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Act 2

Bill Hanney brings the shuttered North Shore Music Theatre back into the spotlight

“It’s going to be amazing ,’’ says Bill Hanney, the new owner of North Shore Music Theatre, as workers including carpenter Kevin Gerstner (above) and scenic painter Stephen McDonald apply finishing touches in preparation for the season-opening production, “Gypsy.’’ “It’s going to be amazing,’’ says Bill Hanney, the new owner of North Shore Music Theatre, as workers including carpenter Kevin Gerstner (above) and scenic painter Stephen McDonald apply finishing touches in preparation for the season-opening production, “Gypsy.’’ (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / July 4, 2010

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BEVERLY — “Watch your step,’’ warns Bill Hanney, the new owner of North Shore Music Theatre, and he’s not just being polite. We’re picking our way through mounds of gravel on a half-finished patio, traipsing from the theater’s lobby — which is littered with tubs of flooring adhesive, piles of wires, stacks of ceiling tiles, and a seriously dusty boom box — to the restaurant, which is in a still-more chaotic state. “Gypsy’’ opens in a mere 12 days. Hanney is thrilled.

“There’s a big hole in the wall, so we can always get in that way,’’ he says. “It’s going to be amazing.’’

Hanney is irrepressible, and his enthusiasm is matched by an apparently sizable bank account and string of successful business ventures, making him something of a savior for this theater in the round.

Shuttered for a year after going bankrupt in 2009, the beloved institution — once the largest nonprofit theater in the region, with close to 350,000 people attending annually — is coming back to life under his watchful eye. Hanney bought the place for $3.6 million in February and is overseeing every detail of the reopening, from selecting tasteful cream-colored marble for the ladies room to programming the season’s crowd-pleasing shows, starting with “Gypsy,’’ which kicks off on Tuesday starring Vicki Lewis (“NewsRadio’’). Hanney’s zeal shouts “labor of love,’’ but that’s only part of the story.

“Bottom line, if you watch how you spend and do great shows,’’ he says, “this theater should make money.’’

A fast-talking 41-year-old who owns a chain of movie theaters, Hanney revived the 500-seat Theatre By the Sea in Matunuck, R.I., in 2007 after it had been closed for four years. Now he is busy transforming the 1,500-seat North Shore Music Theatre from a top-heavy nonprofit into a lean, for-profit business.

Formerly run by a year-round staff of 57, the theater now employs a full-time staff of five, all former employees who were rehired; Hanney may add three more. Gone are the development department, the board of directors, the many assistants — basically, anyone who isn’t essential to putting on shows.

What’s not going, Hanney says, is the thing that made the theater an institution for more than half a century: high-quality musical theater.

The 2010 season features four shows instead of the usual six, but Hanney isn’t cutting corners when it comes to production values. Choreographers, set designers, lighting teams, costumers, and directors from past productions have been invited back to work on this year’s shows, and Hanney has hired Evans Haile, artistic director at the Cape Playhouse, to shape the theater’s vision. In the past the company has staged new musicals, including “Memphis’’ (in 2003), which won four Tony Awards this year. Hanney was in the audience at Radio City Music Hall last month when Broadway producer Randy Adams thanked North Shore Music Theatre for making “Memphis’’ possible.

“For me to now own the theater that has a place in Broadway history? I’m loving it,’’ Hanney gushes. “The next day the box office was on fire. Phones were ringing off the hook.’’

But developing new works is, at least for now, off the table. This year’s shows were selected for maximum hit potential, resulting in a lineup that stays in well-trod territory. Hanney, who is also a producer, points out that one clunker can break a whole subscription season. And subscribers are what North Shore Music Theatre needs. Since the company reached out in March to the 2009 season-ticket holders who lost their money when the theater closed, offering them the same seats, nearly 70 percent have renewed their subscriptions.

“We asked ourselves, ‘What hasn’t been done here?’ ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.’ What was the big huge hit here? ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.’ What’s a great show that people are talking about? ‘Gypsy.’ What’s a classic classic classic that appeals to every audience? ‘A Chorus Line.’ And we had to bring back ‘A Christmas Carol,’ ’’ says Hanney of the theater’s long-running and lucrative holiday event, “or I couldn’t step out in this town.’’

North Shore Music Theatre’s former artistic director and executive producer Jon Kimbell, who left in 2007, has been consulting informally with Hanney since early this year, and he’ll be back this winter to direct “A Christmas Carol.’’ The cancellation of that long-running holiday tradition is seen by some to be at least the symbolic start of the theater’s financial nosedive. It was replaced, with dismal results, by “Disney High School Musical 2.’’

“Symbolic or not, it was not a wise financial move,’’ says Kimbell, who doesn’t know if it was poor decisions, bad luck, the tanking economy, or some combination that led to the company’s rapid decline following his departure. But when the theater closed in 2009, “I didn’t think there was much hope on the horizon. Everything that’s happened since Bill Hanney showed up, though, has proven to me that he’s really the right guy at the right time.’’

Hanney also seems to understand that this bucolic theater in the woods, which offers suburbanites a respite from Boston’s high prices and traffic and parking hassles, has a special place in the life of the North Shore. Salem resident Mike Ceceri attended his first North Shore Music Theatre show in 1995, became a subscriber and then a volunteer, and was hired to work in the marketing department in 2000. Hanney has rehired him as director of marketing and communications, and Ceceri — who says he is doing the job that eight people did in the previous organization — marvels at the goodwill he’s seen from the community.

“The minute the doors opened people were, How can we help you? How can we be a part of this?’’ says Ceceri. “A lot of people were left in the lurch [when the theater closed], but . . . we’ve found printers who will work with us again, and very few subscribers are still unhappy. Bill’s done a great job figuring out how to appease people.’’

Hanney also seems to have impressed Beverly Mayor Bill Scanlon with his plans for the theater. “I think the guy has good business sense, a proven track record,’’ says Scanlon. “In another life I was a turnaround guy, so we really connected.’’

Hanney’s optimism is contagious, but he confesses that as opening night draws near his heart pounds in double time and a good night’s sleep is elusive. He wishes he’d thought to lay sod instead of gravel on the patio. A new parking lot will have to wait for next year. He’s sunk $100,000 into renovations so far, and that number will likely go up. And this year’s operating budget?

“Forget the budget. It went out the window. I bought this theater and I’m committed, within reason by the way, to showing the people of the North Shore and then some that their theater is back and as good as they remember, and maybe a little better,’’ Hanney says. “If I make one dollar this year, it’s a success.’’

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com.

GYPSY At: North Shore Music Theatre, Tuesday through July 25. Tickets: 978-232-7200, www.nsmt.org