ARLINGTON -- Theatre Arlington will have plenty of help when it blows out the candles on its next birthday cake.
The downtown theater is set to launch its 40th season when it presents the gritty urban musical Rent next month. To honor that milestone, the company is having a gala dinner Saturday at the University of Texas at Arlington's College Park Center.
"So many people over the years have given blood, sweat, tears, time and money to make this theater successful," said Todd Hart, Theatre Arlington's executive producer.
"That is why this celebration is so important. It's about celebrating everyone who has given to this theater. It's about saying 'thank you' to the community. 'Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.'"
And apparently, this "thank you" thing is a two-way street. Tickets to the gala -- all 500 of them -- sold out weeks before the event.
This is just one indicator of how far this troupe has come from its humble origins as The Potluck Players.
"We performed our first little show [ I Do, I Do] at Miss Persis' dance studio in what she called The Potluck Room. That's why we called it The Potluck Players," said Shirley Orr, one of Theatre Arlington's founders.
From that point, Orr and her fellow thespians set out to build what would initially be known at Arlington Community Theatre.
"We were gypsies, actually. It was a struggle on so many fronts. We had no money and no advertising. We hand-printed everything," said Orr, who now serves as the company's bookkeeper. "After we had one show, I said if we can find $600, we can do another show. So we just scrounged for everything -- costumes, props and donations."
The next production, Light Up the Sky, was presented at the Arlington Community Center and is often cited as the true "first" production by the company. Interestingly, the cast of that show included a well-known figure in area theater. Jerry Russell, founder of Stage West, agreed to step into a small role when an actor dropped out of the show.
"I think the catalyst for us hanging in there was the [first] board, and the fact we had Cliff Redd," said Orr, who has performed in numerous Theatre Arlington productions.
Redd, who is associate vice chancellor-associate vice president for university advancement at the University of Houston, directed several of the company's shows in its formative years. Orr says she feels his theatrical skills, energy and charisma were vital to Theatre Arlington's start.
And no history of the theater could be written without mention of B.J. Cleveland, the peripatetic performer and director who has worked with the company in various artistic and administrative capacities for more than 25 years, including 15 years as its artistic director
"We appreciated that he was willing to give so much to the theater for so long," said Orr, adding that Cleveland continues to teach acting classes there.
To celebrate its 40th season, Hart, who took the reins from Cleveland in 2009, wanted to make a statement.
"When we started talking about the 40th season, everything that came up was old, old, old," said Hart, who frequently performs in and directs Theatre Arlington shows. "I don't want to be old. We want to be now, we want to be young. That's why our tagline is '40 years Young.' We've got to find something fun to open with."
So, Hart decided to go with Rent, the rocked-out modernization of Puccini's La Boheme that was a smash hit and a magnet for Tonys when it opened on Broadway in 1996.
"I knew that we had to open up with something big and fearless to say, 'We're here.' We have been here 40 years and I still have people who see me wearing a Theatre Arlington shirt say, 'Do we have a theater here?'" said Hart, whose first role at Theatre Arlington was Prince Charming in a children's theater production of Cinderella in the 1987-88 season.
Theatre Arlington's current production, Hollywood Arms, the last show in its 39th season, will run until Sunday. (For a review, see star-telegram.com.)
Here is how the 40th season, which also includes the children's productions Oz (Feb. 22-March 10, 2013) and Charlotte's Web (July 12-21, 2013), shapes up after Rent (Sept. 7-Sept. 30):
The 39 Steps (Oct. 19-Nov. 4) -- This scream of a comedy re-creates one of Alfred Hitchcock's early films with a cast of only four.
It was a hit on Broadway a few years ago and is rapidly becoming a favorite with regional and community theaters.
"I think our subscribers will love it because they know all the movies and will get all the references. And I think young audiences will love it just because it's goofy and manic," said Hart.
Annie (Nov. 30-Dec. 16) -- This 1977 musical is threatening to have a longer life than the Depression-era comic strip on which it is based.
"We don't normally do a musical during the holidays, because they are expensive," Hart said. "But I decided to bite the bullet and do Annie. It is the perfect holiday show and families love it."
The Tale of the Allergist's Wife (Jan. 18-Feb. 3, 2013) -- A quirky, dark comedy that opened on Broadway in 2000. During its long run, it attracted a number of A-list actresses, including Linda Lavin, Michele Lee, Valerie Harper, Rhea Perlman and Marilu Henner.
"It is one of those shows that is just weird enough, but funny," Hart said. "You're watching another group of people who are not like you, and you can laugh at them."
Wit (March 29-April 14, 2013) -- Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1999, this powerful piece tells the story of a college professor coping with cancer.
"I'm really excited about Wit. It features amazing writing. And it is certainly a tour de force for whoever plays the lead role," Hart said.
Always ... Patsy Cline (May 10-June 2, 2013) -- Jenny Thurman reprises a role she has sung often on area stages in this tribute to the great country-Western singer, who perished in a plane crash at the height of her career in 1963.
The Foreigner (Aug. 9-25, 2013) -- Few comedies are performed more often by community theaters than this one by Larry Shue. And, fittingly for the 40th season, this production will reunite several players from Theatre Arlington's production from the 1999-2000 season, including Cleveland and Orr.
"So it is kind of a reunion. And it is a great show for the summer. You just come in and laugh and laugh," Hart said.
So that is what the 40th season looks like. And the future?
"It's an uphill battle," said Orr, "but I think we are winning it."