating it out of town after opening weekend. To do the same thing for the Blowing Rock — no, I am not making up the name and there's nothing strange about it at all — Stage Company's production of "Bye Bye, Birdie." Wainstein, who managed the Firehouse from 1994 to 1998, won't even see that show open. The day he's done, he's gets ready for some down time in London, then it’s back to Savannah, which is an "all right" place to live, he says, not very convincingly. "It's a very pretty town," he says, "but not the most interesting place to live."

He ended up at Savannah, where he developed the college's music performance program, in 2007, after closing the curtain on a nine-year run as producing artistic director of the Naples Dinner Theatre, a professional company that, with a monster $6 million budget, put on up to 10 big, splashy productions a year — through the best of the boom years of the Florida real estate market. The theater was on leased land, which was just too tasty to be left alone. The theater owners sold out from right under them. They had an option to buy, but passed. The market crashed hard in Florida less than a year later.

"It was a good decision," says Wainstein. "We closed on top. We got out just in time. We would have been dead."

It's been kind of any early Yankee Homecoming for Wainstein, who arrived in the city at the beginning of June. "It's amazing how little it's changed," he says. "It's the same as when I left." He's been doing a fair amount of schmoozing, catching up with old friends and colleagues, but once he gets to the black box stage, it's all business. "I never had a chance to watch him work during his years at the Firehouse, but it's pretty impressive," says co-producer Adair Rowland. "He knows what he wants and he know how to get it." Wainstein has never done “Jacques Brel,” but "has always loved it and always wanted to do it," he says. "The music is glorious and powerful and wonderfully evocative."

The show first opened at the Village Gate in Manhattan in 1968 and ran for four years. It's a bookless musical that features 25 songs by the Belgian singer dealing with themes of love, death and war, performed by two male and two female vocalists — to which Wainstein added a fifth voice: Allyn Warner Gamble, a Las Vegas chanteuse and Miss America runner-up who did a USO tour of Viet Nam. The cast includes Eliot Johnston as Brel’s alter ego; Jenney Dale, a New York-trained actress and singer who works in Newburyport; Adrienne Lesser, who was cast on her graduation day from the University of New Hampshire, and Elizabeth Talbot, who received the casting call the hour after her Performers Showcase in Atlanta ended and began rehearsals three days later. The show features a three-piece band with music director Cheryl Lynne Stromski, widely known in Seacoast theatres and director of the 10 Percent Chorus.

Interested? "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" will be staged June 25 to July 12 at the Actors Studio, located in the Tannery, 50 Water St., Newburyport. Tickets are $25, $20 for students and seniors. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 7 p.m. Sundays. Call 978-465-1229 for reservations and directions, or buy tickets online through


  1. Thanks for the wonderful write up. I hope you are able to make it. So far, 3 performances, 3 standing ovations. The Saturday audience (6/27)remained standing with applause demanding the cast return to the stage for additional bows.
    Maria "Sam" Boyd
    Stage Manager

  2. But what did YOU think, JC? I know you're not normally a musical theatre kinda-guy, but I'm willing to bet we even got some smiles (those open-mouthed lip curling sort of things) from you on opening night. Inquiring theater-goers want to know!


    P.S. Thanks for this blogspace and the Merrimack Valley Sunday memories(and where I got my first MA byline).

  3. Hi guys. I've just posted my long-winded thoughts on the show, revisiting my well known crankiness on the subject of musical theater — and mentioning a certain producer in the process