Best of Broadway, May, 2008 Part I

I’ve lost count, but I expect that we have done 35-40 Best of Broadway tours to New York in my nearly 26 years. At a theatre conference in St. Paul, in 1983, a community theatre colleague asked if anyone wanted to put together a tour. He had been working with Jim Albrecht, a tour specialist in the Minneapolis area, who packaged tours for small theatres. The deal was: if a minimum number of participants signed up, the theatre director got to go for free. I was all about free.

May, 2008 Best of Broadway

Five participants registered the first year - hardly enough to justify a free trip, but Jim was willing to take a risk that more would come on board the next time. Long before dawn on a Thursday morning in the spring of 1983, five tired but excited Playhouse supporters boarded a bus to Omaha, taking advantage of lower airfares. I wasn’t among them. My 3-year-old daughter, Kristina, was hospitalized with a serious, undiagnosed illness, and I wasn’t going anywhere. I’ve been on every trip since then.

Eat, eat, eat

Nervous tour participants on subway platform

Several years ago, Jim Albrecht, who was an avid, albeit charmingly eccentric, theatre fan and participant fell off the stage while tap dancing in the “Senior Follies,” at the Bloomington, Minnesota, Civic Theatre, hit his head, and died. That’s right, died of a tap-dancing injury. His tour company had no interest in continuing a hard-to-manage long distance relationship with a community theatre in Des Moines, so we took it on ourselves. We often think fondly of Jim. The year he died, we did a special toast to Jim Albrecht in a suite at the Helmsley Windsor Hotel on our very next trip.

In our best years (The Lion King, The Producers) we’ve sent out as many as 7 trips in one season. September 11, 2001, and rising prices on practically everything associated with the tour have caused some ups and downs in past seasons, but we just completed a successful, rewarding and exciting tour, which, in my estimation, may have been the best.

Not on our tour, but really interesting

First up on the tour – Young Frankenstein. The entire group saw the show and I heard only good things about it in response. I recounted my experience with the show in an earlier blog – liked it a lot, with some reservations. Speculation is that it is not living up to expectations. Mel Brooks refuses to release the weekly receipts, and the show is frequently on the half-price ticket board, as well as offering discounts through and other venues. Everybody in the show is good, and the special effects are incredible, but it is not generating nearly as much heat and excitement as The Producers.

I made sure everyone got to the theatre, then made my way to see In the Heights, a prime contender for the Best Musical Tony award this year. The show leads the Tony pack with 13 nominations. Talk about generating heat… This celebration of Latino culture in Washington Heights on the upper west side of Manhattan is warm, engaging, colorful and sexy. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who, as a college sophomore, conceived a musical that would deal with the issues of the barrio – immigrant parents, clash of cultures, being the first generation to go to college, sense of community, etc., has seen his idea fully realized on the Broadway stage. I enjoyed every minute of it. Critics and/or advertising agencies are calling the show “Upper West Side Story.” That’s not exactly accurate. The main difference is that with In the Heights, there are no good vs evil struggles. Even though race is an obvious element of the show, it doesn’t divide – it actually brings them together. The central struggle of the story is how to define success. Usnavi, the owner of a bodega/deli, initially dreams of getting enough money to leave the neighborhood, but when success arrives unexpectedly, he realizes there are other options. I’m sure that I didn’t understand half the words spoken, many in Spanish, some in a version of Spanglish, but I knew exactly what was happening. The only disappointment in the show was Priscilla Lopez, as the mother of the female lead. Famous for being the original “Morales,” in A Chorus Line, who sings the song, “Nothing,” Lopez seems stiff and out of place, the only character who doesn’t have the beat of Latin music in her bones. A friend of mine made me laugh, commenting on Priscilla Lopez’s performance. She said, “Karp was right.” Let me know if you get the joke.

I loved the show, and would see it again, in a heartbeat. Check out the TV commercial for In the Heights.

Cut and paste this url into your browser’s address box

More on our recent trip coming soon.

Fall, 2001 Theatre Trips

We've been operating theatre tours to New York and London since 1983, and there are some great memories, as well as some not-so-great. We had two trips scheduled for fall, 2001. The first, and saddest, was set for September 13, 2001, with 73 participants-our largest trip to date. On Tuesday, Sept 11, it quickly became apparent that the trip was no longer viable. Amid the shock, horror and grief, we had to take the necessary steps to communicate with all participants regarding their cancelled travel plans.

In addition to the business task at hand, I had my own personal tension. My two daughters, Kristina and Stephanie, had moved to New York less than a week earlier. Stephanie had transferred from the University of Minnesota to Marymount Manhattan College, on the upper east side, to become a theatre major. Kristina, a spring, 2001 graduate of Grinnell College, had moved in with friends in Chelsea, not far from the World Trade Center, ready to pursue her career as an actor. I'll expand on this more in a subsequent blog, and many people experienced much worse than my family on that day, but just thinking of it now, that harrowing phone call, getting Kristina out of bed, telling her to turn on the tv and trying to strategize her next moves with her, making sure her sister was ok, brings back the emotion.

This particular blog is about the trips. My next step was that I needed to get to New York, make sure my kids were ok, and return $23,000 worth of theatre tickets.

I made that solo trip two weeks later, with the fires still burning at ground zero, and the city still stunned. My kids were ok, still in shock, not yet having come to terms with the enormity of what had happened, but noticing, along with me, the particular brand of PTSD that New Yorkers adopted in the months following - a complete elimination of all gruffness, an open friendly and warm attitude that was the opposite of their previous reputation.

Surprisingly, I had trouble getting refunds for the tickets. I had to go to each theatre and make the case that we were going to buy other tickets, because most of the people had re-scheduled for another trip, but that we needed our money back. Ultimately, the Theatre League, a non-profit organization of Broadway and touring theatre managers, made it clear that the best course of action was to refund or exchange those tickets.

Many of the September participants were able to sign on for our November trip. The city and the country were still in shock. La Guardia airport was almost empty. Soldiers with automatic weapons patrolled the airport.

The trip participants shared taxis on Saturday morning to Pier 78 on the Hudson River for our New York Waterways harbor cruise. One group of four asked their taxi driver what he did and how he reacted on September 11. Instead of delivering them directly to the pier, he drove them to ground zero, told them his story, his persepective, and wept with them. He dropped them at our tour departure site, late, but still in time for the tour, and refused to take a fare.

The Music Box

December 20, 2007

In 1983, we produced Chicago. Way ahead of its time. The original New York production(1975-1977) was a modest success, unlike the blockbuster production that opened in 1996, and has logged over 4,500 performances and almost a billion dollars in ticket sales. Our production was whimsical, fun and edgy, but not a huge hit. The cast was considerably talented. Jo Berry and Cece Gibb were Velma and Roxy, Dale Berry played Billy Flynn. It was a satisfying bookend to produce this show again in 2005 with Dale's son, Steve, playing the same role. More on Steve later.

Cece Gibb as Roxy, Dale Berry as Billy Flynn, Bob Fry as Fred Casely, Chicago, 1983

Jo Berry as Velma, 1983

Steve Berry as Billy Flynn, Chicago, 2005

One of my strongest memories of the 1983 production involves the set and orchestra. Paul Dieke, music director for our shows at that time, was nothing, if not strong-willed. His solutions to orchestra placement in our less-than-ideal facility(no orchestra pit and no possibility of getting one) were creative, as well as challenging. Chicago's orchestra was to be suspended ten feet above the stage, with a cantilevered projection from the front of it for the conductor. Achieving this goal was daunting, to say the least, with lots of growling, structural engineers and disputes over loads. To top it off, Paul insisted upon a grand piano.

The discussion on this issue was, no doubt, heated, but lost to eternity. I'm sure it ended with me, finally worn down, saying, "Ok,OK, I'll try," knowing that no piano store in its right mind would loan/rent us a grand piano to be suspended 10 feet in the air. Enter Critchett's, an arts-friendly music store, who, after much deliberation, said "Sure."

I was rehearsing scenes in another part of the building, and only peripherally involved in the prep for lifting the piano, but scene designer Steve Brownless and a group of volunteers devised a "foolproof" method for getting the several - hundred - pound instrument up to its platform. I checked in to the auditorium early in the evening to see them putting finishing touches on a small platform that would be raised by a carefully orchestrated team operating two battens(pipes). The idea was that distributing the weight over two different counterweight systems would reduce the stress on the pipes and allow for more people to be involved in the actual lifting.

Trying to add some levity, but probably sensing an inherent flaw in the plan, I offered a typical smart-ass comment, like, "Remember that Laurel and Hardy film (The Music Box), where they drop this piano down that big flight of stairs? Remember the sound it made? Like all the keys being hit at once? I wonder if that really happens."
They didn't see the humor.
I stayed to watch them carefully place the piano on the lift platform, talk the crews through how it would happen, and slowly raise the piano, with about 8 people operating two fly lines from offstage.

The process was carefully coordinated so that the piano stayed level all the way up. When it reached the orchestra platform height, several people uttered a sigh of relief. A crew was on the orchestra platform to ease the piano off of its lift apparatus and on to the orchestra level. When they lifted the end of the piano, physics reared its ugly head. The two sets of ropes were counterweighted, so the removal of weight from one of them caused the lift platform to immediately lurch up at a steep angle and dump the elegant instrument ten feet to the stage floor.

The piano only disappointed in one way. No discordant musical sound. Just a thud. A loud one. A scary one, but just a thud. There was some damage to the finish, and some scratches, but, miraculously, the internal workings were completely unscathed.

The two delivery guys, who had been skeptical but glad to have someone else try to lift the piano, now felt obligated to show us how professionals do it. They pushed everybody aside, took the legs off of the piano so they could lift it easier, and used their moving straps wrapped securely around the body of the instrument. Using only one batten and lots of strength, they slowly lifted the piano up to about eight feet, when one of the straps broke and dropped it again to the floor.

This resulted in a conference between the delivery guys and the tech staff of the Playhouse. The playing field being leveled - neither side could effectively deride the other for being so stupid that they dropped a piano - a solution was reached. The delivery guys used the carry-off stairs on the back side of the ten foot platform and, through sheer force of muscle, with no mechanical advantage, carried the piano up to its destination.

The next day, when I talked to Dave Brown, at Critchett's, he was remarkably kind, although there was a lot of "tsk-tsking" audible on the phone. His only criticism was wondering why we didn't have the delivery guys carry the piano up the stairs in the first place. "It's what they do!"

Chicago, 1983. The piano is at the left on the top level

The Critchett's technician came out and checked the piano, finding no mechanical or structural problems. Ok, it needed a good tuning, but that was it.

When the show ended, we paid for the cosmetic damage to the piano, and vowed to be smarter the next time.

Critchett's remains one of our best community-minded businesses, and just last week gave us a deal we couldn't refuse on a wonderful new Roland KF7 electronic piano, which, when played through a sound system, sounds as good as a concert grand, has the ability to transpose, and more gadgets than we will ever figure out how to use. The best thing about it is that I could carry it up the stairs to a 10 foot platform by myself.


Careers on the Playhouse Stage

November 22, 2007

I arrived in Des Moines at the beginning of August, 1982. Twenty-five years is a long time in one job. Practically everyone I know has held two, three or four different positions, some in completely different careers, in the same period of time, but for a volunteer performer to continue a single avocational activity this long, it's either passion or obsession. I hope you have had a chance to see some of the shows performed by these three talented actors, whose tenure at The Playhouse matches mine.

Linda Juckette
Linda Juckette started performing at The Playhouse shortly before I arrived, but my introduction to her came with my first show, Annie Get Your Gun. She was Linda Garland then, working at Des Moines General Hospital and dating Tom Juckette. There was an inherent power in her voice that set her apart.

Linda Juckette with the late J.R. Walker in Annie Get Your Gun, 1982

Music Director, Paul Dieke, recognized her talent and worked with her to develop it. Over the years, Linda's singing has become richer, stronger and more mature. She has an uncanny ability to communicate such strength and passion, that she often leaves people emotionally spent. Her Evita was breathtaking. (more about that in an upcoming blog). When she performed the song, "You Can Never Go Back to Before," in Ragtime, a sizeable chunk of the audience took out their hankies.

Linda Juckette, as cool as ice, in Evita, 1986

Trying out for Cats, just a few months ago, she sang "Memory," as her audition piece. When she left the room, I turned to Alison Shafer, co-director and choreographer of the production, who had never met Linda, and asked, "What do you think?"

"What do I think?" she said. "She just made me cry at an audition!"

Linda as "Grizabella," in Cats, 2007

Linda singing at our "Hollywood Halloween" fundraiser, 2007

Gina Gedler
Gina Gedler's first role at The Playhouse was in the chorus of The Music Man, in 1983. She was beautiful, young and incredibly talented. Gina was a passionate, charismatic singer with the ability to move like a professionally trained dancer.

Gina Gedler as "Anita," in West Side Story, 1986

As she performed in show after show at The Playhouse, these talents grew and matured, with milepost roles such as "Anita," in West Side Story, and "Mama Rose," In Gypsy.

Gina as "Mama Rose," in Gypsy, 1991

Twenty-five years after her Playhouse debut, she performs regularly in our "Entertainment to Go" program, doing Broadway reviews and the spoofy The Joey Libido and Sugar Show (It's Vegas, Baby). She had the role of "Vicki" in last spring's The Full Monty, and, once again, shared her infectious talent with us at this year's Hollywood Halloween.

Gina performing at our Hollywood Halloween Fundraiser, 2007

Lenny Houts
Lenny Houts started at The Playhouse in The Music Man, September, 1983. He was 18 years old and one of the best male dancers any of us had seen.

Lenny Houts in The Music Man, 1983. I'm sure he can still do this

Todd Buchacker, Lenny Houts, Rosa Chagnon, and Warren Westlund at Music Man Fundraiser, 1983

He performed in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the next season, and followed with roles in Evita, Gypsy and West Side Story, getting better with each show. Lenny took a hiatus from The Playhouse for several years, returning for 2002's Cabaret. His "Master of Ceremonies" was stunning - Broadway quality or better.

Lenny as the "Emcee" in Cabaret. 2002. What a performance!

Lenny has developed into an excellent actor/singer and his dance ability remains especially strong. He was a truly believable "Jerry," in last spring's The Full Monty, portraying a working class character torn between emotional immaturity and responsibility. At The Playhouse and other local theatres Lenny continues to grow and develop his considerable talent.

Lenny as "Jerry," in The Full Monty, 2007


The "F" Word

November 17, 2007

In the spring of 1992, we produced Wendy Wasserstein's wonderful play, The Heidi Chronicles. It dealt with so many themes of contemporary relevance, that we felt it would be a strong addition to our season. The only concern was that one scene, in particular, might be shocking to our audience. One of the characters was, essentially, defined by her use of the "f" word. We hadn't dealt with anything like that on our stage, and were concerned that the audience, specifically our season ticket holders might feel blindsided if we surprised them with this show.

Our solution was to send a letter to all subscribers telling them that we were doing a show that contained language that some might find offensive, and if they wanted to skip this show, we would give them credit for another one.

A relatively small number of season ticket holders opted out, but a larger number of non-season ticket holders, titillated by the news, which had leaked to the Register, bought tickets and made the show a success for us.

I remember, clearly, the call I received from a long-time subscriber, an elderly woman.

"Mr Viars, I read your letter, and I have a question. You say there is language that I might find offensive. What do they say?"

"Well, um... they say the "f" word... a lot."

"They don't do it, do they?"

"NO! Absolutely not."

"Well, as long as they don't do it, I guess I won't be offended."

Old Friends

November 3, 2007

Jack Mishler is a volunteer performer any community theater would be proud of. He first set foot on the stage of the Kendall Theatre (what we used to be called) in 1939 at the age of 16. He has performed, on and off, for most of the 68 intervening years. His singing is not operatic- it's the kind of singing that comes out of character and adds another level to the performance. His dancing is controlled, effortless, and sublime. His stage characterizations are so warm, so appealing, that people instantly love him. I've only seen him do recreations of it for auditions and special events, but the sizeable number of people who remember him singing "Once in Love with Amy," from Where's Charley? in 1963, say Jack's performance is head and shoulders above Ray Bolger's.

It's natural and fitting that Jack is playing the role of Morrie in Tuesdays With Morrie. It's a hit for us and it's so satisfying to see the audiences enjoy Jack's performance and share the feeling that with this show, they are seeing a sort of bookend for a lifelong love affair with community theatre.

It helps us tell the story of how The Playhouse changes lives.

That point was brought home in a big way last night as two friends of Jack's from his early days at the Kendall Playhouse paid a surprise visit.

Cloris, Jack, and Eddie Rissien

Cloris Leachman and Eddie Rissien decided, at the last minute, that they just had to see Jack in this show, which he's been telling people will be his last (he's got more in him, trust me).

Cloris got her first kiss from Jack in 1941 in the Kendall Playhouse production of Ah, Wilderness. She went on to become the prolific stage, screen and TV actress who has won an Academy Award, and more Emmy Awards than any other person.

Eddie Rissien became a professional Broadway stage manager, then a successful producer of films and TV. He and Jack grew up in Des Moines, and have remained close for nearly 7 decades.

Here's how it happened:

Cloris calls at 2pm on Thursday; wants to know why people are at lunch at 10am. After much explaining Rod McCullough finally convinces her that it's two hours later here than in California, rather than the opposite. She then spends a lot of time trying to convince Rod that we must make a recording of the show. "There are people out here who can't make it to Des Moines who want to see the show. You have to do it. "

After a long, and mostly vain attempt to convince Cloris that there are issues with copyright, and that although we would try to get permission, we weren't hopeful, she says, "You can do it. Bend some elbows." We're pretty sure that meant, "Twist some arms."

Later in the evening, she calls the box office and orders two tickets for Friday's performance. All day Friday, we wait for word that she is, indeed, coming.

At 7:45 pm, Cloris and Eddie arrive at the side entrance, having been delivered by Cloris' cousin, John Leachman. She appears in a long, beautiful evening gown, wearing one high-heel shoe and a bedroom slipper. Whenever anyone looks at her feet, she says, "I was sure that I packed two shoes!"

I whisk them out of the lobby and to the green room, because I want to surprise the audience with their appearance. Jack has already gone upstairs to his offstage perch, where he quietly contemplates the upcoming performance. Susie Gulbranson, the stage manager retrieves him, and what ensues is a reunion so full of emotion that it is overwhelming to everyone, even a cynic like me.

Cloris asks if anyone has lipstick or gloss. Props person Shelley Graber obliges with both.

It's time to go upstairs, and separating everyone is not unlike Howard Morris clinging to Sid Caesar's leg in "Your Show of Shows."

At curtain time, I tell the sold-out audience how great it is to have a legacy like ours and then surprise them by introducing Cloris and Eddie. They respond with a sustained standing ovation, fueled partly by awe with celebrity, but also because it is so touching that the two of them would fly out to see their old friend.

Cloris wows them with a couple of stories, shows off her mis-matched feet, and then she and Eddie are helped to their seats. Knowing that she is being watched all the way, she "mistakenly" sits in the lap of Mark Pullen, which gets a huge laugh.

The show is exceptional. Rhonda Lake's solid direction has given us a production we can be proud of. Jack is great - he's gotten better since opening night and the double whammy of emotion, surprisingly, seems to enhance his concentration. The other "whammy" is that his daughter, Sarah, her two daughters and husband have driven up from Austin, Texas just for Jack.

By the way, newcomer Craig Peterson is also superb in the show. When he's been here 68 years, I promise I'll carry on about him, too.

The show gets a standing ovation, as it does every night. Cloris signs autographs for a while and then proceeds, with Eddie and a retinue, to the green room. Lots of hugging, picture taking and well deserved platitudes follow, then Cloris abruptly sits down at our out-of-tune rehearsal piano and does an impromptu concert of Debussy's "Clair de Lune. "

Cloris playing "Clair de Lune"

At Noah's, for after-theatre food, Cloris takes time to chat with students from Roosevelt High School, who are celebrating their sell-out success with Les Miserables. Cloris, Jack and Eddie are all proud graduates of Roosevelt -Cloris has been inducted to the Roosevelt Hall of Fame. At least some of the kids in the restaurant don't know who she is until we mention "Spanglish." Jack Mishler can't stop smiling.

It was another great night at The Playhouse.


Cloris Leachman Visits The Playhouse November 2, 2007

Cloris entertains with impromptu concert in green room
Eddie Rissien and Jack's daughter, Sarah Houghton Mishler

Jack Mishler and Eddie Rissien backstage before Tuesdays With Morrie.

Jack and Eddie

Cloris, Phyllis Mumford and Jack Mishler

Eddie Rissien

Preshia Paulding and Cloris after the show

Greeting fans after the show

Preshia Paulding, Cloris, Jack, Eddie and Joanna Holt Mishler

Cloris, Jack, Eddie, Joanna

Cloris, Jack, Eddie

Cloris, Jack, Eddie

Cloris and Eddie speak to the audience. Note her feet.

Cloris and Eddie onstage

Jack and Cloris

Jack and Cloris

Jack and Cloris