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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Pandemic, burst pipe put halt to Lake City Playhouse, but now its back with full season beginning with musical ‘Oliver!’

By Azaria Podplesky For The Spokesman-Review

The story started for Lake City Playhouse like it started for many arts organizations; various projects were in the works in early 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic brought everything to a screeching halt.

The theater, which had been rehearsing “Matilda,” shut down, waiting for the all-clear to reopen. When that call came, they began preparations to stage “Matilda” with the same cast that had been set to star in the 2020 production.

But Lake City Playhouse’s story took a twist in May 2021, when a pipe burst in the theater’s basement, taking out all of the plumbing and destroying many of the costumes stored there.

The insurance payment wasn’t enough for the renovations, so Lake City Playhouse board president Brooke Wood said she and the board sat down and considered closing the theater for good. Not knowing where the rest of the money was going to come from, the board decided to hold on a little longer.

Wood’s husband Damon set to work on a “Save Lake City Playhouse” campaign, creating shirts, launching a buy-a-brick campaign and tabling at events like Art on the Green, anywhere the board could get word out about Lake City’s situation.

The community responded in a big way, with many sharing stories of how they’ve been affected by Lake City Playhouse along with their monetary donations. The theater also received anonymous gifts of $40,000 and $25,000 from Coldwell Banker Schneidmiller Realty, where both Woods work.

“That was the catalyst that got us started,” Brooke Wood said. “From there, we worked our tails off.”

After not having produced a show in three years, Lake City Playhouse finally staged “Matilda” last year at the Kroc Center, raising even more money and awareness of the theater’s imminent reopening.

Scarlet Hunt, who was cast in the sidelined 2020 production as Lavender, was thrilled to finally be back on stage. Hunt, now 14, joined Lake City when she was 8 years old.

“Every time I heard Brooke talk about (“Matilda”), she’d be like, ‘I’m not giving up on it. I want this to happen,’ ” she said. “I was crying so hard on closing night because everyone really came together. We all care about the theater so much.”

Ronan Granier, 11, who made his Lake City debut as a lamb in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” when he was 5 or 6, was excited to play Eric in “Matilda” after thinking he might not be in another Lake City show after the flood.

“It’s a miracle that this all happened, because I and most of my family thought that it just wasn’t going to be this ready,” he said.

Board member Jessica Peterson said it’s amazing what the necessary renovations have done to the building. The exterior has remained the same, but the interior has become even more ready for its closeup.

Instead of two gendered bathrooms, Lake City Playhouse now boasts five single-person bathrooms, two of which are ADA accessible. Thanks to the anonymous donor, the team was able to replace the concessions stand, and they also repaved the backstage areas, adding new flooring and fixtures. The lobby has been redone, and the theater’s new cabinets, roof and HVAC system were all donated.

“Everything pretty much that’s not the bare bones, other than our theater seats, which is our next project, has been replaced,” Peterson said.

After all that hard work, Lake City will finally welcome audiences back to the theater for “Oliver!,” which opens Friday and runs through July 14.

“Oliver!” is based on “Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens and features a book, music and lyrics by Lionel Bart. In “Oliver!” the titular orphan (Granier) makes his way from the workhouse, where he finds the courage to ask for more food, to a forced apprenticeship with the Sowerberries, a pair of undertakers (played by Heather Cline and Joann Latimer).

He then meets the Artful Dodger (Hunt), who introduces Oliver to his group of friends/fellow pickpockets, all of whom live with Fagin (Brady Campbell), a middleman between the pickpockets and buyers. Nancy (Peterson), a member of Fagin’s crew and the girlfriend of the abusive house burglar Bill Sikes (Isaiah Estes), and the wealthy Mr. Brownlow (Kevin Connell) also play a role in Oliver’s story.

The production features a large ensemble and a group of stealthy pickpockets.

Rehearsing “Oliver!” while renovations were happening wasn’t ideal. The cast and crew had to leave the theater to use porta potties while the bathrooms were being replaced, and there was no heating or cooling in the building until late June. Hunt said everyone chipped in to help with renovations where they could, like painting the walls with friends.

“It felt like we were all in this together,” she said. “ ‘High School Musical’ moment.”

That time together also kept Granier on board, despite his dislike of porta potties and the at-times crowded backstage areas.

“The experience of us all being together and working on this play and getting to spend time, that’s what makes it worth it and that’s what made me not quit,” he said.

When selecting “Oliver!” as the season opener, Brooke Wood, who has loved the musical since she was a child, said the board wanted to pick a show that would appeal to both children and adults.

Wood, who is directing, modernized the show, adding a grungier edge to the wardrobe, most of which was salvaged after the flood, bought at thrift stores or online, and enlisting son Lincoln to create graffiti art on set pieces.

“I tried to make the set super universal so, one, we didn’t have to go and find stuff because we’re in the middle of renovations and, two, to change it up because everyone’s seen ‘Oliver!’ ” she said. “And I wanted to make sure the characters were a little more tangible. It’s been a really fun experience and our leads are really special.”

Looking ahead to the rest of Lake City Playhouse’s comeback season, the theater will produce “Rent,” “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged),” “School of Rock,” the Peterson-directed “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” and “Jekyll and Hyde.”

Peterson, Granier and Hunt are each excited for the season as a whole, but they’re all also looking forward to getting back to a normal theater experience sans renovations.

“It will be more relaxing and also a lot of fun,” Granier said. “That’s what I like most about theater is how much fun I get to have with the other people who are here.”