The Durham Performing Arts Center – better known as DPAC – is gearing up to present its 10th Broadway season. The top-notch productions and sell-out plays and concerts have surprised and delighted critics and get a lot of credit for the rebirth of this southern city.
The 2016-17 Broadway season at DPAC wrapped up Sunday night with one of the biggest shows of the season, "The King and I." It's the winner of several Tony Awards, including one for Best Revival.
Two of the stars on the national tour are Manna Nichols who plays Tuptim, and Kavin Panmeechao, her love interest, Lun Tha.
"It was like the best curtain call I ever had!" said Nichols, referring to the crowd at DPAC. "So excited, on their feet, screaming, whistling, it was like, oh good, they liked us!"
This is Nichols' and Panmeechao's first time in Durham and they like it, especially the food.
"I went to a really cool coffee shop which I am going to take you to, called Cocoa Cinnamon," said Panmeechao, motioning to Nichols. "I told her about it yesterday and I couldn't stop talking about it!"
They ate at Toast, and the next day they planned to eat at Dames' Chicken and Waffles; the list goes on and on.
What they don't know is none of the restaurants and coffee shops they were bragging about were here when DPAC opened almost 10 years ago. In fact most of them weren't here five years ago. And the Aloft Hotel they stayed in during the run of their show wasn't here even one year ago.
Reginald Johnson heads the Department of Community Development for the City of Durham and is the city's liaison to the performing arts center.
"This is the crown jewel of the city of Durham," said Johnson. "We are known nationally for the DPAC."
Johnson says city leaders and residents took a lot of chances to make DPAC what it is today. He said one great move was to form a partnership with one of the top theater management companies in the country, PFM in Rhode Island, which hired the staff. And then there's the partnership with Nederlander out of New York to operate DPAC.
"Nederlander for example, owns nine theaters on Broadway. This is their expertise. That's what they do," said Johnson.
And the model has proven successful for this once sleepy southern downtown that had one downtown hotel and a couple of restaurants before DPAC.
The city of Durham and the joint venture partners split DPAC's operating profit. Durham gets 40 percent of the cut which equaled $1.8 million in 2016.
Durham's Convention and Visitor's Bureau keeps busy touting the "new" Durham, according to Shelly Green, the bureau's president and CEO.
"And in 2008 when DPAC opened, it opened at the end of the year we had about 6 million visitors to Durham.," said Green. "In 2015, that's the most up-to-date number we have, we had 9.7 million visitors. Our visitation has grown as DPAC has grown."
Numbers from DPAC show attendance for the 2015-16 season broke a record, with 511,000 guests and 119 sell-out performances including R&B Star Mary J. Blige and the Broadway national shows "Matilda" and "The Lion King."
DPAC General Manager Bob Klaus says since opening, every Tony Award Winning Best Musical has come to their 2,800 seat performing arts center.
"It's really the perfect size," said Klaus. "We're the largest performing arts center between Washington, D.C. and Atlanta. That means we can attract the biggest shows."
And it's the big shows that keep the Stotz family coming back every year. Kim and Daniel Stotz were at DPAC to see “The King and I” for their anniversary. They've brought their kids to see "Wicked," "Phantom of the Opera," and "Beauty and the Beast." They live in Clayton now, about an hour away.
"We're from New York so going to see a show in New York City is a nightmare, so this is easy," said Kim Stotz. "This is very pleasant, parking is easy, it is beautiful and it’s really nice here."
The couple said Durham reminds them of a mini New York City neighborhood, without the chaos.
Bill and Gale Yeager were also in the audience to see "The King and I." They live in Pittsboro, but used to live in Durham. The couple admits they did not visit DPAC the first couple of years it was open.
"We had to decide that it was a good place to be in downtown again," said Gale Yeager, referring to all of the stores that had closed.
But now they are sold and make it to the city often for Durham Bulls baseball games and for DPAC. "She saw 'Phantom of the Opera' twice," said Bill Yeager, all smiles.
And there will likely be more smiles soon, the national tour of the Broadway blockbuster "Hamilton" is on the west coast working its way east and will be in Durham for the 2018-19 DPAC season.