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Theater Brings Life to The Stage for 27 Years

By CATHY BONNSTETTER For The State Journal

MORGANTOWN — West Virginia Public Theatre has been bringing the magic, the glamour and the thrill of Broadway to the Mountain State for 27 seasons. 

"We are one of the biggest arts presenters in the state," said Ron Iannone, founder, former executive director and present executive producer for WVPT. "We improve the quality of life in the area, and we bring an economic impact to the community."

Cindy Coffindaffer, director of marketing for the Greater Morgantown Convention and Visitors Bureau, says WVPT and the CVB market the productions throughout the state and in Pittsburgh.

"It would be safe to bet there is a significant amount of impact," she said. "The WVPT also brings in a lot of people through day trips and bus tours."

More than 800,000 people from around the country have attended WVPT's productions, most of them at least 55 years old and with upper middle-class incomes. Iannone said he hopes to bring more young people to the audience.

Staging plays that range from "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and "Hairspray" to "Carousel" and "South Pacific," the throatier has become a summer staple. And it all started with Iannone's love of musical theater.

Iannone, a Skaneateles, N.Y., native came to Morgantown to teach at West Virginia University. But he said he kept hearing musical theater call his name. The inspiration for WVPT came from just one play, "West Side Story."

"I saw that and dreamt I was on that stage," said Iannone. "That's why I'm in musical theatre."

WVPT produced "West Side Story" many times, even though Iannone says that play, along with "42nd Street" just about breaks the bank when it comes to production costs.

Careful planning has allowed WVPT to thrive even as hundreds of other nonprofit theaters around the country have had to close their doors. Last year, WVPT made some budget cuts and, even though they still carried debt, the shows broke even. Ticket sales cover about 30 percent of the theatre's bills, so WVPT depends upon gifts.

"We try to do three bigger shows and then three smaller shows. That's what I see on Broadway," Iannone said. "We can't afford to do six big shows anymore, and we can't compete with touring groups the university brings in. Our niche is Broadway talent and a Broadway show in a smaller version."

In fact, last year's top sellers were "Nunsense," and "Honky Tonk Angels," two of the smaller productions.

Big or small productions, WVPT is big on talent. Iannone and artistic director Michael Licata audition locally, in Pittsburgh and in New York. Former WVPT actors and actresses have moved to Broadway and national touring companies. Two WVPT veterans are now stars on the television show "SMASH."

Last year was the theater's first season at The Metropolitan Theatre. The theater's High Street location, décor and size make it a winner for everybody.

"We are forging a relationship with downtown," said WVPT's new executive director Loree Houghton. "And, there's not a bad seat in the house."

Houghton, a former development director for National Public Radio, is replacing Iannone as he moves to executive producer. 

Iannone started WVPT in 1985 at the Sheraton Lakeview Resort in a tent. He wrote musical reviews for people who were already famous, such as Carol Lawrence and Dean Jones. The next year he presented Broadway shows and brought "Days of our Lives" soap opera icons, Bill and Susan Seaforth Hayes to town.

"The soap opera fans almost tore the tent down," Iannone said. "I never saw anything like it."

In 1989, WVPT moved to WVU's Creative Arts Center and eventually to The Morgantown Events Center before landing at the Met.

In addition to summer stock, WVPT annually presents a Christmas season play specifically for the young or young at heart. Students from the region and beyond attend the play at a deep discount. 

"If it weren't for these performances, many of our children would not be exposed to the theater," said Brookhaven Elementary principal Davene Burke. "Our parent group ensures that all our children participate. This is one of the great things about living in Morgantown where there is public theater, and the children love it."

Last Christmas season, about 12,000 students and other patrons attended "Seussical the Musical." Last summer, approximately 13,000 people saw WVPT productions. 

"I really do this for opening night," Iannone said. "All that work, putting all the parts together, when we get a standing ovation, I'll admit it — I cry a little bit, about two seconds. Then I think, ‘OK, what's the next show?'"