While I spent a few months sidekicking, I was able to enjoy a couple of busman's holidays, seeing some Summer Stock. My own gig as Sancho Panza cannot be classified as a stock gig; Wayside Theatre began its life as a summer theatre, but has long since graduated to year-round producing. But elsewhere in the Shenandoah Valley, there are two other theaters offering up summer fare.
A few miles up the road from Wayside, there is a summer stock theatre which has been producing big musicals for over a quarter of a century. Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre has a special place in my heart, as I've often mentioned in these pages. It provided the first job I ever snagged from a New York audition, and since then, I have returned to play some terrific roles. Though I've only appeared there a handful of times over the past decade or so, I do my best to catch at least one show each season. This year, a whole slew of Man of La Mancha folks gathered to attend SSMT's season opener, Hairspray. The cast was headed by my two favorite Shendites, Rick Wesley and Robin Higginbotham. Rick is an alumnus of the program at Shenandoah University, which hosts SSMT, and since his graduation about a hundred years ago, he has become one of the steady presences each season. This year, he played the drag role of Edna Turnblat, the agoraphobic, "full-figured" hausfrau originally played by Harvey Fierstein onstage, and destroyed by John Travolta in the movie. He was teamed with another Shenandoah favorite, Jack Rowles, and they tore up the stage as the parents of our heroine, Tracy. I admire Rick each and every time I see him, and hope one day to be able to share the SSMT stage with him.
As for Robin, well, I have already shared the stage with that firecracker; she is another alum who has become an integral part of each SSMT season. In Hairspray, she got the rare opportunity to play a villain ( "Miss Baltimore Crabs"), and she was a hoot. Robin and I were the comic relief in Brigadoon a while back, an experience which remains one of my favorites.
The big surprise in Hairspray, for me, was the gal playing best friend Penny, a young actress named Beth Tarnow. Beth played my daughter in Bye Bye Birdie two years ago, and has matured into a dynamic musical performer. She landed every laugh, and practically stole the show.
I love all the success stories of SSMT, because I know first hand how many odds must be overcome there. Artistic Director Hal Herman created the festival 26 years ago, and continues to direct almost all the shows himself. The kids in the ensemble get a crash course in true summer stock: roughly ten days of rehearsal which will include a maximum of four rehearsals with the full orchestra, and only a day and a half onstage before the opening. Even more terrifying, there is one, count 'em ONE, full tech-dress runthrough, without stops, before the opening night crowd shows up. After 26 years, Hal and his crew know how to do it.
Totem Pole Playhouse knows how to do it, too. Their schedule is almost identical to Shenandoah's, and they've been pulling off six or so shows each summer for a whopping 59 years. In previous generations, the theatre was run by Jean Stapleton's husband, and the walls of the theatre are adorned with pictures of her in a variety of shows, before she became a television superstar playing Edith Bunker.
My DC buddy Ray Ficca has recently taken over the reigns of the company, so I was very glad I had the chance to get out to Gettysburg, PA, to see one of his shows. I have seen I Hate Hamlet twice before, including the notorious original Broadway production, where one of the leading players quit the show during intermission (I wrote about seeing that show here). I also saw a community theatre production of this light-weight piece only a year or so ago (go here to read my rant about that monstrosity), so there were not going to be any surprises for me.
Except there actually were. The Totem Pole production was superior to either of the previous incarnations I had encountered, due to the performances of my friends Ray Ficca and Larry Dalke. (If you've dropped by these pages before, you may have noticed that my friends are always the best things in their shows...it's a mysterious phenomenon). Ray played the ghost of John Barrymore in this one, and as always, his physicality brought great sparkle to the show. Larry, I'm not surprised to report, swiped every scene in which he appeared, playing the materialistic Hollywood producer.
I love summer stock, both as a performer and as an observer. I think there is no greater challenge to the stage actor; there is never enough rehearsal, so actors must create on their feet, a very exciting and dangerous task. Hairspray and I Hate Hamlet have both closed by now, already replaced by new productions with the swiftness that only Summer Stock brings.
Both Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre and Totem Pole Playhouse know how to do it.