Build It and They Will Come 

With its latest production, Nashville Children’s Theatre unveils its fabulous $6.3 million renovation

Though Nashville Children’s Theatre openings are often cause for celebration, the Dec. 1 debut of Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business was upstaged by a bigger event.
Though Nashville Children’s Theatre openings are often cause for celebration, the Dec. 1 debut of Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business was upstaged by a bigger event—the unveiling of the theater company’s $6.3 million renovation, complete with hundreds of proud citizens, remarks by NCT execs, a tribute to arts patrons Steve and Judy Turner, and a ribbon-cutting ceremony presided over by Mayor Karl Dean.

Established in 1931 by the Junior League, Nashville Children’s Theatre is the country’s oldest. Since opening in 1960, the existing building, at 724 Second Ave. S., has served some 70,000 children and adults each year with programs in the Hill Theatre and the smaller, lab-style Cooney Playhouse (which has been eliminated in the renovation). But for all his 23 years at NCT, producing director Scot Copeland has dreamed that the company’s home base could be upgraded and expanded.

“I knew we had to strike in 2004, while the iron was hot,” says Copeland, referring to the year Time magazine named NCT one of America’s top five children’s theaters. Copeland and NCT managing director Allison Dillon approached their board and pressed to get the multimillion-dollar capital campaign under way.

The city came through big-time— approximately $2.2 million for the NCT facelift came from Metro coffers—but NCT volunteers and staff rallied to the cause, with the bulk of the monies raised through corporate, foundation and individual donations ranging from $100 to $100,000 and beyond. Still, the fund raising isn’t quite done. “We have about $600,000 still to go,” says Copeland.

NCT broke ground on the renovation project in September 2006, though according to Copeland, most of the construction has occurred since April of this year—which makes the completion of the project even more remarkable, given how extensive it is. “We got a lot of help from amazing people like real estate developer Dwaine Anderson, who served as building committee chair,” Copeland says. “Whenever we got stuck, Dwaine would step up and say, ‘Now what needs to be done here?’ Then he’d go ahead and help us accomplish the next thing.”

Among other structural problems, the main stage suffered leakage into its orchestra pit, rendering it useless, and the stage itself was noticeably uneven due to years of use and a crumbling wooden underpinning. Those problems all have been resolved.

But the new NCT is a lot more than structural fixes—it’s a miraculously transformed contemporary showplace for entertaining and educating Music City youngsters for generations to come. What was once a quaint one-story building is now a two-story state-of-the-art facility with a spacious, high-ceilinged foyer, an ample box office, sparkling classrooms, expanded rehearsal space, sharp administrative offices, a costume shop and a gorgeous main stage with 580 brand-new comfortable seats. (That’s down from its former capacity of 690.)

A fabulous metal dragon sculpture, designed by Knoxville artist Zophia Kneiss, stands outside NCT’s new entrance on Middleton Street, near the new roundabout driveway that will afford more efficient entrances and exits for busloads of school children.

The renovated venue’s first production, Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business, is a lively musical based on Barbara Park’s popular children’s book character. Park’s series of almost 30 books about a rambunctious and somewhat bratty first-grader has been going strong since 1992, though not without controversy. A July 26, 2007, New York Times article recounted a controversy involving certain parents who object to Junie’s selfish demeanor, her snotty attitude toward classmates and teachers, and her distinctive penchant for questionable grammar.

But while there may be some irony in the presentation of Junie B. Jones as the inaugural effort in NCT’s new theater, there’s no disputing that the show—with book, music and lyrics by Joan Cushing—has the kind of energy and vibrancy that typify NCT at its best.

With its bright opening number, “The World According to Me” (featuring Brooke Bryant as Junie), and other audience-pleasers such as “Like Lightning” (sung by Lisa Nicole Kimmey) and the very funny “A Real American Princess” (a waltz handled jauntily by Holly Wooten), the production humorously exploits a child’s-eye view of the world. The tale follows Junie through home and school, with a side trip over to her grandparents. The main plot revolves around Mom and Dad’s announcement that Junie soon will have a new sibling, resulting in some verbal misinterpretations that throw off the young heroine’s plans for show-and-tell.

Copeland directs with his usual awareness, using every inch of his springy new stage floor. NCT standbys Rona Carter, Sam Whited and Patrick Waller play two or three roles each, and all turn in strong comical performances.

Tennessee Repertory Theatre’s Gary Hoff was tapped to design the first set at the new NCT, and it’s a colorful and versatile piece of work, notable for its green, salmon and blue inner proscenium and side set pieces. Patricia Taber’s costumes nicely bring to life the illustrations by Denise Brunkus from author Park’s original publications.

The show is first-rate. But even if it weren’t, a visit to NCT would be in order—not only to see some of your tax dollars well spent, but also to marvel at a wonderfully kid-friendly venue that takes Nashville theater to a new level of sophistication well into the 21st century.

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