WEST WARWICK — Just in time for the holidays, The Arctic Playhouse has moved in fully to its theater at 1249 Main Street — and what better way to celebrate than by inviting audience members in to enjoy a Christmas classic.
Running tomorrow, Dec. 2, through Dec. 19, the playhouse’s performance of “Miracle on 34th Street” is “full of magic and heart,” Ida Zecco, who directs the musical production, said last week.
“It’s the story of what Christmas is really about,” added Lloyd Felix, a founding Arctic Playhouse board member.
The production, which tells the story of a department store Santa who claims to be the real deal, will be presented as a musical radio play, performed in the style of a live 1940s radio broadcast.
The audience will be treated as a studio audience. The performers will hold scripts, like they would have done some 80 years ago during an actual radio show. "Applause” and "on air" signs will light up; cast members will each play various roles.
“The costuming is ’40s [style]; hair and makeup is all ’40s,” Zecco said.
The 12-person cast, which has been rehearsing since early October, is “terrific” in the show, Zecco added.
Though quite a few smaller performances have taken place in the adjacent cabaret club, “Miracle on 34th Street: A Musical Radio Play” is among the first to be held in the mainstage room at the playhouse’s Main Street theater.
“We’re thrilled to be here,” Jim Belanger, executive director of The Arctic Playhouse, said last week, standing with Zecco and Felix in the new space. “We’re thrilled to be moving in the direction that we want to be moving in, and to still be able to keep it affordable.”
When The Arctic Playhouse moved into West Warwick in 2015, it settled into a cozy, 80-seat theater on Washington Street. The playhouse lived there for several years, but eventually was ready for a space of its own, where it could welcome larger audiences.
Thanks in large part to grants from Centreville Bank and the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, the nonprofit theater was able to purchase a building just a few blocks down, at the corner of Main and Washington streets.
Felix admitted last week that he was initially skeptical about leaving Washington Street. But now, he couldn’t be happier with the decision to relocate.
“First of all, I love being here,” he said. “But the people, when they come in, they love the space. It’s very exciting to have that.”
Still, the transition hasn't been simple.
Built well over a century ago, the building at 1249 Main Street was in need of a major overhaul when The Arctic Playhouse moved in.
“We’re taking an 1879 grain and dry goods store and trying to turn it into a theater,” Belanger said.
Renovations on the building got underway in 2018, and the cabaret club — painted in a moody shade of red, complete with a full bar, small stage and plenty of table space — opened the following year. Cabarets are held there on the last Tuesday of each month and have become wildly popular, often selling out weeks in advance.
For a while, the playhouse continued to host its mainstage productions in the original theater. But in September, having gotten the OK from the local building inspector and fire department to use the new space, the board of directors decided to give up the lease at 117 Washington Street.
“As everything was falling into place, it was time,” Belanger said.
The playhouse so far has used the mainstage space to film a couple of radio shows, and filled nearly every seat earlier this fall during an 11-show run of “Murder at the Howard Johnson's,” the theater’s first live mainstage performance since before the pandemic.
Despite having now fully moved into the space, there remains a lot of work ahead in order to bring to fruition the vision for the mainstage area.
The stage itself isn’t currently in the right position — it will eventually be facing in the other direction. There will be stadium seating, with room for 150 audience members on the first floor. A mezzanine, to be built later on, will bring the theater’s capacity to 200; an elevator will be installed at some point.
The timeline is largely dependent on funding, Belanger said. Ticket prices cover around a third of what it costs to operate the volunteer-run theater, he said, while the rest comes from grants and other community support.
The playhouse learned recently that it would be receiving a grant from the Champlin Foundation that will let it replace its leaky roof.
“The real story is that there’s a miracle at 1249 Main Street,” Zecco said of receiving the funding, which in turn will allow the playhouse to install an HVAC system. “The Champlin Foundation just awarded us $92,000 and now we’re going to have a roof.”
That kind of support is crucial if the playhouse is to achieve its mission. Since opening its doors in Arctic Village six years ago, it's striven to keep performances accessible to all — tickets for “Miracle on 34th Street” are only $15, or $20 if purchased on the day of the performance.
“The arts are important,” Belanger said. “I’m so thrilled that we’re able to give back to the community, to be an anchor in this great little village, and also to be able to do it affordably.”
For her own part, Zecco donates right back to the playhouse what she’s paid for her work as a director and for running the cabaret events.
“I love this place,” Zecco said. “I grew up here. I went to West Warwick High School, and I had one teacher who believed in me, and I traveled the entire world on my art because of that teacher. I owe this community. This is my home.”
And while Zecco isn’t picky when it comes to performance venues, she said, to finally be directing a show in The Arctic Playhouse’s new mainstage theater feels great.
“Come and enjoy it,” shesaid of the play. “Feel that holiday cheer — it really is a wonderful show.”
“Miracle on 34th Street: A Live Musical Radio Play” will run from Thursday, Dec. 2 through Dec. 19. Tickets can be purchased by visiting thearcticplayhouse.com. Masks will be required.