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MusicalFare Theatre to expand, add cabaret performance space

The largest local theater expansion since Shea’s Performing Arts Center was renovated in 1999 will be announced today as MusicalFare Theatre, the growing Amherst playhouse, unveils a $900,000 plan for a cabaret performance space, an expanded lobby and a new exterior.

It’s a major upgrade for the growing theater on the Daemen College campus, one of the region’s few theaters in the suburbs, whose attendance has risen to about 4,000 patrons per show.

The expansion, expected to begin in the fall and be completed by February, will replace the theater’s nondescript exterior with glass panels and a prominent new entrance. It will also triple the size of the small lobby, where MusicalFare patrons currently bump elbows before shows and during intermission.

The expanded lounge also will double as a new, 75-seat cabaret performance space, which would be unrivaled in the region.

“People are going to be seated at tables and chairs … and they’ll be able to have a drink, they’ll be able to relax, and it’s just going to be, I think, a very unique experience,” said Randall Kramer, MusicalFare’s artistic and executive director.

“I think people are used to going out and listening to music in some clubs like this, but the idea that it’s not just theater – it’s not just musical theater, but it’s also music, it’s also new work – opens it up for a lot more possibilities.”

Kramer said the expansion project will enable the theater to earn more money from concessions and expand programming beyond the musicals it presents in its 136-seat main theater.

“I think all not-for-profits, as they continue to grow not only economically but also from a numbers perspective, run into real challenges when it comes to how do you grow your sources of income. So this allows us to do that in ways that I think are actually going to really help us in the future and solidify us even more,” Kramer said.

“The idea that we can present something in a 75-seat cabaret space for three nights, maybe over one weekend, maybe over two, that’s very freeing to me. All of a sudden, now we can start to look at all sorts of other possibilities and all sorts of other types of performances to put there.”

To design the project, MusicalFare hired the Buffalo architecture firm Lauer-Manguso, which is also responsible for Daemen’s new Center for Visual and Performing Arts as well as the nearby Walker Center. The firm also designed MusicalFare’s backstage addition in 2008.

The theater has so far raised about $325,000 for the project out of a total goal of $450,000, including large grants from M&T Bank and the John R. Oishei Foundation. The rest of the $900,000 cost of the project will come from earned revenue from concessions and other sources over the next several years, Kramer said.

The theater’s expansion plans are the latest sign of its accelerating growth. It has significantly increased its audience since its founding in 1990.

“As successful as it may look that we are, and I guess we are, it’s still a struggle every year,” Kramer said. “I still think we rely way too much on ticket sales. I would like to see that number come significantly down. And something like this may be a way to start that happening.”

Buffalo lacks a dedicated cabaret performance space like the one MusicalFare envisions. Kramer said the space, which will begin programming early next year, will host a range of performances, including play readings, monologues and classic cabaret acts as well as small productions and other as-yet-unenvisioned entertainment

As part of this week’s announcement, the theater also is unveiling plans for its 2013-14 season. The season will include productions of “La Cage Aux Folles,” Sept. 4 to Oct. 3; “Master Class,” Oct. 30 to Dec. 1; “The Who’s Tommy,” Feb. 19 to March 30; “Adrift in Macao,” April 23 to June 1, 2014; and “Side by Side By Sondheim,” which the theater first produced in its 1992-93 season, from July 9 to Aug. 16, 2014.

Though the expansion project will reap economic benefits for the theater and shore up its position as the leading local producer of musical theater, Kramer said the impetus for the new space had more to do with its creative mission. The new earned revenue, he said, “is not a reason to do anything, not in this business. We need to make sure what we’re doing is where we’re driving what we do creatively into a stronger, better, more exciting place.”