The business of show

The Savannah Theatre is the local version of Branson

The girls rehearse their harmonies: Michelle Meece, left, Gretchen Kristine Stelzer and Hannah Dasher

No less a country music star than Reba McEntire has given her seal of approval to the Savannah Theatre, where Country Star Revue has just begun a three week–run.

Last May, McEntire was in town on vacation, along with her mother and sister, and staying at the Foley House on Chippewa Square. “They were exactly like tourists looking for something to do at night,” says the theater’s founder and creative chief Michael Meece.

“They walked across the square and bought tickets to our show, Hooray For Hollywood. She stayed and talked to the cast after the show, took pictures, and went out to eat with some of the cast members at the Six Pence Pub.”

McEntire then sent a Twitter message to the world about the theater: “What a talented bunch of people,” she gushed.

The new show, like all of the productions in the venue since 2002, is a musical revue (all music, no scripted dialogue). Backed by a crackerjack band that includes guitars, fiddles, piano, bass, drums and even a banjo, the fresh–faced, seven–member cast runs through dozens of classic country songs, from Hank Williams to Garth Brooks to Taylor Swift.

Springfield’s Hannah Dasher even channels Reba herself, on the Oklahoma redhead’s sassy “Why Haven’t I Heard From You.”

It’s the second Savannah Theatre show for the 23–year–old Dasher, whose vocal chops are well known all over the lowcountry. In January of ’09, she had the title role in A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline, and sang all 20 songs – in character – at center stage, dressed as the legendary Virginia chanteuse.

Costumes, makeup and an assortment of wigs turn Dasher into McEntire, Dolly Parton, Wynonna Judd – and Patsy Cline – during Country Star Revue. “I haven’t dressed like Dolly since I was 10 years old at Halloween, so I’m really excited about it,” Dasher says. “It’s gonna be fun.”

Mimicry – or at least channeling the legendary stars’ vocal styles – comes naturally to the Georgia native, who started singing as a kid with her local 4–H club. “I can sound like George Jones if I want to,” she laughs. “It’s just a matter of singing through your nose.”

Country Star Revue’s short run will be the exception, rather than the rule, at this 525–seat Bull Street theater. Meece, who had produced stage shows for years in Branson, Mo. (one of the country’s most successful tourist–entertainment destinations) and Mackinaw, Mich., usually plans his revues to stay in production for months at a stretch.

That’s because the Savannah Theatre – like those in Branson, where the business model was hatched – is all about full–time entertainment. It’s a professional, not community theater; the actors, musicians and technical staff all get paid to work there, sometimes seven nights a week.

About 75 percent of the cast has been in place since the beginning. “There’s always one or two cast members that we have for a year or two, or a couple of band members, and then they move on or they have other things,” Meece explains.

“I’ve got people that have worked for me for 10 years. They worked in one of my shows in Branson, or at my theater in Michigan, and have followed me here. Some of those have married and had kids and bought houses.
”There are some who are just out of college and they want to do this for a year or two, and then they want to try something else. And they move on.”

Among the permanent cast are Meece’s son Matt and daughter–in–law Michelle, who are the proud parents of a son named Cameron, born right here in Savannah.

Matt and Michelle, along with fellow founding cast member F. Michael Zaller, run the theater while the senior Meece is away tending to his other business interests.

Savannah Theatre, LLC., however, is never far from Michael Meece’s thoughts.

“We came here because we knew how many tourists were walking the streets, through the squares every day,” he explains. “Similar to Branson, or any other tourist town, they need some entertainment choices at night. And so we would just come and be an entertainment choice for the tourists.”

Out–of–state package tours deliver a big part of the Savannah Theatre’s customers. They’ll come through town on a coach, part of a deal that includes a hotel, dinner and tickets to one of the Meece productions. “We know exactly when they’re coming eight months ahead,” says Meece.

“For the first two years, we didn’t change our show. If you’re just playing to tourists, it doesn’t matter if you do the show for 10 years. Because they’re only in town for two days. They don’t know whether you’ve been doing this show for five years or if you started it yesterday.”

After more than seven years in Savannah, Meece says, things have evolved. “We came here not even thinking we needed the locals, or that we might even ever get locals,” he explains. “But I would say close to 50 percent is locals now.”

So leaving a show up for years “just doesn’t work. Because at some point they’ve seen it as many times as they really want to. We were surprised to find that the local market was a big enough group of people that it had to be reckoned with.”

This, he believes, has staved off complacency. It was in the fall of 2008, after performing long–running salutes of Broadway music, Hollywood music, and revues dedicated to the music of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, Meece conceived A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline.

“We came here thinking ‘Don’t try to do country,’” Meece says. “Savannah’s a very sophisticated arts community.”

Nevertheless, he gave A Closer Walk a three–week window, with the popular Dasher in full–throated mode. And was stunned to see the reception it got.

“The place was packed, to the back row. As full as our Christmas shows, which are always our biggest shows. In the middle of January, when there’s no tourists in town, the place was packing for a country show.”

Country Star Revue expands that idea, giving all seven performers a chance to shine in solos as well as duets and group numbers. From all eras of country (Alabama’s “Mountain Music” opens the show, and it concludes with the Dixie Chicks’ “Long Time Gone”) the songs run the gamut.

There’s an extended acoustic set, with musicians coming downstage to pick beside the singers. This was another happy accident for Meece during last year’s Patsy Cline salute.

“I found that as the audience was walking out, that was what they were talking about most – the thing that was the simplest,” he says. “I’ve worked myself to death to do all of the big razzmatazz and they were talking about the acoustic section.”

Ironically, “razzmatazz” was a late arrival to the Savannah Theatre. Built in 1818, from a design by British architect William Jay – who also designed the Telfair Museum – it’s the oldest operating theater building in the U.S.

Among the performers to ply their trade here: Edwin Booth, from Maryland’s acting Booth family (his brother, John Wilkes, became famous for another reason); George Burns and Grace Allen; Sarah Bernhardt; Oscar Wilde, W.C. Fields.

All but the foundation was destroyed in a 1949 fire, after which the current art–deco building went up.
When the Meeces came to Savannah in 2002, it had recently been vacated by a community theater.

A lease contract, state–of–the–art sound and lights and one massive paint job later, the Savannah Theatre was back in business as Georgia’s answer to the bright lights of Branson.

“If you have this in your blood and you want to do it, the only alternative is to live in New York, Los Angeles, Vegas or some other town where you can perform this much,” says Matt Meece, who gets to sing (and square dance) with his wife nearly every night of the week.

“So here, you kind of get the best of both worlds by being able to live in a normal city and have a family. It feels strange to be able to do this and still have a normal life. It’s a weird, carney–type life.”

Country Star Revue

Where: Savannah Theatre, 222 Bull Street

When: Wednesdays–Sundays through Feb. 14 (8 p.m. Wednesday–Saturday, 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday)

Tickets: $16–$35

Phone: (912) 233–7764



About The Author

Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung was Connect's Arts & Entertainment Editor from May 2009 to August 2014.
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