The new theatrical season is beginning at the 352-seat Memorial Opera House (104 E. Indiana Ave.) in Valparaiso. The year it celebrates its 125th year as a bastion for the arts in Porter County.

The 2018 schedule features five regular shows, special productions and returning attractions like the popular mid-day Lunchtime Cabaret. Those who have not attended Memorial Opera House in recent years owe it to themselves to pay the grand dame a visit.

Much has been happening under the watch of executive director Scot PJ MacDonald, who took the position in late 2016 after being artistic director and a frequent actor/producer since 2007. MacDonald is also on the board of the Valparaiso Creative Counsel, focusing on the city's proposed Arts District on Indiana Avenue.

Recent changes have included a complete interior facelift and repainting, a redesigned box office area, the creation of an intimate (50-60 person capacity) upper level lounge with full service bar, perfect for private functions and saving patrons from trudging downstairs for a cocktail. There's more sprucing to come according to MacDonald, including new window treatments.

Overhauling has been done on the production side by full time production director Scott "Stretch" Miller, who added rear projection screens in 2016, and last year completely upgraded the orchestra pit and wireless technology, among other things.

All would be for naught, if not for a season of wonderful shows and events. And MacDonald's team assures just such a season, kicking off with "Hunchback of Notre Dame," running from Feb. 16 to March 4.

MacDonald again solicited input from season ticket holders, volunteers, local actors and directors as to what shows to present at MOH. "It just makes sense to have outside input instead of trying to guess what people might want to spend money to see," he said. "The list we offer them to choose from includes new shows like 'Hunchback,' things we've done before like 'Sweeney Todd,' and options for our annual holiday show."

Following "The Hunchback" will be "Blithe Spirit" (April 27-May 13), "Legally Blonde: The Musical" (July 13-29), "Sweeney Todd: A Musical Thriller" (Sept. 28-Oct. 14), and the season closes with "It's A Wonderful Life, The Musical" (Nov. 30-Dec. 16)." All shows run at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, with a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee. Tickets: $21 for adults/$18 for students, seniors and military with group rates and season tickets available.

"The musical of 'Hunchback' first premiered back in 2014 and is actually much closer to the original Victor Hugo novel than the Disney film. There's a lot more darkness to the story. This show has 17 actors and a 24-person choir onstage so it's a really big production. The rights became available just last year, so we are one of the first Indiana theaters to get our hands on it, making ours the regional premiere of this show."

"Blithe Spirit" is playwright Noel Coward's classic tale of a man's haunting by his late wife after getting remarried. "This is a production that never gets old," said MacDonald. "It's very, very funny."

Next up is the 2007 musical stage adaptation of the hugely popular 2001 Reese Witherspoon film, "Legally Blonde," which adds song and dance to the story of Elle Woods as she tackles stereotypes, snobbery and scandal in pursuit of her dreams. "Everyone has seen the movie, but this production is crammed with music and it's just a fun, fun show," said MacDonald. "And yes, 'Bruiser' the Chihuahua is in the musical!"

"We last did 'Sweeney Todd: A Musical Thriller' back in 2001, and it's another of those shows that our patrons have been asking us to do, so we've brought it back," said MacDonald. "The whole show is about love and obsession and of course, about pies!"

Last year, MOH presented "A Christmas Story," and had to add additional shows. "Every show sold out and we added three more performances and those also sold out," recalled MacDonald. "That was a wonderful show, but very exhausting for all involved." This year's holiday production is the musical version about George Bailey and the Bedford Falls Savings & Loan, "It's A Wonderful Life."

Choosing this show to wrap up the 2018 season was not just because it's a perennial classic, but also because Beulah Bondi, who played George Bailey's mother in the film version of "It's A Wonderful Life," got her theatrical start on the stage of the Memorial Opera House. "It seemed appropriate for our 125th Anniversary to remember that and pay tribute to one of the opera house's most famous alumni," said MacDonald. "Beulah was a native of Valparaiso and had a very long and wonderful career in acting."

All five regular season shows noted above are included in the season ticket holder options, which MacDonald encourages. "You save 10 percent compared to buying individual tickets for each production and are guaranteed the same seat at each production on defined dates," he explained. "No more last minute scheduling or hoping you will get a good seat. You'll know in advance the dates you are attending and what seat you are in for each show. If you are unable to attend on one of the dates you have selected, you can always change the date by calling the box office at least 24 hours in advance of the date you pre-selected, but in those instances, seating for the new date is subject to availability, so it may not be one's usual seat." Season tickets are $94.50 (adults) and $81.00 (seniors, military and students).

Another convenient and affordable way to enjoy a season's worth of shows at Memorial Opera House is the "Flex Packages," which allow a patron to choose which main stage shows they want to see and when to see them. "You pretty much create your own season ticket package with the dates and times you want and you never have to miss a show again," said MacDonald. For example, if someone buys a 5-Event Flex Package (cost $94.50), it can be used for them and four friends to see one show, or for them to see five different shows, or one show five times. It's basically five admission tickets to use however you want."

A bonus production this season presented by the Ensemble Theatre Company brings "Always Patsy Cline" (March 9 to 11 starring Mary Kay Steele and Michele Gustin) back to MOH for the first time since 2010. "It's something our patrons have been clamoring for since the last time it was here, so we're happy to have it on our stage," said MacDonald. All seats for this production are $23.

Back again this season to offer a midday "arts option" to Valparaiso's downtown square is the MOH Lunchtime Cabarets, a series of one hour Wednesday shows at 1 p.m.

There are many concerts produced at Memorial Opera House as well as theatrical productions, but for the full schedule of all events and for ticket information and purchasing, visit memorialoperahouse.com or call 219- 462-2640.

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