Don't tell Connor Mickiewicz that he can't go home again. The determined New Helvetia artistic director continues to shoulder his spunky musical theater company up the hill of recognition and appreciation.
Mickiewicz, a Sacramento native, spent several years honing his musical theater craft at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts but decided to pursue his ambition of running a professional theater company, staging contemporary musicals back here in his hometown.
This weekend New Helvetia opens Stephen Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along," a show that symbolizes the company's creative aesthetic while also offering a cautionary tale to its youthful performers.
Based on a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, the musical has a book by George Furth plus lyrics and music by Stephen Sondheim. Centered on Franklin Shepard, a former composer of Broadway musicals who has become a soulless Hollywood producer, the story moves backward in time, ending at the beginning of Frank's professional life when he's a talented, idealistic songwriter on the verge of a successful career.
It's the eighth show Mickiewicz has staged under the New Helvetia banner since 2009, and it's the most ambitious production in many ways. New Helvetia had been working at the intimate Artisan Theatre on Del Paso Boulevard, an 85-seat performance space perfectly suited to the company's smaller-scale productions. For this show, Mickiewicz has moved the company to the 296-seat 24th Street Theatre.
"I don't think the cast would fit on the stage at the Artisan," Mickiewicz said. "And it's also partly because half the cast grew up doing shows on that 24th Street stage. It's a special place for us."
The "us" Mickiewicz refers to includes Kiera Anderson, Courtney Glass, Lauren Parker and Nora Babich, who have come from different parts of the country where they are pursuing theater careers. All have origins in Sacramento community youth theater, as do cast members Rosemary Babich and Julia Soto.
"We did Ron Cisneros summer workshops, St. Francis High School shows. We did many, many shows there," Mickiewicz said.
Now he is staging his own production at the theater he knows so well, but there are caveats.
"The challenge for us is having to scale back the show," Mickiewcz said. "We don't have enough people, and we have to use a unit set. We're minimizing the costume changes, purely because of the size of our company and where we're at right now."
Mickiewicz is really his company's only staff person. He must get the word out to potential patrons that New Helvetia exists and that it is a professional theater. That means the company negotiates Equity contracts with actors such as Glass and the lead, Matthew Schneider.
"We've got a long way to go, but with every show, we've built our audience base and the shows have gotten bigger in scope," Mickiewicz said. "We need to be doing more shows right now we only do a couple shows a year. Sometimes I fear we kind of fall off the radar and have to climb back up and say, 'Hey, we're still here.' That's the biggest challenge."
Mickiewicz has cast Schneider, his former NYU classmate and Upper West Side roommate, as Franklin. Schneider directed "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," New Helvetia's inaugural production, but he's content to perform here.
"It's an irresistible role and an irresistible show," Schneider said. "It's rich from an acting standpoint, and the score is stunning. I think it's one of Sondheim's most lyrical and beautiful."
Schneider's long working relationship with Mickiewicz provides advantages and complications.
"With Connor specifically, I think it's important for me to step back and let him execute his vision. He knows every show up and down, forwards and backwards. He has, especially in this case, a true love of the material," Schneider said. "This is such a huge step for New Helvetia. It's the biggest show they've ever done, by far the material is incredibly complex; the show's structure is so different."
Glass, who remembers many summers spent in Music Circus workshops and masters classes, said the story resonates strongly with all the cast members.
"Being in the creative process with people who are also your friends, working with each other, sometimes working against each other: It helps us remember where where we came from and to stay true to our ambition as artists."
MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG
What: New Helvetia Theatre presents Stephen Sondheim's bittersweet story tracing in reverse the lives of three friends. At the beginning of the show, the audience sees them as mature, jaded and cynical, but as the story moves back in time, they become bright, enthusiastic idealists on the cusp of their careers.
Where: 24th Street Theatre, at the Sierra 2 Center, 2791 24th St., Sacramento
When: Opening tonight at 8 and continuing at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays, through April 21; also 7 p.m. April 15
Contact: (916) 469-9850, www.newhelvetia.org