Set in what is best described as an industrial area, far from the glamorous houses of Newport and beachfront bistros, is a theater that for 35 years has claimed its place among the most beloved attractions on Aquidneck Island.
Overcoming recessions and adversities like a burst pipe in mid-winter this year, the Newport Playhouse has persevered, playing to some 40,000 patrons a year, many arriving on bus tours from throughout the Northeast.
It’s a clientele that Jonathan Perry and his family began developing in 1983, just after they bought the theater, and more so a few years later when they also took over the adjoining restaurant.
“It’s really a family affair,” says actor Michael Gregory, a veteran of the Newport Playhouse stage, who will be making his 40th appearance in a Playhouse production later this year. A family affair for staff and actors, and for patrons as well.
“They make you feel like family,” says John and Emily Avitabile, who have been coming to the theater for the last 25 years, making the three hour drive from Fairfield, CT. And who will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary at the Playhouse in August.
The 170 seat theater and its adjoining 200 seat restaurant/cabaret have become an important part of Newport’s tourism industry, hosting thousands of patrons annually, while employing 40 individuals in a variety of capacities, according to Perry.
“We make them laugh and we provide excellent quality food,” he says. “Give the customer a lot and they’ll come back.” That formula has worked for Perry and his family ever since buying the theater.
The Playhouse operates year-round, and it offers a mix of stage shows, comedy and music.
Beginning July 6, the Playhouse stage will present the comedy “No Tell Motel.” Patrons will begin with the theater’s famous buffet, move to the theater, and then back to the 200-seat dining room that transforms into a cabaret.
And the cost? For most theater nights, exclusive of specials, is less than $50. It’s a price and formula that has brought bus tours from all over the northeast. Only 10 percent of patrons, Perry says, come from Aquidneck Island.
This may not have been what a young Jonathan, 18 when the family bought the business, envisioned. He saw a future of perhaps Broadway or Hollywood. But it didn’t take long for them to realize that what they had at the Playhouse was something unique and special.
“The Playhouse – from a tourism perspective is important to our destination marketing program because it appeals to the group tour market,” says Evan Smith, president and CEO of Discover Newport. “They offer groups affordable entertainment and meal service at a price point that frankly many other venues cannot. Jonathan Perry has worked hard over the years to promote their shows and venue to groups all over New England and beyond. We really appreciate the energy and passion they have for their business.”
The Avitabiles are among the most loyal of patrons. They take the long drive from Fairfield to a theater they’ve come to love, and one that John discovered by accident, when he looked left instead of right coming off the bridge. Curiosity drew him to the theater.
“Our first impression was this was too good to be true,” he says. “At the end of the evening we said to ourselves, wow. They make you feel like family.”
Family is something often repeated by Perry, other patrons, and actors, like Gregory.
A chef by training, actor Gregory yearns for the stage. He’s been on two national tours, in six movies, and four failed television pilots. He’s waiter, actor and cabaret performer. On any given evening he does all three
“It’s the only way to make a living in theater in Rhode Island,” he says. “When this is in your blood you have to do it. It’s really a family affair. The actors feel the audience gets that they are part of the family. It’s like watching your family get up and make you laugh.”
Looking to the future, Perry is finding ways to keep the Newport Playhouse experience vibrant, while expanding its audience. He’s adding a comedy series, music performances, and his Nashville to Newport singer/songwriter series.
It’s all about making that connection with the audience. “When you come in here, you’re coming into our home.”
Here’s a brief look at some of the Playhouse’s summer offerings. For a full schedule, information, and to buy tickets visit www.newportplayhouse.com.
- “No Tell Motel,” a comedy, July 6 through Sept. 1.
- Newport To Nashville featuring Ben Shaw, Kristi Martel, and Missy & Jeff, July 12
- The Cabaret Comedy Show with comics Marie Foster, Rob Greene, and Ray Harrington, July 19.
- The Retro Experience, also a Bridgefest event, July 31.
- The Greg Abate Uptown Jazz Quintet, also a Bridgefest event, August 2.
- A Tribute to Sinatra and Peggy Lee performed by The Hal McIntyre Orchestra, August 12.
- Legends of Comedy presents The Ultimate Robin Williams Tribute, September 6.
The Newport Playhouse & Cabaret Restaurant is located at 102 JT Connell Highway in Newport and online at www.newportplayhouse.com.