For Theatre 13, the opening of Legally Blonde: The Musical is more than just the start of a new season of big-name comedies and musicals. It's also a house warming, as the company takes the stage for the first time at its new home, Kenner's Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts.
Founded in 2009 by Gary Rucker and Kelly Fouchi, Theatre 13 has been a company on the run. Without a home performance space, the pair produced shows at venues all across the city, including Le Petit Theatre, Le Chat Noir, Southern Rep and New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts.
"It was basically whoever wanted us and had room for us," Rucker says.
Logistically, it was a challenge. The constant change of venues made it difficult for Theatre 13 to schedule a season, hire directors and crews in advance and sell season tickets. For each production, the team typically would move into a space on the Sunday before a Friday opening, which gave them five days to get a show ready for opening night. At the end of a run, many props, costumes and set decorations got thrown out since the company had nowhere to store them.
Fouchi describes it as "living like gypsies and pulling a show out of a box."
Earlier this summer, Theatre 13 took over the Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts — formerly the Rivertown Repertory Theatre — giving Rucker and Fouchi a chance to ground their company in a regular space.
The City of Kenner awarded Theatre 13 a four-year contract to manage the building, ousting longtime tenants Rivertown Repertory Theatre Guild, and there is an option for an extension. Rucker and Fouchi's plans include an overhaul of the physical space, but they also want to expand Rivertown's offerings beyond the five-show season. A small area previously used for pre-show buffet dinners has been transformed into a second performance space. The company intends to use the additional square footage to host performances throughout the year, including summer theater, children's programming and a theater festival. They'll also make space available for other independent productions.
With Friday's season opener, Rucker and Fouchi want to set the tone for what's to come at Rivertown. Legally Blonde: The Musical brings fun and flair to the stage with a relatively new production they hope has wide appeal. Based on the movie, the musical follows sorority girl Elle Woods as she hits the books at Harvard Law School to prove that she's more than just a pretty face.
"There are so few musicals out there that are driven by a really strong female lead," Rucker says. "There's something contagious about the character of Elle Woods."
Rucker and Fouchi, who co-direct the show, say they found the perfect Elle Woods in Hannah Rachal, an actress from Hattiesburg, Miss. Despite the challenges posed by playing the character made famous on the big screen by Reese Witherspoon, Rucker says Rachal nails the role.
"It's very much her Elle Woods, but the spirit of that character is still there, which is great," he says.
Rachal shares the stage with Federico, the canine co-star who plays Woods' pampered pooch Bruiser. "It's adorable, but it's something of a diva," Rucker says of Federico. The Chihuahua arrived on set wearing a pink Desperate Housewives T-shirt, he adds.
Rucker and Fouchi are excited about the entire cast, and it's been a luxury for them to produce the play in their new venue. Having time to work on each scene and polish every song-and-dance number gives the company an opportunity to put on better shows than ever before.
"I think it's a great way to kick off the season," Fouchi says. The company plans to generate some buzz and build on that throughout the season with productions including the Broadway farce Noises Off and the stage classic Gypsy. Other shows include Boeing, Boeing, Class of '70 Something, Monty Python's Spamalot and the children's show Freckleface: The Musical.
"I think when that curtain falls opening night, we'll know if we did it or not," Rucker says. "We've set ourselves up for success, now Kelly and I just have to get out of the way and let success happen."