Escapes: Richmond stages an arts comeback

The restored 1,800-seat theater is the centerpiece of the capital's new arts venue.
The restored 1,800-seat theater is the centerpiece of the capital's new arts venue. (Clement Britt/richmond Centerstage)
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By Rebecca J. Ritzel
Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The parking valet was just trying to be friendly.

"So, are you here for the race?" he asked as my mother and I stepped out of her SUV at a Richmond hotel. "No," we replied, smiling, and wondered: Did we, a pair of Ann Taylor-wearing 50- and 30-something women really look like NASCAR fans?

The valet guessed again. "One of the weddings?"

"No," I said. "We're here for the opening of the new theater, Richmond CenterStage."

"That was going to be my third guess," he said.

And there you have it. A little exchange that demonstrates just what Richmond's arts community is up against as the city seeks to promote its downtown as a cultural destination. Even on the weekend of CenterStage's grand opening, the staff at the Hilton Garden Inn next door assumed that we were in town for the big vroom-vroom at the Richmond International Raceway.

NASCAR may have drawn bigger crowds that second weekend of September, but it's CenterStage that promises to put on high-octane shows year-round. After eight years and more than $70 million worth of wrangling, construction and planning, the performing arts center at North Sixth and East Grace streets is finally open and ready for audiences. Four groups -- the Virginia Opera, the Richmond Symphony, Richmond Shakespeare and Richmond Ballet -- will have regular series at the complex. Five more resident companies, including a jazz ensemble, an African dance troupe and two children's theaters, will occasionally perform. Fill in the gaps with a few Broadway musicals and other touring acts, and there'll be nary a dull night downtown.

The central gem of CenterStage is the Carpenter Theatre, an 1,800-seat, 84-year-old Loews movie palace now restored to its former over-the-top opulence. The massive construction project expanded the Carpenter stage and added offices, lobby spaces and two new smaller theaters, Gottwald Playhouse and Rhythm Hall. All under one roof.

The Carpenter Theatre's exterior may be nondescript beige brick, but the inside resembles a Moorish castle. Interior walls have been scrubbed down and given a fresh coat of russet, aqua and gold. Fake vines creep up walls toward the mezzanine. Tropical-print carpeting leads out to a posh lobby that's still a little too small. And the ladies' rooms? As any theatergoing woman in Richmond will tell you, "Hallelujah, there are now 18 stalls."

There wasn't a frustrated theatergoer to be found at the opening gala. A beaming Gov. Tim Kaine gave the curtain speech. Alluding to a series of tax abatement programs aimed at spurring downtown development, he called CenterStage "a triumph of public and private partnerships," but then announced that he was not at the opening to be a talking head. "Tonight I'm here playing my favorite role: arts patron and parent," he said. Kaine's 14-year-old daughter, Annella, was one of 20 teens bopping to tunes from "High School Musical" as part of Theater IV, a children's troupe among the 11 arts groups featured in a seamless production that, with the exception of a few microphone difficulties, was totally worth our trip south.

The Richmond Symphony accompanied most of the ensembles. Earlier in the day, the orchestra's executive director, David J.L. Fisk, had bounded through the corridors offering tours of CenterStage. "For the first time in five years, we can finally hear ourselves properly," he told me, pointing to the new acoustical "clouds" hanging from the ceiling of the Carpenter. For the five years while its home was being renovated, the orchestra had played in more than 50 makeshift venues, he said. Fall highlights in the Carpenter Theatre include acclaimed pianist Jeremy Denk performing Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto and a Lemony Snicket-themed Halloween concert.

The Virginia Opera is also returning to the Carpenter, giving the company venues in Richmond, Norfolk and at George Mason University. Richmond Shakespeare, on the other hand, is getting its first permanent indoor home. This month, the company made its debut in the Gottwald Playhouse with "Much Ado About Nothing." Upcoming holiday performances include "A Christmas Carol," a black Nativity and the Richmond Ballet's original "Nutcracker," complete with Byzantine sets to match the theater.

Outside CenterStage, the downtown streetscape is a work in progress. Our room at the Hilton Garden Inn overlooked Grace Street, an entire block of which is boarded up and papered over with "For Lease" signs. The interior of the hotel is clean and hospitable, but it lacks personality. This was disappointing, especially given that the building is a former Miller & Rhoads department store and Hilton made a point of preserving the art deco facade.

Though the city has fun, eclectic dining districts in Carytown and Shockoe Bottom, pickings are slim within walking distance of CenterStage. We set out for dinner one night bound for a restaurant and art gallery west of the Hilton. The hotel staff advised us not to walk, but we thought, how bad could seven blocks in Richmond be? Soon we saw that most businesses along this stretch of Broad Street were vacant, save for a few pawnshops. A passing pedestrian advised us to turn around and take a taxi. We did.

Farther down the desolate street we found pockets of night life, including an opening at the 1708 Gallery, at 319 W. Broad St. There we met Brad Birchett, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor and co-curator of the new exhibit, who told us that although redevelopment is underway downtown, ties to the past complicate plans for the city's future: No one wants to tear anything down. "Richmond has always been divided over how much history you hold on to, and how much you allow to change," he said.

In preserving the Carpenter Theatre but creating the CenterStage complex around it, Richmond appears to have struck a balance, and set a precedent.

Rebecca J. Ritzel is a freelance writer in Alexandria.

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