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The historic downtown Wilmington venue, formerly known as City Stage, reopens Feb. 27 after millions in renovations.
Hurricane Florence did a lot damage to Wilmington back in 2018. But the storm couldn’t stop Lizzie Borden — or the North Front Theatre, for that matter.
Located on the top floor of the historic, turn-of-the-century Masonic Temple Building in downtown Wilmington, the theater, formerly known as City Stage, sustained substantial damage during the hurricane, as as did the rest of the five-story structure. But now, thanks to a multi-million-dollar restoration project, the theater and adjacent Rooftop Bar is set to reopen on Thursday, Feb. 27, with a production of “Lizzie: The Musical,” about notorious ax murderess Lizzie Borden.
The show is being revived by Panache Theatrical Productions, which had a hit with “Lizzie” in 2019 at Thalian Hall.
On Wednesday, Holli Saperstein, managing director of Panache, joined Rooftop Bar @ North Front Theatre co-owner Brandon Riggan and Wayne Etowski of Showcase Restoration in showing off the ongoing renovations.
Basically, Etowski said, “the roof blew off” during Florence, flooding the whole building, which includes the downtown location of Port City Java. The ceiling of the theater fell in, and many of the old, wooden seats were damaged.
Looking at the ceiling now, painted a buttery yellow with “theater red” trim — colors original to the 1890s building — one would never know it was damaged. There are new stage and backstage curtains; a new LED lighting rig and sound system; and new carpeting. Etowski replaced damaged seats with historically accurate replicas.
The bathrooms have gotten an upgrade, as has the rooftop bar, which has been outfitted with sturdy new windscreens. The elevator works, but will be replaced after all of the building’s tenants move back in.
In total, the building, which is owned by John Sutton and members of an HOA with condos in the floors below, the renovations total around $2.5 million, Etowski said. That number climbs much higher when you factor in damage cleanup, demolition and other expenses.
Panache will be the resident company of the new North Front Theatre, Riggan said, but the 265-capacity space will also host productions by other theater companies, comedy shows, concerts and even an upcoming jiu-jitsu tournament.
As for “Lizzie,” Panache’s 2019 production of the rock musical is up for nine awards at the StarNews Wilmington Theater Awards in March, including Best Musical; Best Director of a Musical for Anthony Lawson; Best Actress in a Musical for Georgie Simon; and Best Supporting Actress in a Musical for Heather Setzler and Meagan Golden.
Almost all of the cast and crew is returning, including performers Setzler, Golden and, in the title role, Simon. Chandler Davis is replacing Elisa Eklof Smith, who has moved away since last year’s production, as Borden family maid/narrator Bridgette “Maggie” Sullivan.
The show sets the story of Lizzie Borden, who was acquitted of murdering her father and stepmother in 1892, to a rock score, steampunk-style design and an emotional backstory of sexual abuse and hidden sexuality. Interestingly, the show is set around the time period the Masonic Temple Building was constructed.
The building took on some notoriety in the early 1990s, when it was purchased by the actor Dennis Hopper, who made such movies as “Blue Velvet” and “Super Mario Brothers” in Wilmington. After an attempt to start in a theater on the fifth floor failed in the late ’90s, it became City Stage in 2001, starting a run of dozens of productions before becoming North Front Theatre late last decade.
And while “Lizzie” marks a new beginning for Panache and North Front Theatre, Thursday’s opening night will also mark the sendoff for Anthony Lawson, the theater company’s founding artistic director and a regular performer in the space dating back to its City Stage days.
Lawson is moving to Williamsburg, Virginia, to work at Busch Gardens and will give the curtain speech for “Lizzie” on Thursday night.
Contact John Staton at 910-343-2343 or John.Staton@StarNewsOnline.com.