Gustavson Column: The Suffolk Theater, it’s baaaaaack!

Riverhead Suffolk Theater
The Suffolk Theater on East Main Street. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

So I suppose this is a review. After all, it’s an assessment of an event and a place that are accustomed to being reviewed — a musical performance in a theater. The Suffolk Theater, to be precise.

The art deco gem on Riverhead’s East Main Street and I go way back to the 1980s and ’90’s, when I was a board member, and then president, of the East End Arts Council across the street from the theater. And those were the days when we first started talking about transforming the shuttered former movie theater into a performing arts center.

Yes, I know, mission not accomplished … for at least another two decades, long after Westhampton first started talking about, and in short order creating, a performing arts center of its own.

The convoluted on-again, off-again history of the Suffolk Theater over those two intervening decades is too voluminous to detail in this limited space, but the bottom line is that it’s back in business and, on Sunday evening, a few friends, the former Joan Giger Walker and I had an opportunity to check it out for the first time at a performance by singer Ani DiFranco.

With no disrespect intended toward Ms. DiFranco, she was not the star of the show. The star was the theater itself, which has been lovingly restored and transformed into a spectacular performance space. Every detail — from the floor to the ceiling and everything in between – has been meticulously preserved, restored and/or recreated. The acoustics are first rate and the seating is slyly flexible. On Sunday night, the first 20 rows or so offered standard theater seating, but beyond that and in the balcony there were cabaret-style circular tables and chairs. And with those front rows removed for other performances, that cabaret-style seating is available throughout the theater.

Other pluses include the friendly and helpful staff members, who really seem proud of the space they work in. And the bars — one on the main floor and another smaller one upstairs — would be right at home in an upscale Manhattan hotel.

I was not knocked out by the food component, which seemed more suited for a summer picnic than an upscale dinner theater, but it was moderately priced and served promptly and well in advance of Ms. DiFranco’s performance.

Ah, yes, Ms. DiFranco. I didn’t know much about her music before Sunday night but now I would consider myself a fan in waiting. Her show got off to a somewhat slow start but by its end the audience — particularly those loyal fans able to sing along with every song — were dancing in the aisles. And, again, with no disrespect intended toward the artist herself, my personal highlight was the performance by her brilliant drummer, Terence Higgins, who will be moving up to bigger things, I predict.

If there was a downside to my Suffolk Theater experience, it was the too-visible presence of the security staff. They were working the aisles (and, in some instances, blocking the view of audience members) as if they were patrolling a heavy metal or gangster rap concert — not a folk rock concert. In fact, if theater management is truly concerned about security, I suggest they provide more in the neighborhood surrounding the theater.

But let not that small blemish detract from what was an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable experience. The Suffolk Theater is back, ladies and gentlemen, and I enthusiastically suggest that you check it out for yourself at an upcoming performance. (My personal recommendations: the North Fork’s own Gene Casey and The Lone Sharks on Thursday, May 29; Ben E. King on Saturday, June 7; Georgia Satellites on Friday, June 13; The Lovin’ Spoonful on Thursday, July 3; comedienne Sandra Bernhard on Friday, July 18; Arlo Guthrie on Friday, July 25; Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes on Saturday, July 26; Gene Casey and The Lone Sharks again on Thursday, July 31; and Joan Osborne on Friday, Aug. 8.) For the complete summer 2014 schedule, go to

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