Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Shenandoah, Then and Now

Saturday, I drove out to Winchester, VA, to catch the opening show of the current season at Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre. I'll be appearing in their final show of the summer, "Bye Bye Birdie," so I wanted to check out the scene of my next crime.

The show was "Thoroughly Modern Millie," and though I had some trouble with the actual coherence of the piece, the production really couldn't be faulted. I was very impressed with the talent of this year's ensemble, with more than a handful of them playing huge leading roles. This is not always the case at Shenandoah, who often must rely on professional actors to play the leads. But in this production, the title role was being played by a student, as well as her leading man, and the two hilariously caricatured Chinese henchmen were students as well. The choreography was superb, with the kids accomplishing several intricate tap numbers.

I have an on-going relationship with SSMT, one which holds special significance to me. Back in the late '90s, soon after I had earned my MFA in Acting, I determined that I should be taking advantage of the New York audition scene. I subscribed to a couple of the trades, and learned from one of them that Shenandoah University ran a professional summer stock company every year. I submitted myself for their production of "Big River," which I had never seen but thought I could play. (I've learned through the years that pretty much any role Rene Auberjonois has played is a good fit for me...except maybe that alien...).

So, Shenandoah called me in for an audition. The irony of shlepping 4 hours north to Manhattan to audition for a theatre located only 90 minutes from my front door did not dawn on me. I was thrilled to have been chosen from the hundreds of pics and resumes they must have received.

I arranged to sleep on the floor of a friend from my internship, and, map in hand, finally found the audition hall. I sang a bit, then was asked to read a bit, which I overdid. Apparently, that was what they were looking for, as I was cast as the villainous Duke.

The audition remains important to me, in that it was my first audition in New York, and I booked the gig. I've learned since then that that is not always the case...

The ensemble's excitement was infectious, and I had an absolute ball with "Big River."

A few years later, I again submitted myself to SSMT, this time for the role of the Jester in "Once Upon a Mattress." I did not know that the role had already been offered to an alumnus, but they called me in anyway, to read for the much smaller role of The Wizard. The reading went very well, but everyone in the room knew that the role was too small to be given to an Equity actor. But something in my body language sparked director Hal Herman’s imagination, and a few weeks later, I was offered the role of the silent King Sextemus. Again, I had a ball. This character did not speak, though he was a lead. He did not sing, though he had two musical numbers. But I discovered that he had lots of punch lines, and I had another terrific success.

Several more years passed before I went back to Shenandoah, this time playing the comic sidekick in "Brigadoon." I didn’t sing or dance, but was nevertheless the second male lead. And I was astonished that this old chestnut still worked, and our audiences ate it up.

It’s been several more years since "Brigadoon," and I am very excited to be going back to SSMT. This year, I’ll be singing, for the first time since my debut there in "Big River," and I’ll be playing a role which seems well-suited to me.

Shenandoah University offers a prestigious BFA in Musical Theatre, and they are to be congratulated for concocting a terrific way of giving their advanced students a taste of real live, professional summer stock. And for giving a handful of professional actors the chance to regain that infectious enthusiasm which we all used to feel about Being In A Show.

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Shear Must Go On

Last night, I bid farewell to the Kennedy Center, at least for now. My Spring Fling with the phenomenon known as "Shear Madness" went out with a real bang. Our shows earlier this week had small audiences of largely adults, a refreshing change for us. We've spent the last 18 weeks entertaining huge crowds of teens and pre-teens.

Our final performance did have the usual school groups, but what made the show memorable was the reaffirmation of that oldest of professional mottos: "The Show Must Go On." One of our cast members started the show feeling quite queasy, and truth be told, he probably should not have attempted to go on. But it was the last show for our company, and replacing him would have been more than problematic, so on he went.

Anyone who has seen the show recalls that the audience interaction is integral to the proceedings. Just as that section of the show began, Mark muttered something about leaving his toothbrush upstairs (it made sense at the time), and he bolted backstage. The rest of us gamely moved forward, covering Mark's absence while still making the plot points necessary for the Murder Mystery to progress.

Mark returned to us after several long, harrowing minutes, and the show continued as scripted (or as planned, I guess I should say, since much of the show is dependant on the non-scripted responses from the audience.)

It was a memorable show to take us out. I left the theatre knowing that "Shear Madness" remains the most challenging, but probably the most fun, gig in DC. I had a ball this session, only my third trip to "the salon" in about 10 years. We had a dynamite cast and raucously enthusiastic houses.

The administration worked very hard to allow me to do "Opus" at the Stage Guild simultaneously, and for that I'll be always grateful.

Because it is an ongoing show, the creators are very hands-on. This is not a production where the director checks out after opening night. We had consistent notes sessions, and notes emailed, throughout our run. It is the only way to keep such a show fresh and sharp. Not every actor is amenable to that kind of on-going attention, but the show is doing something right. It turns 20 years old next month.

Today is the first day since March that I have not been under contract to perform in one show or another. I have lots of fun stuff lined up for the summer and fall, so I am not complaining.

But, as usual with a piece that you love, it's a bittersweet feeling to be leaving "Shear Madness" behind. It's surely one of the hardest jobs I have ever worked, and one of the most rewarding.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

More Droppings

I had another weekend of Theatre-Going.

On Friday, I attended the Academy of Classical Acting's "graduation production" of "Much Ado About Nothing." The ACA is affiliated with the Shakespeare Theatre Company, and they offer a one year MFA in Acting. A buddy of mine, with whom I appeared in "Shear Madness" a long while ago, was playing Benedick, so I dropped by the rehearsal hall, where the performance was held. I'm pleased to say that the ACA did not rob Josh of his talent, and he was the stand-out.

On Saturday, I attended the matinee of the American premiere of "The Witches of Eastwick" at Signature Theatre in Arlington. I had a couple of friends in the ensemble, the leads all being played by Broadway actors imported in the hopes that the show might get a NY showing with themselves in the roles. All the leads were exceptional, and the show is an entertaining hoot. They have received a rave in The Post, which can only help the show's chances of further life. (The piece ran for a while in London several years ago, helmed by the same director, but was ultimately deemed a loser and died without the planned transfer to Broadway.)

On Sunday, I thoroughly enjoyed my trip out to Olney Theatre to catch their fund-raiser, a cabaret performance of Stephen Schwartz songs. I'm not a huge fan of that composer, but I am a huge fan of Debbie Gravitte and Liz Callaway, which is why I attended. I love really good cabaret, where the performer sits alone and a bit naked in front of the audience, and weaves a story with just a song and a microphone. These ladies are experts, and would be big celebrities if we lived in an era when Broadway stars became nationally known. Sadly, those days are gone, so these terrific talents schlep across the country playing small regional theatres.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Theatre Droppings

I've had a bit of free time lately, with one of my shows now closed, so I've had the chance to catch up on some of the theatrical tidbits going on around town.

I caught the Big Opening Night of Betrayal at Everyman Theatre, and was duly impressed by the three-person cast's ability to handle those pesky Pinter pauses. That's Timmie Ray James at right, portraying the cuckolded husband playing mind games.

I next caught the final weekend of Charter Theatre's well-received Sleeping and Waking. This was a very thought-provoking new play, well written and well-played by, among others, my pal Ray Ficca. The story had a bit of the science fiction to it, as the protagonist, 60 years from now, has undergone the first successful head transplant. Not as nutty as it sounds, and the playwright treats the subject with subtle dignity. And good for Charter Theatre, a group whose mission is to produce new plays exclusively. While this sometimes yields a mixed bag, I have enjoyed every show I've seen there. Of course, that would be only two shows, for you see, while I see the need for New Plays, I don't see the need for ME to see them.

I attended the Saturday matinee of Round House Theatre's current offering, The Summer of '42. This is the musical version of the film from the early 70s and dispenses with that film's very famous theme song by Michel Legrand. I'm sorry to report that the Round House production suffers from inadequate direction, and the cast of twentysomethings has been encouraged to grossly overplay their attempts to portray 15 year olds. In his calmer moments, the young leading man has lots going for him, but I found the performance of the "older woman," a role which made a sensation of Jennifer O'Neill back in the day, to be alternately glacial and pert. I enjoyed the music, which was delivered with expert verve, and several tunes deserve further life. And the Andrews Sisters-style trio who commented on the action (a concept shamelessly lifted from Little Shop of Horrors) was fun indeed.

I have an ongoing love affair with 1776, ever since I saw Joel Grey play John Adams in a summer stock production when I was a kid. Even back then, I recognised the show's need for real actors, not just musical comedy performers. This is one of the meatiest books in the musical canon. I saw a very strong production a few years ago at the Flat Rock Playhouse in North Carolina, and of course, the film does a great job of preserving the original cast's work. (The DVD release restores "Cool, Considerate Men" to the film, which was cut for its theatrical release.) I did not see the recent revival at Fords, though I heard good things, and it's a perfect fit for that historical house.
I was so pleased to be included in a staged reading of the show last year, celebrating the reopening of the National Portrait Gallery; our cast couldn't be beat (I guess it's sometimes easier to get top-notch talent when the commitment is only 5 days long). Steve Kupo and Sherri Edelen were stellar as the Adams family, and absolutely everyone else was terrific too, from Bill Largess's Ben Franklin to JJ Kaczinsky's Richard Henry Lee to Dan Manning's John Dickinson to Tom Simpson's Edward Rutledge to John Macdonald's Col. McKean, and on and on and on.

So there is no doubt that I attended the Keegan Theater's current production with lots of preconceived notions and prejudices. The non-union cast at Church Street Theatre is made up of many community theater regulars and students from local training programs. They have been saddled with problematic musical accompaniment (much of it canned) and troubling directorial choices as well. On the bright side, I've never seen Church Street Theatre house a better set design. But the production can never really rise above the weakness of its leading players, who are all wobbly, both musically and dramatically. The director has failed to instill his company with the necessary sense of urgency, particularly in the big congressional scenes. There is a general lack of focus in those big scenes which torpedoes any suspense the audience might be feeling.

I walked out (after 3 hours! The show should run 2 and a half), humming the set. And looking forward to the rumored production at Olney Theatre in 2008.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Why, oh why?

This disturbing bit of news makes me wonder who's in charge of The Theatre these days. A musical version of Gone With the Wind? Doesn't Trevor Nunn remember the DISASTROUS attempt to accomplish that impossible task back in the early 70s?

Lesley Ann Warren and Harve Presnell were the poor schnooks roped into trying to establish Scarlett and Rhett as singing stars. The American production, with Pernell Roberts replacing Presnell, died on the road to Broadway, but the London production is better remembered.

Apparently the biggest splash on Opening Night in London was made by the performance of Charley, the horse helping the gang escape the burning of Atlanta. During that climactic scene, Charley took a dump onstage, and a star was born.