Jerry Dixon, who brings decades of showbiz experience, says: "People feel beat-up by what’s going on in our country and are glad for the escapism of musicals."
As the new artistic head of Village Theatre, Jerry Dixon has made nurturing and presenting new musicals to audiences in Issaquah and Everett a big part of his mandate.
But this good-natured, self-identified “theater geek” — who exudes the assurance and poise of a veteran performer as well as director, writer and musician — loves older tuners, too, and is intrigued by nonmusical dramas as well. And in his first season at the helm of the Village, and first time directing a show there since taking over, Dixon is staging his own take on “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” a West End-Broadway hit about a sheltered, 16-year-old autistic British boy named Christopher who’s bent on solving a mystery. The script, adapted by Simon Stephens from the novel by Mark Haddon, earned a 2015 Tony Award for best play.
“I believe it’s not so much about autism, as it is about family dynamics and otherness,” said Dixon, over breakfast recently near his Capitol Hill digs. “Christopher is the planet and all the adult characters are satellites orbiting around him. And it’s the misbehaving adults who need to change, not him.”
The play follows the sheltered teen’s determined investigation into the death of a neighborhood dog, and his perilous journey to London in search of his own long-estranged Mum. It considers seriously and humorously the challenges of being on the autistic spectrum, and parenting a child who is. And it is an obvious departure, and of more recent vintage, than the usual tried-and-true, nonmusical plays Village has presented in the past.
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A production challenge of the piece is devising a new design for a show that on Broadway and on tour (to Seattle, and elsewhere) relied heavily on an elaborate lighting scheme that closely tracked Christopher’s journey and the workings of his mind. “I’m kind of glad we weren’t able to license that. We’ve come with our own design” — which, smilingly, Dixon refused to describe in advance.
A longtime Manhattan resident, Dixon says he is settling nicely into his first job as a theater honcho. The top-brass Village Theatre position came along when Steve Tomkins, the company’s dedicated artistic director of 25 years, announced in 2017 that he would be retiring the following year. That happened to be the time when Dixon decided he “needed to find a theater home, a place of my own with the staff, the talent, the audience” to meet his artistic goals.
One asset as a candidate: He was no stranger to the Village. Dixon had guest-directed polished productions of “Show Boat” and “The Full Monty” for the theater, and he sings the praises of the Seattle area’s bountiful acting and design talent pool. Other qualifications? His résumé reflects a 30-plus-years, jack-of-all-trades show-business career that stretches back to his youth in Kalamazoo, Michigan, when he began performing in community shows.
Thanks to a generous grant from a Kalamazoo businessman and arts patron (who also helped fund the early careers of the late Broadway star Marin Mazzie and award-winning director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell), Dixon skipped college and moved to New York to hone his skills as an actor. He learned on the job, taking small TV roles and working Off Broadway. At 30 he got his Broadway break, when cast in original productions of the musicals “Once on This Island” and “Five Guys Named Moe.” (Dixon’s last Broadway appearance was in 2014 opposite Idina Menzel in “If/Then,” a show written by Issaquah native and former Village Theatre staffer Brian Yorkey.)
Eventually, Dixon moved on to writing music and plays, and staging shows in New York and regional theaters. On Broadway he has created music for two solo Broadway shows starring his longtime partner and now husband, actor-comedian Mario Cantone, with whom he still shares (though part-time these days) a Manhattan apartment.
But, Dixon said with a smile, “It took 10 years to change the hyphen from actor-director to director-actor.” Shifting over to running a theater, alongside Robb Hunt, Village long-serving executive producer, and Brandon Ivie, associate artistic director, has been a new milestone.
Dixon was attracted to the Village’s “total pipeline for new works,” evidenced in the company’s annual Festival of New Musicals and its relatively new Beta Series overseen by Ivie, another busy bicoastal director. “We have table readings, residencies, workshop productions — the whole thing,” Dixon says. “I wanted to be part of that.” He notes that since the late 1980s the Village has had a hand in developing some 120 new works, including the Tony-winning “Next to Normal” and the nostalgic rock musical “Million Dollar Quartet.”
Though as a Tony Award voter he keeps up to date on the latest Broadway fare, Dixon has chosen a 2019-2020 season of mostly familiar musicals that he describes as “all about joy” — including the spoofy comic tuner “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” the classics “Guys and Dolls” and “She Loves Me,” and “The Wedding Singer,” based on the hit Adam Sandler film (and revised from the version that debuted at the 5th Avenue Theatre in 2006).
“I don’t want to get too political about it, but when I’ve lurked in the lobby at Broadway shows and eavesdropped over the past couple years, it’s seemed to me that people feel beat-up by what’s going on in our country and are glad for the escapism of musicals,” he said. “I believe our audiences need to be wrapped up in a blanket of joy.”
But true to his mission to bring in the new, the season also contains an entry from the 2018 Festival of New Musicals: “Hansel & Gretl & Heidi & Günter,” a modern-day, Chicago-set sequel to the Grimm’s fairy tale about a pair of children who get waylaid by a kid-hungry witch. In the new version, written by Hannah Kohl with a score by Daniel Maté and Will Aronson, young Heidi and Günter aim to transcend the family trauma experienced by their overprotective single mom, Gretel.
While its workshops have generated hits, Village has not won local raves for most of the new musicals premiered on its spacious mainstage, but Dixon isn’t worried. This season the theater scored a success with Ivie’s vivacious staging of the new “The Noteworthy Life of Howard Barnes,” a giddy pastiche of a show about a “perfectly average American guy” who awakens to find his life has turned into a Broadway musical.
“We have a really smart audience that helps us develop material,” said Dixon with genial certainty. “They’ve been trained to believe in the possibilities of new works, not just the finished product. We really listen to them. Premiering something new doesn’t have to be a crapshoot. We actually lay a foundation for it.”
“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” by Simon Stephens. March 14-April 21; Village Theatre, 303 Front St. N., Issaquah; $32-$74; 425-392-2202, villagetheatre.org. Also plays April 26-May 19 at Everett Performing Arts Center, 2710 Wetmore Ave., Everett; $26-69; 425-257-8600, villagetheatre.org/everett