great moments in the theatre

We had a good rehearsal for “The Foreigner” tonight, except that our lead, Aaron Gaines, wasn’t there. He had a good excuse: tonight was opening night for “Once Upon A Mattress” at Motlow College, in which he’s a cast member.

We started the evening working on one scene and finished it working on a different scene. In between, while we were taking a break, our director, Tony Davis, had us sit and tell our favorite non-musical play, our favorite musical, and our favorite moment from any play. In some cases, what we were remembering fondly were film versions of the plays in question, but in other cases they were plays that we’d seen, performed in, or dreamed of performing in.

Anyway, here were my answers, which are subject to change without notice:

Favorite non-musical play: “The Man Who Came To Dinner,” by George S. Kaufmann and Moss Hart

I remember this from two sources: the movie version starring Monty Wooley, which is one of my all-time favorite film comedies, but also the video of a Broadway revival version which starred Nathan Lane. The late Julio Francesconi, when he had stopped by the Times-Gazette to drop off one of the wonderful short stories he wrote for us at Christmas, Halloween or Easter, once told me he thought I’d be perfect for the starring role in the play. I’d love to do that someday. It’s too large a cast for The Fly, but maybe they’ll do it one day in Tullahoma.

I’ve blogged about this before, so I probably don’t need to ramble on too much about it, but it’s a comedy about a pompous, sharp-tongued and self-centered radio comentator and columnist, Sheridan Whiteside (a thinly-veiled parody of Algonquin Round Table member Alexander Woolcott, a friend of the playwrights). Whiteside, with his harried secretary in tow, storms into a small Ohio town for a speaking engagement, but breaks his hip and is forced to stay a while, taking over the house of the hapless family that had only planned to serve him a pre-lecture meal. When his secretary starts to fall for the local newspaperman, Whiteside fears losing her and schemes to break up the romance.

Here, you can see a little bit of Monty Wooley followed by a little bit of Nathan Lane. Coincidentally, I think the Lane clip takes place immediately after the Wooley clip:

Favorite musical play: “Guys And Dolls,” music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, based on short stories by Damon Runyon

I have long said that if I had any vocal talent at all, my dream role would be Nicely Nicely Johnson in “Guys and Dolls.” He’s a supporting player, but gets to sing my two favorite songs in the score, “Fugue For Tinhorns” and “Sit Down (You’re Rocking The Boat).”

I know this one only from the movie version, but I think it’s supposed to be relatively faithful to the play.

The movie is set in Runyon’s world of lovable and relatively-harmless gangsters and gamblers. Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra, in the movie version) runs “the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York,” but he’s running out of places to hold it and needs some cash to put down as a deposit on a possible location. In hopes of a windfall, he bets high roller Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando) that Masterson can’t seduce strait-laced Salvation Army* missionary Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons).

Technically, Sky Masterson is the lead role – and Sinatra was furious when he had to settle for the part of scrappy Nathan Detroit instead of the ladies’ man Masterson. But a good Nathan Detroit can actually steal the show, as Nathan Lane did in the 1992 Broadway revival that launched his career.

*They don’t actually call it “The Salvation Army,” choosing the movie-generic “Save-A-Soul Mission” instead, but the intent is clear.

Favorite moment from a play:

You will find it at the very end of this clip, after the song. George Hearn, playing the title role in “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” is obsessed with revenge. When Mrs. Lovett (Angela Lansbury) gives him back his old barber tools, he sings to them, holding aloft the straight razor with which he hopes to strike down the man who ruined him. He then says, in a growl-like scream, “at last my arm is complete again.” Chills ran down my spine the first time I saw this, on public television in 1985. Johnny Depp was not even in the same ballpark.

The final curtain

Well, the play is over, which is simultaneously the best and worst feeling in the world.

For weeks, I worked on my lines every day, worried that I’d never get all 300 lines memorized. Two rehearsals a week eventually turned into three a week, and then four rehearsals during “hell week” before we opened on the 18th.

And now it’s all over. I can delete the audio files from my phone, and go back to listening to music, or nothing at all, during my daily walk rather than listening to my lines. My schedule has suddenly gotten more open.

I’m tired; in some ways, I’m ready for it to be over. I won’t be auditioning for the Christmas play tomorrow afternoon; it’s hard for me to go straight from one production into another, although I know a lot of theatre people who do just that.

But I will miss it. This was a great role – the favorite role I’ve ever played, and it was the lead, which is always fun (but also adds some pressure). There’s nothing like being the last person out for curtain call. Even more important, this was a great cast and crew – I’d worked with most of them before. As most of us sat at Chili’s just now, unwinding from a week of performances, you could feel the mutual affection and admiration. I will miss spending time with these people – Martin and Dianne and Morgan and Amanda and Keith and Meridith and April and Joe and Cliff and Mary Ann and Randy and Anne.

And in a two-weekend production, there’s always the sense during that second weekend that we’ve just now gotten it right. You wish you had a few more opportunities to show the production off now that it’s been sharpened. But it’s got to come to an end.

I won’t know what to do with myself this week. I plan to get back to work on the book of sermons, devotions and essays that I’ve been compiling. Depending on how that goes, I may or may not decide to jump into National Novel Writing Month in November.

I’ll probably feel a little more lonely than usual this week. But I’ll get over it.


I have a lot of lines in “Don’t Drink The Water.” I haven’t counted them; it’s probably not as many lines total as I had a few years ago in “Cash On Delivery.” But it seems like more, and in Act 2 I have several extended speeches. It will all work out, but at this stage of the game it always looks like a mountain to climb.

Monday night’s rehearsal was a table read-through, and I recorded it on my smartphone, making a separate file for each scene. I had to use Audacity on my desktop computer to clean up each file — taking out long stretches in which I have no lines, as well as cutting out parts of the readthrough where we got diverted. (We’ve eliminated a minor character, and so we had to reword a couple of lines referring to that character.) If I started out saying a line the wrong way and then corrected myself, I cut out the bobble (or else I might wind up memorizing the wrong word!).

I got Act 1 finished and loaded onto my phone Monday night, and so I was able to listen to my lines while doing my daily walk yesterday and today. Now, tonight, I’ve finished with Act 2 (and it’s a two-act play, so I’m done). Being able to listen to this recording is part of my strategy, and it’s worked well for the last few plays I’ve been in.

I think we have a really funny cast, and it will be fun to see things come together over the next few weeks. But “hell week,” and the production itself, will be here before we know it. I just hope I’m ready.

don’t drink the water

Attention, Middle Tennessee friends: I will be playing the part of Walter Hollander in a production of Woody Allen’s play “Don’t Drink The Water” Sept. 18-20 and 25-26 at the Fly Arts Center in Shelbyville.

The play will be directed by Martin Jones, a press operator at the Times-Gazette with whom I’ve appeared on stage several times in several different venues. Since this is Martin’s first time directing, Sue Thelen, who directed both Martin and me last year in “Daddy’s Dyin’ … Who’s Got The Will?” is assisting him.

It’s a very funny play, and I love my part – a role that was played by Lou Jacobi on Broadway, Jackie Gleason in the 1960s movie version, and by Woody Allen himself in the 1990s TV movie (which Woody also directed – he wasn’t involved with the theatrical movie and never cared for it, so the TV movie gave him a chance to remake the story his own way).

dontdrinkThe story is set in the 1960s in a mythical Communist country in Europe. The Hollander family – Walter, Marion and their daughter Susan – are “ugly American” tourists who cause an international incident when Walter innocently takes photos of something that turns out to be a military installation. He is accused by the local secret police of being a spy.

The family takes refuge in the U.S. embassy, but the ambassador is on his way back to the states and has left things in the hands of his incompetent son Axel (played by Michael J. Fox in the TV movie version). Between Walter’s bluster and Axel’s bumbling, things get worse and worse, and there’s some question whether anyone will make it out of the embassy in one piece.

Meanwhile, Axel and Susan (played by Mayim Bialik in the TV movie) find romance.

Father Drobney, a Catholic priest who’s been a refugee living in the embassy for years now, serves as a narrator, talking directly to the audience about the plot.

It’s all a lot of fun, I think we have a good cast (a few supporting roles still need filling),  and I can’t wait to get into the plot. I would love for any of you to come and see the production. You’ll be hearing more from me about it in the weeks to come.

daddy’s dyin’ … orville’s rehearsin’

The last play I was in was “It’s A Wonderful Life: The Radio Show” over the holidays. But when I first saw a notice for auditions for “Daddy’s Dyin’ … Who’s Got The Will?” at the Fly Arts Center, I didn’t even think about auditioning.

You see, production dates were in late September – and I was planning on taking a mission trip in early September, right when some of the most intense rehearsals would no doubt be taking place. It would simply not be possible to prepare for, and do justice to, a play and a mission trip in the same short period.

Then, last Tuesday, the mission trip got put off until some undetermined time in 2015, due to the current Ebola outbreak in Liberia. Please continue to keep the people of West Africa in your prayers.

Then, I saw a notice for one last audition for the play, this past Sunday. It was already a busy weekend for me, what with judging two chili cookoffs and attending a church ice cream social. But I figured I might at least go and try auditioning for the play.

I have gotten the part of Orville.

The play, by Del Shores, is a family comedy set in Texas. Buford Turnover (who will be played by my Times-Gazette co-worker Martin Jones, with whom I’ve worked several times before) has suffered a stroke, and isn’t expected to live long. The various family members come together, and immediately start getting on each other’s nerves and (as the play’s title indicates) looking at the impending death through the lenses of self-interest. The humor is a little like the “Mama’s Family” segments on “The Carol Burnett Show” – back-and-forth insults and over-the-top portrayals.

The play was made into a 1990 movie featuring Beau Bridges as Orville. I have not seen this, and I do not want to see it until after our production.

This will be a new experience for me. Although I haven’t read the full play, and won’t get my book until some time tomorrow, the description of Orville at the publisher’s web site, and the scenes I read during the audition, make it clear that Orville is the least-likable character I’ve ever played. He’s a redneck garbage collector, kind of mean, mean to his wife and to the other family members gathered together at their father’s bedside. Now, I believe that all of the characters get at least a little redemption as they come together at the end of the play, but this will still be quite a different experience from any role I’ve played before. It’s a good challenge for an actor.

I have to find the humanity in Orville, and the playwright is clear about the fact that he considers these to be rounded characters, not stereotypes, so hopefully he’ll give me something to work with in that regard.

There is a little language in the play – the worst thing I heard in Sunday’s excerpts was a four-letter term for excrement.

As I said, T-G printing press operator Martin Jones plays the family patriarch, Buford. Since I had only Sunday’s auditions to go by, I thought I was competing with Martin for the part of Orville. But Martin wanted the part of Buford and had already read for it extensively at the earlier auditions. I told Martin today that since I played his father in “Come Blow Your Horn,” it’s only fair that he should now take a turn playing my father.

Retired T-G editor Kay Rose is also in the play, in the part of feisty Mama Wheelis. Kay has been in a number of local theater productions but I’ve never been in a play with her before, so this will be fun as well.

Production dates are: September 19, 20, 26 & 27 at 7 p.m. and September 28 at 2 p.m. All performances will be at the Fly Arts Center, just off the square in Shelbyville. You can call 931-684-8359 or visit The Fly Arts Center Monday, Tuesday or Thursday from 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. for tickets.


road trip

OK. I had a really crappy first part of the week. There was a special event that I wanted to attend – and thought I deserved to be able to attend – and I couldn’t go because I couldn’t afford it. And I was primarily mad at myself, but also projected some of that anger onto a couple of innocent people who I (narcissistically) thought should have been more concerned than they were about my absence, perhaps to the point of calling me about it and getting me to admit the back story.

But if the first part of the week was a low point, this weekend more than made up for it, and exorcised the demons that had been plaguing me.

Here’s the back story:

Many years back, when my brother Michael was single and living in the Dallas area, he starred in a production of “Harvey” which, by sheer coincidence, opened on his birthday. Mom, Dad, my sister and I drove down secretly, watched the play from the back row, and then surprised him afterward. It’s been a beloved family story ever since.

Mike is now married, has two kids, and lives in Fayetteville, N.C. He’s gotten back into theater lately; he was supposed to be the lead in a big production last summer but broke his foot. This summer, he played Leonato in “Much Ado About Nothing” and also had a part in a comedy called “A Company Of Wayward Saints.” Dad wanted to go and surprise Michael again the way we surprised him in Texas. So we’d been making plans for the trip for some time, without telling anyone in North Carolina.

Then, a week or two ago, Mike called my father. My gifted nephew had gotten a chance to go to Space Camp, in Huntsville, Ala., at the last minute and at a deep discount. Mike and Kelly had decided that Kelly would drive the boy down (since Mike would be busy with the play) and then Mike would drive down a week later, after the play had closed, to pick him up. Mike asked Dad if it would be all right for Kelly and the boy to spend the night with him on Saturday, June 14.

That’s right; of all the days in the year they might call and ask to stay at Dad’s house, they picked the night when Dad, and the rest of us, planned to be in Fayetteville, N.C.

Dad covered quickly, telling Michael that he and Ms. Rachel had already made plans to go out of town that weekend (true!), but that Kelly and the boy were more than welcome to use his house while he was gone.

A few days later, we surreptitiously got in touch with Kelly and filled her in on what was really going on.

Friday, Dad, Ms. Rachel, Elecia and I got an early start and made it to Fayetteville by about 5:30. We had originally hoped to catch Michael before he left for his Friday night performance, but we missed him. When we pulled up to the house in Fayetteville, no one was home. Kelly and the kids were out shopping, and Mike was already at the theater. We returned a little later to see Kelly and the kids, while Mike was taking the stage.

Later that night, after Mike’s Friday night performance, Kelly got him to call my father and Dad revealed that we were, in fact, in Fayetteville. Mike was genuinely surprised and now says he’ll never trust any of us again.

The next morning, Kelly and the boy made a very early start for Tennessee. We spent a pleasant day seeing the sights of Fayetteville with Michael and the girl. In the afternoon, we had a little down time, and I got to relax in the Days Inn pool, which I had pretty much to myself. Then, that night, with the girl in the hands of a babysitter, we went to the play.

I found it wonderful. “A Comedy of Wayward Saints,” by George Herman, is a terrific play, and the Gilbert Theater cast, including my brother, was terrific. It starts out as a wacky comedy about a commedia dell’arte troupe trying desperately to impress a nobleman who can give them the money to get home. But in the second act, the wacky comedy gives way to a warmer but still light-hearted exploration of the nature of humanity. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

This morning, we started the nine-hour drive home, arriving about 4 p.m. Shelbyville time. Kelly, meanwhile, dropped the boy off in Huntsville at noon today and then headed to Fayetteville from there – no telling if we crossed paths at some point.

It was a great trip, a great play, and a great chance to spent some time with the family over Father’s Day weekend.

Schedule update

posterOK, I’ve finally gotten with my Times-Gazette co-worker Martin Jones to figure out who’s doing what dates of “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

If you’re interested in seeing me in the show, I’ll be doing four of the currently-scheduled dates:

  • Saturday, Dec. 14, at Mel’s (7 p.m.)
  • Wednesday, Dec. 18, at Fair Haven Baptist Church (6:30 p.m.)
  • Thursday, Dec. 19, at Mel’s (7 p.m.)
  • Saturday, Dec. 21, at Community High School (7 p.m.)

Martin will be playing our shared parts at two other performances:

  • Tuesday, Dec. 17, at Fair Haven (6:30 p.m.)
  • Sunday, Dec. 22, at Community High School (2 p.m.)

A few additional performances may be added after the first of the year.

Remember, you don’t need tickets for any performance, and there’s no admission charge, but please come prepared to make a donation to the Friends of Mandy Jean fund.

Opening night

I’ve had an irritated throat, a lot of drainage and even an irritated tongue (as if I’d burned it on something) for the past day or two. I feel fine otherwise, so I’m sure it’s just allergies (or perhaps some weird reaction to my flu shot on Wednesday). I’m about to have some blueberry herbal tea with honey. The last thing I need is to have a scratchy throat tonight.

I took a vacation day today – not only because of the play tonight, but to manage some days I’d built up when I thought the Sierra Leone trip was going to be in December. I need to check and see if I’m close to the limit of vacation days we can carry over from one calendar year to the next.

We will take walkups on any night if space is available, but your best bet is to call 931-247-3481 and make a reservation. Shows are tonight and tomorrow, as well as next Friday and Saturday, at Mel’s (next to the Capri Theater on Depot Street). It’s going to be a very funny play.

Party hearty

Well, we had pickup rehearsal* tonight. One of our key cast members was absent – he was trying out for “Camelot” in Woodbury – so I got to read his parts. I particularly loved being the announcer, and Mr. Potter.

The restaurant is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, but the staff was having their holiday party tonight at one end of the restaurant while we were rehearsing on the other end.

We discussed some revisions to the script and then began our rehearsal. We made it through the first act and had started on the second when we took a little break to celebrate the birthday of Keith Wortham, one of our castmates. We had a giant birthday cookie. We were just finishing up when the restaurant staff told us they had plenty of extra food – cheese balls, dips, crackers and the like – and would we like to help ourselves?

We joked about having eaten dessert first, but most of us didn’t turn down the free nosh.

While we were enjoying ourselves, the restaurant staff took the chance to take the dance floor (most of the tables in front of our stage had been moved out of the way; they’ll be put back in time for the next performance on Friday) and do a routine.

Anyway, by the time they’d wrapped up, we were worrying about moving our sound effects table into position. By 9:15 or so, it was pretty clear we weren’t going to get back to practice. But that’s OK. I think we’ll do just fine.


*Pickup rehearsal is a rehearsal in between weekend performances, to keep yourself sharp, work on any problems that revealed themselves during the first few performances, or what have you. Sometimes, pickup rehearsals aren’t taken very seriously, and cast members take the chance to do their parts in funny voices, walk onto stage in funny masks or costumes, or otherwise try to break up their castmates. We didn’t intend to make this that kind of pickup rehearsal, however; our intent really was to work on the play, since we’d had an abbreviated rehearsal schedule prior to our first performance.

Noises Off

The last time my out-of-state brother and sister-in-law came in for a visit, Mike loaned me their DVD of “Noises Off.” I’ve never seen either the play or the movie; I’ve had several community theater castmates talk about a production they did a few years back in Tullahoma.

Anyway, I hadn’t gotten around to watching the DVD until tonight. It’s wonderful. The 1992 movie got some poor reviews – Siskel and Ebert both gave it thumbs down – but I found it hilarious. And what a cast! Michael Caine, Carol Burnett, Christopher Reeve, John Ritter, Marilu Henner, Mark Linn-Baker, Julie Hagerty, Nicolette Sheridan and Denholm Elliott (Indy’s boss Marcus from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”).

The movie, like the play, is the behind-the-scenes tale of the first American stage production of a teasingly-bawdy British farce. (Sheridan spends much of the play-within-a-play, and thus much of the movie, in her underwear.) We see how the various jealousies, conflicts and alliances among the cast members wreak havoc on the production – and since the play-within-a-play/movie is a farce, dependent on exact timing and the placement of various props, havoc is easily wreaked.

For the first third of the movie, we see the action on-stage, at a disastrous dress rehearsal which is interrupted periodically by the exasperated and increasingly-sarcastic director (Caine).  We’re introduced to the play-within-a-play and understand some of the transitions that have to be made and how things would fall apart if they didn’t happen smoothly.

The middle third of the movie takes place during a production on the road in Miami, and in this case we see all the action from backstage – as various jealousies and misunderstandings have the cast feuding. Since talking isn’t allowed backstage, much of this is mimed, as we hear the muffled onstage dialogue in the distance. This middle third is brilliantly staged and blocked physical comedy, with cast members weaving and bobbing around. There’s some wonderful business with a liquor bottle which the cast is trying to keep away from Elliott’s character, a British actor past his prime and with a weakness for alcohol.

Then, the last third of the movie takes place during a later production, in Cleveland. We move back in front of the stage. Cast relationships have gone even further downhill, with hilariously-catastrophic results onstage.

Of course, one of the reasons that my brother likes the play, and that he knew I would like it, is that we’ve both done community theater. Maybe it wouldn’t be quite as funny if you don’t have that background. But give it a chance anyway.

It’s sad to watch the movie now and think that neither Reeve nor Ritter is with us. Also, it was Elliott’s last film; he died in 1992, the year it was released, which is why he wasn’t in the last Indiana Jones film.