Starting Up, Falling Down 

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Hundreds of Richmond theatergoers received a nasty lesson in corporate finance this fall when Baci Management's "Broadway Under the Stars" series officially went "Bankrupt Under the Stars."

With scads of creditors ahead of them picking over scant assets, folks who held tickets to Baci's canceled big-budget road shows were denied refunds. Empathetic companies such as the Barksdale honored subscribers' tickets in trade for admission to local productions, but the whole affair left many feeling burned. The word baci means "kisses" in Italian, but for Richmonders the bankruptcy was one big kiss-off.

The Baci collapse marked a year when the local theater scene seemed mired in a bit of a "two steps forward, one step back" quandary. There were new ventures that offered hope for positive change, but none was without drawbacks.

A brand-new fringe group, the Henley Street Theatre Company, opened its first show, but it's still unclear whether its somewhat cerebral slate will draw significant crowds. Living Word re-christened itself the African American Repertory Theatre, but there's little indication that the change has raised the quality or the visibility of the company's productions. Richmond's Yellow House and Petersburg's Sycamore Rouge -- both mere blips on the local scene — got even blippier because of management changes that raised questions about their futures.

Good news could be found in the reopening of Theatre IV's Little Theatre after almost three years of being out of commission. The downtown black box space has been the site of some of Richmond's most scintillating productions throughout the years, and yet since "The Dumb Waiter" in August, no independent producer has made use of that stage.

The backstage uncertainty belied the scads of electrifying moments offered onstage this year. Notable was the consolidation of star status for several Richmond actors. Audra Honaker headlined a trifecta of hits, starting with Barksdale's "Into the Woods" over the summer, continuing with "Urinetown" at Swift Creek Mill in the fall and finishing with "Swingtime Canteen," currently at Hanover Tavern.

When the Mill needed a winning leading man for a musical, Bret Ambler was its go-to guy, with roles in "Urinetown," "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and "Plaid Tidings." And David Bridgewater and Scott Wichmann demonstrated sparkling comic chemistry in both "The Odd Couple" at Hanover Tavern and "Moonlight and Magnolias," still running on Barksdale's Willow Lawn stage.

But even a recounting of the highlights eventually leads to a let-down; Jack Parrish delivered a ferocious performance in Richmond Shakespeare's "Henry IV, Part 1," but then skipped town for Kentucky.

The year ended on a hopeful note, though. Firehouse Theatre Project's brilliant rumination on race, "Spinning Into Butter," underscored theater's unique ability to address serious social issues in ways that are both entertaining and engaging. Expectations are high for similar effects from next February's "Doubt" at the Barksdale.

Finally, work on the Richmond CenterStage project downtown seems to be progressing with some deliberation toward a 2009 opening. The ultimate CenterStage unveiling may be the energizing shot of adrenaline the local theater scene needs while it struggles to build positive momentum. S

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