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Akron Civic's BOOM! Theater drops the mic on aging

Story by Kabir Bhatia | Photos by Ryan Loew

BOOM! Theater performers range from novices to Equity cardholders who have toured nationally. The performers were in their twenties when their most recent production of the musical “La Cage Aux Folles” first opened on Broadway in 1983. They were nearing middle age when it was adapted into the film “The Birdcage.” And now they’re retired, or close to it.

“A lot of the people our age are not really offered anything because we age out of roles,” said Rob Phillips of Akron. “This gives us an opportunity to do something we never really – I never thought I would’ve ever gone on stage in drag and had a wonderful time doing it.”

Phillips is one of the leads in “La Cage Aux Folles,” and the other is Harry Cool of Cuyahoga Falls. They’re both in their 60s.

“We bring a wealth of actual life experience,” Phillips said. “When we do some of the numbers, I actually have to hold back the tears.”

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Rob Phillips, 66, of Akron, (left) and Harry Cool, 63, of Cuyahoga Falls, perform in BOOM! Theater's production of “La Cage Aux Folles” at the Akron Civic Theatre on April 29.

He’s not the only one. Val Renner, associate director of the Akron Civic Theatre and co-founder of BOOM!, said, “when Rob sings the song, ‘I Am What I Am,’ I don't think there's a dry eye in the audience. He is singing his song of what he's had to go through in his lifetime.”

The company grew from a realization that the Civic already had age-specific theater groups for teens and millennials.

“I thought, ‘Wait a minute, there is a part of society and in theater that can be overlooked. And it's the 50 and older generation,’” Renner said. “There's a lot of people that are in this age bracket. So how do we engage them? How do we make their life better? And one way is through the arts. You need to have some platform to still display all of your talents on."

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BOOM! Theater performers read through the script of “La Cage Aux Folles” during an April 28 rehearsal.
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Mark Hilan, 67, of Rocky River, reads through lines of “La Cage Aux Folles” with fellow cast members.
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Stage manager Jeanie Gaither, 70, of South Russell, listens as BOOM! Theater performers read through their lines of “La Cage Aux Folles.”
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Jeff Bixby, 70, of Granger Township, laughs as he and other BOOM! Theater performers read through their lines.

BOOM!’s first production was “Cabaret” last fall. The lead in the 1972 film was played by then 26-year-old Liza Minnelli. At the Akron Civic, Sally Bowles was played by Tina Davis from Gates Mills. She’s over 50, and she’s also in “La Cage Aux Folles.”

“As you get older, the parts become smaller-and-smaller because most shows are written to have a younger ingenue and a younger leading man. So, to be able to step into those roles as older people – with just as much talent and just as much passion for the characters – I think every single person here would say, ‘This is really a dream come true,’” Davis said.

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Harry Cool (center) chats with Rob Phillips (left) and Kathy Keenan, 59, of Stow, backstage prior to a performance of “La Cage Aux Folles” at the Akron Civic Theatre on April 29.
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Rob Phillips applies makeup before a performance of “La Cage Aux Folles” at the Akron Civic Theatre on April 29.
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Rob Phillips gets into a costume backstage.
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Val Renner is associate director of the Akron Civic Theatre and co-founder of BOOM! Theater.

Renner said it’s also a dream come true for her seeing the actors bonding in ways no one could have predicted, as they did in “Cabaret.”

We had a sheriff. We people of color that came out. Karen’s. We had every type of person in that play. And what we realized was, this brought together a group of people who might never have talked in their entire lifetime. They might never have known a transgender person. They might never have had conversations with gay people before. And here they were. They embraced each other. And what they presented was this beautiful work of art,” Renner said.

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Joey Cayabyab, 57, of Parma, (right) talks with stage manager Jeanie Gaither moments before BOOM! Theater's performance of “La Cage Aux Folles” begins at the Akron Civic Theatre on April 29.
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Rob Phillips and Harry Cool perform in BOOM! Theater's production of “La Cage Aux Folles” at the Akron Civic Theatre on April 29.
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Jeff Bixby watches from backstage as the performance is underway.
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Rob Phillips performs in BOOM! Theater's production of “La Cage Aux Folles.”

BOOM! Theater is open to anyone over 50, even though the name sounds a little like it could be exclusive to Baby Boomers, who are usually 60+.

“We didn't want to call it ‘Boomer Theater’ because then people might have a connotation that it's a bunch of old people. Actually, it is ‘boom’ in the sense of when someone performs - and they drop the mic - they go, ‘Boom, done, I did it.’ And that's what BOOM! is. They did it. They came back and they did it and they did it great,” Renner said.

This is the closing weekend for BOOM! Theater’s production of “La Cage Aux Folles.”

What will they be doing next? This summer, the Akron Civic will host an Ohio Arts Council workshop for actors in BOOM!’s age bracket. The third production for BOOM! Theater, “Scrooge: The Musical,” is due this December.

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Lead photo: April Deming, 70, of Cuyahoga Falls, applies lipstick as she and other BOOM! Theater cast members prepare for an April 29 performance of “La Cage Aux Folles.”