Renovated Strand ramps up to present bigger shows, films

The Strand Theatre may be on the verge of a breakout year, with a flurry of new productions set to take to the refurbished Uphams Corner stage in the coming months.

The Menino administration, which has led an ambitious effort to re-cast the historic, city-owned theatre as an urban arts destination, have fingers crossed that names like Reuben Studdard and Mozart will bring music-lovers back to Columbia Road.

Stoddard, the 2003 American Idol champion, leads the cast of "Ain't Misbehavin'" onto Columbia Road for a two-day run in April.

In March, the Boston Lyric Opera will stage a family-friendly show, "The Magic Flute", for a series of low-cost performances.

Neither show will be on the boards long, but boosters think the well-marketed events will give the 91-year-old venue a welcome chance to showcase $7 million in renovations that have taken place there since 2005. The overhaul - including new state-of-the-art lighting and audio-visual equipment, dressing rooms and an orchestra pit, among other cosmetic fixes - has put the Strand into contention for shows that most certainly would have bypassed the venue in years past.

"We would not have been able to have a conversation with the producers of "Ain't Misbehavin'" two years ago," says Julie Burns, Boston's director of Arts, Tourism and Special Events. "We wouldn't even be on the radar."

Burns classifies the "Ain't Misbehavin'" tour as a "blockbuster" opportunity for the Strand, one that will hopefully pave the way for more national touring companies to make Dorchester a regular stop.

"We'd like to have three or four of these "blockbuster" shows per year," says Burns. "Our goal is to either have them be free or with reduced ticket prices to make sure people in the neighborhoods can attend."

The Boston Lyric Opera's production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's The Magic Flute - which will appear at the Strand March 1 and 2 - will be geared towards opera newbies, especially children and families.

The one-hour show will offer half-price tickets for neighborhood residents ($7 for kids and $10 for adults). The Magic Flute will actually mark a return to the Strand for the BLO. Sort of.

Several years ago, according to BLO manager of community programs Julie Green, the company staged its production of The Daughter of the Regiment at the not-yet-renovated Strand. The show was cancelled at the last moment when the power went out in Uphams Corner and surrounding areas.

"It was a huge disappointment and we knew we had to come back. The renovations are really starting to bring it back to the glory," says Green. "It's such a gem and we really wanted to be a part of it. They have a fantastic facility. Its very comfortable for our performers and the audience will have a great experience."

The BLO will look to drum up extra interest in the Strand show with a program geared towards kids at the Uphams Corner Branch Library on Feb. 12. The 45-minute presentation will feature a Magic Flute cast member who will help introduce youngsters to opera. The actual Strand shows - including a March 2 matinee planned for hundreds of schoolchildren - will run for only one hour, condensed dramatically from the traditional three-hour performance time.

"We're going to hit the highlights and make it an easy opportunity for folks," says Green. "We want the neighbors of the Strand to be able to take advantage and celebrate that we're going to get back there."

April's three-day run of "Ain't Misbehavin'" will similarly offer affordable tickets, according to Julie Burns, who says that the Citi Performing Arts Center is partnering with the city to bring the production to the Strand.

The revue features the music of Thomas Wright "Fats" Waller, the prodigious comic and musical soul of 1930s Harlem. The late Nell Carter made her name during the 1,604 performances of the original run. In addition to Studdard, the show stars two other familiar faces from American Idols fame: 2003 contestants Frenchie Davis and Trenyce Cobbins.

A press release sent out to promote the show this week made special mention of parking arrangements at the Strand, a long-time hiccup that has challenged those looking to bring acts to the theatre. According to the release, free parking for all the performances will be available for evening and Sunday performances in the parking lots of Citizen's Bank and Sovereign Bank, in addition to the municipal parking lot on Ramsey Street. The release also said "limited shuttle service will also be provided by Boston Coach."

Zach Cohen, who directs the Uphams Corner Main Streets organization, said that a workable parking solution for major Strand events remains "a question." Still, he said that city officials and merchants were working closely to devise a plan to make shows like these run smoothly.

"Everybody recognizes the value that the Strand has and if it serves the function of community anchor, as it has the potential to, it will really increase this district's ability to serve the community in a significant way," said Cohen.

Burns said that a new, LED display would be added to the Strand's historic marquee this month as one of the final touches to the building's exterior. Another event planned for February, Burns said, is the screening of an HBO documentary on notable African-Americans. The film, which includes profiles on Gov. Deval Patrick and Reverend Barbara Harris, will debut at the Strand on Feb. 18.