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.