Peter Hill, the artistic and technical director of Fountain Hills Theater, knows what audiences like.
He ought to, having spent decades heading up theater companies all around the country and earning widespread recognition for his dedication to the arts, including being inducted into the Verde Valley Hall of Fame for his artistic achievements.
It’s why he’s chosen “Footlight Frenzy” for the March show, following up the more modern and critically acclaimed musical “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” which played at the theater in February.
“Footlight Frenzy” is a farce by Ron House, Alan Shearman, Diz White, Bud Slocumb, Mark Blankenfield, Brandie Kemp and Mitchell Kreindel—also known as the Low Moan Spectacular theatre company from San Francisco.
Hill saw the original company perform it many years ago, as it premiered in October 1980.
“I saw them do it and it was so hilariously funny that when I saw it had become available, I knew we had to do it,” Hill says. “It’s a very funny show.”
It fits in perfectly with the mix he’s trying to create for the main stage at Fountain Hills—a couple musicals, a good drama and a comedy. This one fills the comedy slot. It’s also very similar to two other popular shows—“The Play That Goes Wrong,” a Broadway comedy that is currently on tour and not available to regional theaters, and “Noises Off,” a British farce.
“I’ve referred to this show as the American ‘Noises Off,’ even though it was written before ‘Noises Off,’” Hill says. “It’s a terrific little play, but no one has ever heard of it.”
“Footlight Frenzy” is one of those “let’s put on a play to save the day” shows that have had enduring popularity. In this story, it is an inexperienced PTA group that is mounting an ambitious benefit play to save their bankrupt “School for Unusual Children.” The play within a play was written by a has-been Broadway director who gives near-hysterical direction to a group of performers with questionable talent.
Like “Noises Off,” the scenes move from the stage where the show is being performed to backstage where everything is going wrong. To facilitate this, Hill says the Fountain Hills technical staff has built an upstage fake audience that can applaud so that the real audience can watch everything from behind.
“It’s a fun show in that the entire show is performed in reverse,” Hill says. “The whole show is played as if it were playing to the audience upstage. We have a very small stage, and this is a one-set show. It is an elaborate one-set show—things collapse and fall down, but we’ll fit it in our little space and it’s only an eight-character show.”
“Footlight Frenzy” will be set in modern times, as Hill says there is nothing to tie it to the 1980s or date the show in any other way. It’s something he feels people can relate to, as schools still have PTA groups that turn to the theater to raise money for their financially strapped educational institutions and programs.
“That’s what this is—a bunch of parents putting on a show to save their school,” Hill says. “It is questionable which is worse—what’s going on backstage or onstage.”
He has directed the show two other times at other theaters, and he says this show gets more laughs per minute than any other show he’s ever worked on. One critic wrote that he needed to show the slow down a little bit because people in the audience were gasping for air from laughing so hard.
There is much in the show that inspires people to laugh, he says. People enjoy watching things go wrong and seeing what people do in crazy situations to try to set things right.
“What makes them laugh the hardest is watching the actors, the performers within the show, attempting to salvage the whole situation,” Hill says. “When something goes sideways and they try to cover it up or make it look like they meant that to happen, that’s the most fun.”
A director and actor, Hill says while everyone can laugh at this show and appreciate the things that go wrong, it is especially appealing to one particular group of people.
“It’s hilarious to everyone, and it is ridiculously funny to the family,” Hill says. “And by that, I mean people who do theater. There is nothing in it that we haven’t seen happen.”
Fountain Hills Theater, 11445 N. Saguaro Boulevard, Fountain Hills, 480.837.9661, fhtaz.org, various times Friday, March 6, to Sunday, March 22, $37 for adults, $17 for children.