Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Birdie Buzz

We've got our Birdie legs (wings?) after a week's worth of performances. Audiences seem to love this piece of musical comedy fluff, and the two reviews have been love letters to the show. (I confess that I cannot really trust one of the critics, who called me "subtle." My performance as Harry Macafee is a lot of things, but "subtle" ain't one of them.)

Probably because the show is the final show of the season, I'm detecting some "senior-itis" among the ensemble. They've been on campus, working very hard, since Memorial day, and they now see the light at the end of the gig. And for the first time all summer, they do not have rehearsals to attend during the day.

So, there is a regrettable inconsistency among the kids' performances. When they are ON, they are terrific, but too often, they are sliding through the work just to get it done. Though I understand this, I am saddened by it, as I still maintain that this is the strongest overall ensemble I have worked with at Shenandoah. Though I've been out here four times in the past decade, this is the first year I have worked the final show of the season, so I don't know if this is a common phenomenon here.

Next week, this group of close to 100 actors and techies will part, many to return in a few weeks for the school year, but more than a handful will be gone for good. This year's ensemble includes students from other theatre programs, as well as several graduated seniors who are now finished with their college years. I'll be wishing them all well as this ensemble disassembles, but selfishly, I wish they were a little more willing to infuse these last few performances with the enthusiasm they all felt when they first arrived.

As for me, I shall miss "Hymn for a Sunday Evening" and "Kids" and channelling Paul Lynde.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Outta Town Droppings

After 10 days' rehearsal, I felt the need to try to halt the Conrad Birdie Pledge from ringing in my ears ("We Love You Conrad, Oh Yes We Do..."), so I decided to check out the local theatrical offerings in Winchester and its environs.

I popped down to Front Royal, VA, to catch Wayside Theatre's current production of "Forever Plaid." Wayside's home in Middletown is being remodeled, and the tech folks at the theatre have really pulled off an amazing feat. They turned a couple of empty, industrial buildings into a lively theatre complex complete with proscenium theatre, bar, and plenty of room inside and out. They are just far enough away from the center of town to allow abundant stargazing, and as the twilight descends, the surrounding mountains are gorgeous.

The new Front Royal space is really a gem, and "Forever Plaid" should be selling out every night. The four guys playing a vocal group from the early 60s are all accomplished actors as well as terrific harmonizers, and this slight show is a real hoot. Naturally, I was particularly impressed with my former co-stars Larry Dalke and Vaughn Irving (I appeared in "Black Coffee" with them last season), but the whole ensemble is top-notch. Vaughn's choreography reflects the period while slyly poking fun.

On Saturday, after our quickie 2 hour rehearsal of Birdie, I shlepped out to Totem Pole Playhouse in Pennsylvania to see their production of Neil Simon's "Proposals." It is a charming little play, and this particular production boasted some really fine actors, including my buddy Ray Ficca in a scene stealing role (every role Ray portrays pretty much steals the scene). To Ray's credit, he was also involved in the training of several of the actors in the show, by way of the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts in Georgetown, of which he is the current president.

The rustic Totem Pole Playhouse has been operating for a phenomenal 57 years.

I am so glad I took the time and effort to attend these two performances. It reminded me that regional theatre can happen even out in the boondocks of rural Virginia and Pennsylvania.

People, it seems, still want entertainment that is ALIVE.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

One Week Gone

We have now completed our first week of rehearsal of "Bye Bye Birdie" out at Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre, though "week" is a misnomer. Our first week consisted of three and a half days of rehearsal.

SSMT has this routine down to a science, as they have been doing this every summer for 24 years. First rehearsal day is Thursday, the day after the previous show opens. (Currently, "Evita"). The morning is spent solely on music. The entire score is taught in a matter of hours, to principles and chorus. It is the only substantial rehearsal period devoted strictly to music in the entire rehearsal period. The ensemble members, a VERY talented group this year, really show their stuff at these rehearsals, as they are handed their music, and they sight-sing it, complete with four part (and sometimes five part) harmony.

The professionals hired from the outside (that would be me and 3 others) almost always come off looking like the amateurs at these rehearsals. Shenandoah University is to be commended for insisting that their students learn to sight read, as it will get them jobs.

But I digress. After lunch on Thursday, the afternoon is spent on the read- and sing-through. The ensemble is then dismissed to prep for their evening performance of "Evita," while the jobbers slink away to hurriedly try to catch up to the students.

Friday, the blocking begins. Director Hal Herman, who has been doing this the entire history of SSMT, methodically and efficiently blocks these big musicals, of which our show is the biggest of the season (in terms of cast members). There are surely 50 or more people in this cast, and negotiating the movement of all these townspeople, teenagers, reporters and Shriners, requires a unique skill, which Hal possesses.

Time can't be wasted, for we don't really get the full two week rehearsal period which traditional Summer Stock uses. Saturdays and Wednesdays are matinee days, so rehearsals cease at 12:30. I'm very impressed with this ensemble, comprised of college students and recent graduates, who rehearse from 9 AM to 12:30, then do two shows of something else, then return to the rehearsal at hand the following morning.

When I was 22, I could have done that, too, and I think I did at some points, but these days, I can only wonder how these kids can keep their creative energy going. SSMT does four large-scale musicals every year, and the ensemble works them all. This season began with "Thoroughly Modern Millie," and the cast handled the intricate tap choreography like the pros they are learning to become. Next, "Little Me" required many of the gang to adopt silly accents and exaggerated personas to tell the tale of a social-climbing manhunter. In the current "Evita," the ensemble works as a unified whole, commenting on the action as goose-stepping soldiers, flamenco-dancing denizens of Buenos Aires, or mourners at the feet of Eva Peron.

I hope these hard-working kids can have some fun with "Birdie", their last show. They are looking pretty pooped at rehearsal so far, but, as noted in "Candide," (a show I hope SSMT might one day attempt), "the natural ebullience of youth will soon restore their equanimity."

In other words, our next week of rehearsal will probably perk everybody up.

Friday, July 6, 2007

It Can Now Be Revealed...

...that our well reviewed production of "Opus" at the Washington Stage Guild will be remounted in September. It will be a four week run, and at least as of now, appears to be the only fully staged production which the Stage Guild will offer until they move into their new space in 2008. The landlords of the current space are taking it back in October, and the Guild will have no permanent, or even temporary, home until moving into their swanky new digs in Penn Quarter.

I'm very excited to be returning to the world of the Classical Quartet, but the remount is bittersweet for me. I am once again a victim of lousy timing, and the revival overlaps with my upcoming Olney Theatre debut in "Of Mice and Men." So, I shall only be rejoining the Lazara Quartet for the first week's performances, 9/6 - 9/9/07, after which I will be joining various ranch hands welcoming George and Lenny to the joys of horse-shoes, whore-houses, and doggy euthanasia.

Monday, July 2, 2007

July 2


Yes, I know, you are surely rolling your eyes. Everybody knows that Canada Day is actually July 1st. Except when the first of July lands on a Sunday, in which case, Canada Day is celebrated on July 2nd.

I have a very close relationship with Canada. I spent 2 hours there one winter, as our touring van crossed the border from Michigan to Canada to New York. It was snowing, and the lunch we stopped for was, well, unoffensive. And that's what Canada is all about, isn't it?

At least Canadians officially celebrate July 2nd, even if only occasionally. Americans overlook the date without fail. July 2 is always overshadowed by its more flamboyant sibling, July 4.

But the 2nd should not be discounted. It is the exact middle of the calendar year, with 182 days preceding it, and 182 days following it. (Unless it's a leap year, but don't open that can of worms.)

And July 2 has it's own historical significance. It is the actual date, in 1776, that the Second Continental Congress voted to adopt the Declaration of Independence (though it took that group of slackers two days to actually get the thing signed and printed).

A year later, it was the date that Vermont became the first state to abolish slavery. And Vermont wasn't even AT the Second Continental Congress.

It was also on this date that one of only 4 presidential assassinations took place. James Garfield was shot on this date, though he lingered hopefully until September, when he finally croaked.

Perhaps I'm being a little bit zealous about July 2nd. You have already guessed that it must be my birthday.

But not just mine. Lindsey Lohan was also born on this date, and I imagine she is hoisting a few to celebrate even as I write this. Many significant folks share my birthday, including some with whom I share an affinity. Theatrical genius Tyrone Guthrie was born this day in 1900. I never met him, but sure would like to work at his theatre.

Polly Holliday( Alice's Flo) and Ron Silver (former AEA president and Rhoda co-star) both entered the world today. And Larry David started curbing his enthusiasm on this date, too.

I can't claim to share much in common with Thurgood Marshall (I don't have an airport named after me) or Imelda Marcos (I haven't bought new shoes in years) or the Roman Emperor Valentinian. (Let's get real, who the hell even knows anything about any Roman Emperor after Nero? Well maybe Constantine, but just because he popped up in Sunday School...).

But Happy Birthday to that famous flip-flopper Thomas Cranmer. He was the 15th century cleric who pronounced Henry VIII legally divorced from Catherine of Aragon, and was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury for his pains.

You want to appoint me something important? I'll proclaim whatever the hell you want.

Of course, Cranmer later made a faux-pas by trying to set Lady Jane Grey on the throne, for which that spoil-sport Bloody Mary burned him at the stake. But that didn't happen on July 2nd, so who cares?

Speaking of death and destruction, I have to admit that many more important people died on July 2nd than were born on it. That sourpuss Nostradamus left this earth in 1566, signalling the way to a whole host of influential folks to follow suit.

Earnest Hemingway stopped wondering For Whom the Bell Tolls, discovering on this date that it tolls for he.

WWII Pin-up girl Betty Grable finally retired those million-dollar legs today (In her later years, I saw her in "Hello, Dolly" in summer stock, she wasn't half bad!)

Fred Gwynne made his move out of 1313 Mockingbird Lane permanent today.

Lee Remick and Jimmy Stewart both passed away today. So did the late, great Michael Bennett, creator of "A Chorus Line," "Dreamgirls," and the sorely underrated "Ballroom." (I saw it twice in one week during its short Broadway life.)

On this date, Mario Puzo, creator of "The Godfather," began sleeping with the fishes.

So did Bathsheba Spooner. She was a real piece of work back in the 18th century. She nursed a 16 year old soldier back to health during the Revolutionary War, then became pregnant by him. She then arranged for two escaped British Prisoners of War to kill her aging husband, and dump the old coot down a well.

At her trial, she pleaded extenuating circumstances (wouldn't you?), and became the first woman to be executed by the newly formed United States of America.

She was still pregnant at the time.

Happy Execution Day, Bathsheba!

Amelia Earhart disappeared on this date, in the middle of that round-the-world flight she was taking, and according to the Post, some goof-ball is still looking for her.

...and on this date, it is generally recognized that the fall of modern civilization truly began:

Wal-Mart opened its first store.

Happy Second, Everybody!