Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Team Wicket

You, you got me
Me, I got you...
--"Brotherhood of Man"

With the intense activity of getting through technical rehearsals and our opening weekend, I had to neglect you, dear reader, but now that "How To Succeed" is up and running, I can muse upon things a bit. Theatre, as you can well imagine--if you are not one of us nuts who decided to purse this career--is very much a collaborative art form. The putting up of a show has often been likened to the efforts of a sports team, with each individual playing his or her role as part of a collaborative effort with a common goal. The team metaphor definitely has validity, because without every one's committed participation, the organism of the production cannot function. It is an interesting conundrum for the actor to realize that in service to the entire piece, he has to set aside his own personal egocentric needs. You must admit there is an irony there when a person pursues a career which is all about performing for an audience in the search for their approval, validation, and applause--and then has to accept that he or she has to put others first! These challenges were rife during our week of technical rehearsals leading to our preview/opening weekend.

Mounting a complicated musical comedy in three weeks is a monumental task. Add to this the unique challenges that the Goodspeed Opera House itself presents for designers, technicians and performers and crew alike, and the task becomes even more daunting. I don't think Goodspeed patrons realize that in order to build the set, hang the lights, complete the costumes, and work out the sometimes hundreds of sound and lighting cues, there are crews working round the clock for three days. The performers and musicians rehearse ten hours a day. The Goodspeed space is so small, that all the choreography and set moves must be re-rehearsed in order to fit the playing area allotted. In addition, our highly creative director and choreographer have a free form style of working that requires each performer to be at the ready to absorb and integrate dozens of detailed and sometimes minute changes at the drop of a hat. This can all be exhilarating, but it can also be exhausting and deeply trying for all involved. However, it is the adrenaline of that process and the satisfaction of being a 'problem solver' and a quick, skilled artist that keeps us coming back again and again. Tech week is the birthing process, and at the risk of being graphic, all birthing processes can be painful and messy.

Yet none of this effort and struggle showed last Friday night, when we brought a laughing, cheering opening night audience to its feet as we gave our new baby to the world. Jo Sullivan Loesser graced us with her presence, and came on stage at curtain call to hug our leading players and to declare unreservedly that she had a marvelous time and that Frank would have been happy with our production. There was a definite energy from audience, performers and crew that night--an excitement and anticipation that got us through the rough patches. For us, our first performance was really more like a dress rehearsal, but for that audience it was a joyful premiere. Our choreographer calls us "Team Wicket" because we are troupers--we band together and make things work; we finesse moments that are still in a nascent stage, we 'sell' steps that are still being conceived. Even now, we continue to rehearse during previews, as we seek to deliver just the right product for our creative team and producers. Every team has an MVP and ours is Brian Sears, whose character of Finch is the center of the show. Brian must lead us all every night in this mammoth musical comedy star turn, and he is doing one hell of a great job! Truly he sets the standard, ably seconded by Broadway veteran Ronn Carroll, whose deft comedic talent is another anchor in this production. With standards like these, we all can only rise to the occasion and bring this zany ride home.

This weekend I will raise the stakes even higher as I go on for five performances in my capacity as understudy in the role of Bert Bratt, the personnel director. Aaron Serotsky, who is playing the part, is getting married this weekend and I wish him and his bride a wonderful wedding. And so, while we continue to refine the show and perform our previews, I am cramming as much of Bratt as I can in preparation for my first time on in the part Friday night. If you have never understudied before, the only way to describe that first time out in a part is that it's like those dreams you might have had in college or high school: you are about to take a test and realize that you never attended a class and have not studied one thing. It's also like jumping on to a moving train (and clinging on for dear life!). But again, it is the team around you that you count on to support and get you through. I have no doubt Team Wicket will have my back.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Gypsy In My Soul

These few weeks of rehearsal in the ensemble of this show have been an enormous reminder to me of just how hard the task of the chorus singer/dancer is. Truly, the ensemble members are the hardest working people in the show and we have to be able to do it all--sing, dance intricate choreography, provide assistance with scene shifts, act as set dressing, and play small roles; sometimes many characters in the course of each performance. It has been a seismic shock to my system to be challenged to rise to the occasion of taking my place "in the line" as it were. And all I can say is that A) my hat is off to the gifted performers working alongside me--their talent, their stamina, (their YOUTH) astonishes me... and B) I intend to prove myself worthy of being in their midst. It's taking a lot of brain strain, sweat, and epsom salts but I'm getting there!

We did have a wonderful glimpse of the show that we are creating this week in an invited run through. The Goodspeed staff and crew, the producers, as well as guests from the current show, "Carnival!" and Jo Sullivan Loesser herself crowded into the studio to watch us do our second only run of the entire show. We are still at a tentative stage with much of the business, and the complicated dances and transitions, but I have to say, our company pulled it out and gave a wonderful early performance! I have been going in early every day and drilling the choreography, and clearly the other performers have also been doing their homework, because we really stepped up and put our all into it, and we now really feel we have a show. And a delightful, fast paced, and amusing show it is. In just two days we rehearse with the orchestra for the first time and then it's an intense few days of technical rehearsals leading to our first performances. Rest, focus, and more epsom salts are in order. Planning to spend my day off out in the beautiful weather and stunning scenery of the Connecticut River Valley. Every day, Mother Nature paints a few more leaves in shades of red and orange, and autumn is beginning to blaze across the region. In just a week or two it will be prime foliage time and I hope many "leaf peepers" will come out to see beauty and stop in to have a great laugh with us at Goodspeed and this terrific show.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Perfectly Frank

Remarkably, after posting my blog last week, which contained an account of my involvement with a Frank Loesser revue spearheaded by Jo Sullivan Loesser, the lady herself graced us with a visit during rehearsals for How To Succeed...!
Ms. Loesser takes a keen interest in any major revival of Frank's work, and is constantly at work preserving his creations and enlivening interest in revivals and fresh concepts of his lesser known pieces. What a treat it was for us as a company to sit in a circle and listen to Ms. Loesser's tales about her life with this American genius and in particular her accounts of the creation and original production of the show we are working on. Jo is a feisty, no nonsense little lady with a hearty laugh and a shoot-from-the-hip sense of humor. She adored Frank Loesser, even though she amusingly describes him as "a pain in the neck," and from her stories a portrait of Loesser emerges-- of a brilliant musician who talked like a character out of the Damon Runyon books that Guys and Dolls was based upon; a prodigious talent who worked only at night (often pausing for martinis at 4AM), and who created the entire score for How To Succeed in six weeks. Jo related to us the story of the opening of the show, and how Frank hated opening nights; in an early scene of the play, a piece of scenery wobbled when it was moved on stage, and Frank stood up, left the theatre and spent the entire first night in the bar! She talked to us at length about what works best in performance of the material, and how certain pieces of the score came to be created. Frank felt that the satirical nature of the Shepherd Mead book on which the piece was based did not lend it well to the inclusion of a romantic love ballad in the score. When he felt he really needed to add one for the good of the storyline between Finch and his secretary girlfriend, he decided to do a takeoff of the "Maria" number from the then wildly popular West Side Story. The result is the florid and over the top "Rosemary" number which closes Act One. It is tales like this that only someone who was there and witnessed the creation of this classic musical can tell--which made Jo Loesser's visit all the more special for each and every one of us. We truly felt we had been given a glimpse of theatre history through this fabulous little lady, and how grateful we all were for that opportunity!

Rehearsals continue at breakneck speed, as our intrepid director and choreographer push to stage the entire piece in time to allow us a week of refinements and intensive drilling of the material before our technical process begins in just over a week. As of this writing we only have one scene left to stage as well as the finale of the show. Greg and Kelli's work is at once playful and incredibly intense; they ask of us complete flexibility, high energy, and total concentration. The choreography and staging is extremely stylized and detail oriented, requiring a high level of technical ability--this is a true farce in the best sense, and will, in its final form, resemble the whimsical cartoons created by the illustrator "Claude" for the original Mead book, cartoons like the ones found in the classic New Yorker magazines. Each and every gesture and nuance is given special emphasis and the tempos and comedic bits are being intricately worked out. I think that the sheer exuberance, energy and speed of the show are going to take the audience's breath away.

Equally breathtaking will be Gregory Gale's stunning costumes, which are being made completely from scratch for our production. Both of my 1960s slim suits fit me superbly and are sharp as a razor. My fitting this week allowed me a chance to really see what Milt Gatch and my other characters will look like and the style of the costumes is completely in harmony with the snazzy comedy of our performances. I gotta tell ya, this show is going to be a total hoot and expertly crafted on every level. It will be something special not to be missed! Stay tuned for more as we head into week three of the rehearsal process...

Friday, September 3, 2010


I am delighted that Goodspeed Musicals invited me back for another great show this season: the Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning classic, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. This time around, I get to join an outrageously talented ensemble of performers and play the very amusing featured role of Mr. Gatch, the office 'grabber,' in this send up of corporate politics and ambition. It's an exciting time to be working on a fresh new production of this piece, as Broadway will soon see a major revival starring Daniel Radcliffe, better known as Harry Potter. After this first week's rehearsals, I can safely say we will be giving any production of this show a run for its money!!

Our How To Succeed... is directed by the talented Greg Ganakas, a Goodspeed favorite, and choreographed by the inventive Kelli Barclay. Greg, in addition to being enormously creative and clever, is hysterically funny, with an outrageous and completely disarming sense of humor. His energy blends beautifully with that of Kelli, whose methods of working are exciting, spontaneous and infinitely skillful. Greg calls this show a "crackerjack" piece and he has absolute faith in this tried and true material, with its witty book by Abe Burrows and timeless score by Frank Loesser; he is being true to the spirit of the piece while applying his imagination and sense of whimsy in some amazing and unexpected ways, using the 1960s swanky style of the hit TV series "Mad Men" as inspiration for the world of the piece. He has assembled a cast of such unique and vivid performers that each and every one--from our leads, to our ensemble singer/dancers--is a standout. I feel fortunate to be of their number.

As I mentioned in a previous post, this is the first time I have been asked to perform as part of an ensemble in literally twenty years, and even though I was daunted by the prospect initially, this week has reminded me how much I love to dance and how very, very hard ensemble performers work. Our 'chorus' provides the personnel, the color and flavor of the World Wide Wicket Company, and is an integral and essential part of the piece. My 'dancer brain'--the one that picks up steps and choreography--is having to be retuned, and my body has to readjust to the rigors of the choreographic rehearsal process, but I have to say, I am having a total ball doing this stuff. While my ambition from the time I was 12 was to be a classical actor, I also grew up in the late 70s, when A Chorus Line and films like "All That Jazz" and "Fame" made jazz dancing a national craze; so I was also obsessed with dance from an early age. I trained in jazz, tap and ballet and performed as a dancer in musicals for many years, and I am reminded every day during these rehearsals how thrilling it is to move. I am really proud and happy to say that...well... I still got it!

I have an interesting history with the incredible genius of Frank Loesser, best known for How To Succeed... as well as the immortal Guys and Dolls and Most Happy Fella, not to mention the countless songs he wrote for the musical movies of the Golden Age of Hollywood, songs that became an indelible part of our collective American culture: "Baby, It's Cold Outside;" "Heart and Soul;" Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition;" and so many more. A number of years ago, I was asked to be a part of a revue of Loesser's songs created and directed by Richard Sabellico, entitled Heart and Soul. Loesser's widow, the Broadway singer/actress Jo Sullivan Loesser, had long wished to commission a successful retrospective of Frank's work, and this project was intended to fulfill that objective. All the text for the revue was quoted from things Frank Loesser actually wrote or said, and it was chock full of his greatest songs. At the time, I was still a well known female impersonator, specializing in portraying Marlene Dietrich, for whom Loesser wrote what became signature numbers, most notably the saloon song "The Boys in the Back Room." So in the revue I appeared as Dietrich and as Bette Davis (singing "They're Either Too Young or Too Old" written for Davis for the wartime flick "Hollywood Canteen"), then led the finale as myself in the wonderful Guys and Dolls number "Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat." The show was presented at a regional theatre but never made it to New York; however, it was such a great experience, and to this day I still use the Tiffany key chain Jo Loesser gave each of us performers on opening night, with a heart shaped charm on it engraved with "H&S" for Heart and Soul. I understand Ms. Loesser is coming to see our production, as she is passionately dedicated to the preservation of Frank Loesser's works. It will be nice to be reacquainted with this legendary lady.

So we are off and running, and I look forward to giving you a peek at the inside of this process. Stay tuned!