Historic Cocoa Village Playhouse Celebrates Landmark 23rd Season with Major Renovation and World Premier of “Build Me Up Buttercup – The Musical”

By Michelle Salyer

These days, Dr. Anastacia Hawkins-Smith, executive director of The Historic Cocoa Village Playhouse,  is sounding a bit like the heroine in one of last year’s productions—Dorothy  from “The Wizard of Oz.”

“I feel like I’m in a dream!” exclaimed the executive director. “I feel as if I’m going to wake up and it’s all going to have been a dream.”

The playhouse opened its 23rd season on Friday, September 28 to unveil an $800,000 renovation of its auditorium and balcony, restoring it to the grand style of historic Broadway theaters.

On Friday, Feb. 1, 2013, the playhouse will present the world premier of “Build Me Up Buttercup – The Musical” written by famed British author, composer and songwriter, Tony Macaulay.

Although the renovation was planned long before the world premier musical was ever conceived, together the events make for an unforgettable year for Brevard’s “Drama Mama.”

“Although we have been producing show for 22 years, I feel as though we are just now beginning to reach our potential,” said Hawkins-Smith. “It’s a new beginning.”

Grand Broadway Style

The vision for the playhouse renovation was born 15 years ago in the mind of then 21-year old scenic and lighting designer, Ian Cook, who returned from a class in New York City with a dream.

“When he first brought it up, we all pretty much laughed at him,” Hawkins-Smith lamented. “It was like, ‘This is truly an impossible dream but I’m happy that you were able to draw a beautiful picture.’ But he held onto that drawing and sure enough, here we are 15 years later.”

The current design is almost identical to Cook’s vision, restoring the playhouse to the burgundy and gold color scheme it bore when it opened in 1924 as The Aladdin Theatre.  The auditorium features 595 brand new custom-made seats and an expanded balcony section. Decorative theater boxes along the sides lend a historic feel, while 21 gold and crystal chandeliers lend an air of newfound opulence.

Below the stage, the orchestra pit quadrupled in size to seat 30 musicians in air-conditioned comfort and the removal of two feet of bedrock provides them the luxury of standing, not crouching, as they enter and exit. Among other improvements are acoustic tile ceilings and new electrical and lightings systems.

Most exciting to the executive director, who used to visit the theater as a child, was the removal of a wall in the balcony that was once used to segregate African-American patrons. “It was always a personal goal of mine for that wall to come down.”

The renovation was the third major re-do under Hawkins-Smith’s belt. In 2006, the playhouse replaced the out-dated sandbag mechanism in its “fly gallery” at a cost of $225,000. Two years later, a $1.9 million, three-story technical support annex was completed, adding new space for set building, wardrobe, rehearsal and laundry.

Funding the Future

While the vision for the new auditorium was Cook’s, the project was made possible in partnership with the City of Cocoa as well as fundraising by playhouse’s board of directors, including realtor Dee Dee Sheffield, who headed up the renovation committee.

“We struggle just to make the needed funds to have a season of shows. But, we needed to fix the utilities and mechanicals as well as the aesthetics of the aging auditorium and update the entire setting,” she said. “We hope that the revenue from 100 more seats and the improvements bring many more season patrons. We need this support to continue and pay off the debt from this major renovation.”

Funds raised for renovation and capital needs are different from funds needed just to operate the theatre, including the costs of programming and production, said Hawkins-Smith.

“We will raise and spend $1 million this year. That’s our operating budget. We spend approximately $80 to 85,000 a year just in obtaining the royalty rights to present our productions,” she emphasized.

Along with ticket revenue and various board-sponsored fundraising events, the playhouse will rely on funds raised by the Aladdin Society, 100 patrons charged with spreading the “good news” of the playhouse. This year, the group presents its second season of “Epicurean Delights” in which supporters are invited to join in various upscale dining events held throughout the year, starting at $30 per person. In the meantime, the board is also exploring planned giving to obtain larger donor gifts, Hawkins-Smith said.

While working to pay off the current renovation, the playhouse is already planning Phase II, which includes renovation of the lobby, restrooms and mezzanine. If awarded a $500,000 cultural facilities grant from the State of Florida this spring, the playhouse will once again become a hard hat area in summer 2013.

While these efforts are challenging at best, Sheffield and fellow board members believe in the cause. “The playhouse is now a first class centerpiece for Brevard performing arts and is preserved for our future generations,” Sheffield said. “I believe we are all working for a common goal of preserving the magic of watching a live performance, which has been and still is appreciated.”

An Incredible Gift

As the playhouse staff and cast prepare to present the world premier of Tony Macaulay’s “Build Me Up Buttercup – The Musical” next month, an element of awe and disbelief still lingers. “I’m in shock,” said Hawkins-Smith. “It means everything to me that Tony believes in us.”

The author, composer and songwriter has sold more than 52 million records/CDs of his songs worldwide. Twenty-four of his songs were Top 20 hits in the United States and four topped the charts. Among his greatest hits are “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You,” “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)” and “(Last Night) I Didn’t Get to Sleep at All.”

Macaulay and his wife, Sara, were first introduced to The Historic Cocoa Village Playhouse and to Hawkins-Smith 10 years ago by Sheffield, who sold them a condo in Cocoa Beach and quickly became close friends with the couple. Friendship turned to collaboration as the playhouse went on to present two seasons of “Windy City,” a 1982 musical Macaulay co-authored and composed. Astonished at the quality of the playhouse’s presentation of his play, the songwriter decided to write the theater a brand new show.

“I went to England and started thinking about it. I had always wanted to do a show set in the 60s music business because there was a gold rush on then… The music business had just moved to California from New York and it was like a whole new era. And like all gold rushes, it attracted every crook you can possibly imagine… The stories of that era, of money lost and remade, and chicanery and corruption and fakery of every conceivable kind… It was very colorful stuff. But the trouble is, every story that’s ever been written about the music business follows the same graph—a group is discovered, (they) struggle with early success, then success turns to decadence. Fall. Decline. We’ve seen that so many times. So I wanted to do something that had a completely different arc… something that had more twists and turns like a mystery novel, a much more intricate story.”

Tony Macaulay and his wife, Sara.

Macaulay spent about a year writing the narrative and lyrics — a relatively short time by industry standards — incorporating many of his hit songs as well as writing several new ones. He presented his work to a handful of playhouse staff and received such an overwhelming response, he decided to test the waters among Broadway and London producers. He is currently courting considerable international interest in the show, but is not willing to reveal names until negotiations are complete.

“To get such an instant excited reaction was a shock. A very pleasant shock. It’s also kind of stressful. I’m trying to be retired but it hasn’t worked out very well,” Macaulay joked.

“Pure Theater History”

The magnitude of presenting what could be the next big Broadway hit — before it ever goes to Broadway — isn’t lost on Hawkins-Smith. “In this case, it’s something that’s truly never been done, allowing a non-professional theater to present a brand new work to be considered by the professionals.”

Macaulay echoed that sentiment. Should the musical be adapted on Broadway or on London’s West End after debuting in community theater, it will be “a piece of pure theater history.”

Despite the show’s potential, Macaulay doesn’t regret giving the Historic Cocoa Village Playhouse first dibs. Had he set out to write an international hit, he’s almost certain he would have failed.

“One of the biggest hits I ever had in this country was ‘Don’t Give Up on Us.’ I never thought it would be a hit in a million years. I thought it was too gentle and sweet,” he recalled. “This was sort of the same thing. If you try to be too hard-boiled and commercially minded about these things, the public know it. It just doesn’t have any heart. And I think this show has tons of heart.”

Hawkins-Smith agrees.  “I believe this show will be one of those shows that will last through history. We will be long gone and people will still be presenting ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’. His music is going to last and he is going to end up being one of the great songwriters. And I am going to end up being this little community theater director that had the good fortune of having him brought to my theater.”

“Build Me Up Buttercup – The Musical”

“Build Me Up Buttercup – The Musical” makes its world premier at The Historic Cocoa Village Playhouse on Friday, Feb. 1 at 7:30 p.m. and will be shown Thursdays through Sundays (except Feb. 9) through Feb. 17. See It Now Before It Lights Up Broadway.

Including the classic hits:

“Baby Now That I’ve Found You”

“Loves Grows Where My Rosemary Goes”

“Last Night I Didn’t Get To Sleep At All”

“Don’t Give Up On Us”

And 15 other great songs.

Tickets are $26 adults, $24 students/seniors, $18 children (12 years and younger). To purchase, visit www.cocoavillageplayhouse.com or call 321-636-5050 Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.