On May 20, we were honored to be named a 2016 Theatre of Distinction Award by the South Carolina Theatre Association. Board member Donna Saleeby accepted the award on behalf of the theatre.
“On behalf of the Board of Town Theatre, we express our sincerest thanks. Our Executive Director, Town is so grateful to be recognized and it is particularly pleasing that this award is presented to us by Carol Baker. Carol grew up on the stage and is now working in the arts – devoting her life to helping others achieve their best as artists. We also are delighted that Carol’s mother, Anita, is here tonight as well. Anita has been a long time fixture at Town – first starting off as a volunteer and then joining the box office staff. Though she keeps trying to retire, we just cannot let her go! She assists us today by working with our volunteers – engaging them in a way that we could not do without her expertise. And, it is worth noting that Anita’s daughter, whom we refer to fondly as little Anita and her late husband, Charlie, also spent significant time on the Town stage.
Stories like the Baker family are the primary reason that we have such a strong and proud history. The very people that have come in and out of our front doors for the last 98 years – making our productions possible from front of house to curtain call – on stage and off – are certainly how we define ourselves as a theatre. To the South Carolina Theatre Association and to all of you who are involved in the arts to make our world just a little bit brighter – we thank you.”
With the discovery of so many rich musical pieces, I now had the building blocks to fully construct my narrative. Coming up with character names was a cinch because I could use the names of the characters that originated the songs in the original productions, and then apply these names to my newly created dramatis personae. However, my next step was the most important of all: developing and adapting the characters storylines so that everything worked together in one show.
At the forefront of the “drama” section of my story are 2 female leading characters: Margo (the mature, worldly, yet insecure star) and Eve (a young ingenue Production Assistant that is seemingly sincere). Here were my two ladies that had been inspired by all of the works mentioned at the beginning of this writing. It seemed appropriate to choose the names from the most famous work, All About Eve. Finding two actresses to portray these complex women was actually the easiest part of casting, believe it or not. For Margo, I had to look no further than my own sister, Dell Goodrich (Stand By Your Man). For Eve, I spotted what I was looking for immediately in Mary Joy Williams (Nice Work if You Can Get It). Other characters I included are a playwriting couple, inspired by Karen and Lloyd Richards in All About Eve, Maggie and Bert in42nd Street, and Georgia and Aaron Fox in Curtains (whose names I chose to use). These roles were perfect fits for Megan Douthitt (Mary Poppins) and Corey Langley (The Addams Family). I now needed to select an actor to portray the director of the “show within a show” and love interest to Margo, Mack Sanders, inspired by Bill Sampson from All About Eve and of course Mack Sennett from Mack & Mabel. After a wide search, I finally found the ideal actor for the role: Bill LaLima (Les Mis), who’s warmth and humor shine throughout the story. One more major character needed to be cast: the acerbic, witty, and pantomath critic influenced by Daryl Grady from Curtains, Feldman from The Magic Show and Addison DeWitt from All About Eve, who’s name I knew I had to use. Bob Blencowe (Spamalot) agreed to join the cast.
With these theatrical stock characters in place, I knew I could easily develop my narrative. But, I needed additional characters, of course. To approach these personalities, I first looked at what songs needed soloists, and constructed from there. To sing the beautiful “Lion Tamer” from The Magic Show, I immediately thought of Town newcomer Robin Saviola. Her character, who is also inspired by Maggie from 42nd Street as well as Birdie from All About Eve would be named Cal, after the soloist from Magic Show. To sing the quintessential title song from Applause, the lovely and talented Allison Allgood (Sugar) came to mind. This character became a combination of the original soloist form Applause, Bonnie (who was portrayed by Bonnie Franklin. In like-fashion, all of the ensemble members of the original production went by their own names as a cheeky homage to their real-life gypsy status); and Gittel from Seesaw, who originated the hilarious “Nobody Does It Like Me.” To give credit to Applause, I named the character “Allison” after its actress and made her the bartender/owner of Backstage Bar. To be the soloist in the big dance number in the show: “It’s Not Where You Start” from Seesaw, Anthony Matrejek (Nice Work If You Can Get It) was a natural choice. His character, David, would be a combination of Duane from Applause and most importantly, David from Seesaw (a Tony Winning Role for Tommy Tune). To play the tap dancing bartender, Phoebe, Samantha Livoti, was selected. This character is partly inspired by a minor character from All About Eve, but will be featured much more prevalently in Backstage. A new addition to the utilized classic theatrical keynote is the character of the leading lady’s mother, Belle, whom is being portrayed by the great Kathy Hartzog (Driving Miss Daisy). Belle arrives a few times throughout the course of action in Backstage to keep her daughter, Margo, in check and administer to her a healthy dose of reality.
The remaining actors and actresses in the show include Nate Stern (The Addams Family) as Christopher, an aspiring director and member of the ensemble of the show within a show. Emily Northrop (Sugar) will portray Cathy, a struggling actress that gets to amuse and move the audience. Josh Kern (Grease) is back as Jerry, the leading man of the show within a show. Lisa Akly (The Little Mermaid), Tracy Davenport (White Christmas) and Town newcomer Rachel Rizzuti, play Broadway performers Wanda, Angela, and Jill, respectively. Rebecca Goodrich Seezen (Spamalot) will join Jennifer Davis (Spamalot) will bring to life the roles of Donna and Dina, two Broadway singers and dancers that get to “sparkle” with their soulful and upbeat songs. William Ellis (The Little Mermaid) will join Jalil Bonds and John Dixon (in their Town debuts), as ensemble members Herbie, Brick, and Oscar, respectively. These three gentlemen are clever and witty throughout the show. Town veterans Kristy O’Keefe (Peter Pan), Emily Clelland (The Little Mermaid), Roxanne Livingston (Nice Work if You Can Get It), and my lovely cousin Agnes Babb (Mary Poppins) will take the stage as featured dancers Arlene, Bambi, Nicki, and Marjorie, respectively.
We hope these three blog entries have given you a little insight into how this show was conceived, constructed and put together. It’s been fun and we look forward to seeing you tonight! Visit www.towntheatre.com or call 803-799-2510 for tickets.
And don’t forget the pre-show reception at 7:15 PM!
Now came the task of determining which songs to include in this revue. Obviously, Applause’s entire score could be utilized. However, I wanted to select just the right songs to aid in the construction of the plot. I decided: “Applause,” “Welcome to the Theatre,” and “One Halloween” were the most stringent and pertinent tools to use. The title song from the show is a brilliantly written piece exploring the motivation that drives performers to perform. (Perfect, right?) Originated by the late, great Bonnie Franklin, “Applause,” cleverly asks, “What is it that we [performers] are living for?” “Welcome to the Theatre,” first introduced to audiences by Lauren Bacall, presents a means for a seasoned star to educate a new one about what working in the theatre is REALLY like. (Again, spot on for Backstage.) “One Halloween” is a harrowing soliloquy in which the young ingenue gets to let her guard down and explore a multitude of suppressed emotions dating back to childhood. (I could tell you in what context I am using this song in the show, but that would spoil the plot too much. )
Seesaw was another Broadway musical that I wanted to include in Backstage. The show, originally presented by Michael Bennett in 1973, tells the story of Gittel, a struggling dancer that works odd jobs to earn a buck until she gets her big break. Her stress is increased when she falls in love with a young man that has just arrived in New York, looking for a fresh start. The numbers in Seesaw deal less with performing, but with life in the city. While some of these descriptive songs obviously exhibit some character emotion (“Nobody Does It Like Me), others are better utilized as
a chance for the characters to workshop some performance ideas (“My City” and “It’s Not Where You Start”). I wasn’t even aware of Seesaw until I became a fan of the television series, Knots Landing,and learned that its leading lady, Michele Lee, had received critical raves for her performance as Gittel. Upon hearing one of Ms. Lee’s solos, I was hooked, and downloaded the entire cast recording.
Seesawand Applauseare both seldom-done, not oft-remembered musicals that were highly successful when they premiered in the 1970’s, but have not seen much action since. Keeping with that time frame and theme, I found many shows that were show business related. Several, like The Magic Show, The Act, and Barnum were largely prosperous. Some, like Mack & Mabel, So Long 174th Street, and Rachael Lily Rosenbloom…And Don’t You Ever Forget It, were considered flops, but contained some well-written, memorable tunes. I chose to use some songs from each of these shows except Rachael Lily Rosenbloom.Its score was never recorded ~ it closed before it opened ~ yikes!
I still needed a few more great selections so I expanded my search. From the 1950’s, I found Me and Juliet, a lesser-known Rodgers and Hammerstein gem about a Broadway troupe. From the 1960’s, Little Me, the brilliant screwball musical about Hollywood in which Sid Caesar played multiple characters. The 2000’s brought forth a resurgence of show business musicals, including: the murder mystery, Curtains; the relationship centered The Last 5 Years; and the biographical A Class Actand The Boy from Oz. Still seeking two heartfelt confession pieces for my two leading females, I found such songs in Evitaand Grey Gardens. While neither of these is based on show business on the surface, they feature characters that either worked in the entertainment industry or dreamed about it.
With the exception of Evita and The Last 5 Years (both of which have been done in recent years in Columbia); and Grey Gardens(which will be presented this season at Trustus), all of the musicals from which I have chosen songs either have never been produced in Columbia or haven’t been produced in several years. To boot, several of the aforementioned shows are largely forgotten, but I believe that their songs and stories are simply too good to be banished to theatre oblivion.
More to come from Charlie — but don’t delay! Get your tickets for Backstage at www.towntheatre.com. A complementary reception will be held beginning at 7:15 PM. Curtain time is 8:00 PM!
In 2014, I had the pleasure of directing a concert presentation of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies as a fundraiser for Town Theatre. It was an exhilarating, rewarding, creative and, above all else lucrative experience, that not only showcased over 30 of Columbia’s most talented singers and dancers, but exposed audiences to a number of Sondheim’s seldom heard (in Columbia) masterpieces.
In the Spring of 2016, I approached Town’s Executive Director, Shannon Willis Scruggs, about another potential project for the Summer. I was itching to not only direct something again, but to also again reap the numerous benefits for both Town and the community that I had with Follies. I had a few specific musicals in mind, but Shannon suggested a more artistically stimulating idea: what if I found a common theme among several different musicals and crafted a story of my own, using the characters and motifs from these shows as a starting point. An idea dawned on me: show business! There are so many entertainment industry musicals with similar themes, characters and story lines. I had a plot constructed in my head in minutes. I would take the standard, often-used keynote of an older actress threatened by a younger one and place it in a context that would allow other performers to present entertaining and humorous anecdotes about life in the entertainment world.
The aforementioned keynote plot had been utilized in any number of plays, musicals, screenplays, and stories. Early movie musical star, Bebe Daniels, at the tender age of 32, was the “older” actress made to feel insecure upon the arrival of the pert, younger Ruby Keeler in 42nd Street. Vocally untalented Jean Hagen was green with envy toward the lovely Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain. On a totally different level, the seasoned Susan Hayward fought tooth and nail against the rising star of Patty Duke in Valley of the Dolls. But perhaps the most famous story line that falls into this common motif can be found in both a motion picture and later a Broadway musical, both based on the same short story: “The Wisdom of Eve” by Mary Orr.
The movie is of course All About Eve and the musical is Applause. In both adaptations, the fabulous Margo Channing struggles to maintain her dignity, sanity and career when the young Eve Harrington infiltrates her world. The 1950 film deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and featured exquisite performances by Bette Davis as Margo and Anne Baxter as Eve. The 1970 musical won the Tony Award for Best Musical and allowed the usually dramatic actress, Lauren Bacall, a chance to sing, dance, and hold her own as a new Musical Star. Even more impressive, in my humble opinion, was the performance of the brilliant Penny Fuller, who seemed to take the character of Eve to a multitude of additional levels. When Bacall had decided her time with the successful musical had come to a close, she was replaced by none other than Anne Baxter, who was eager to portray Margo this time.
These musicals and films rank among my favorites, and for good reason: they each narrate a similar show business fable characterized by age, jealousy, revenge and envy. As a performer, how many times had I been an eyewitness to backstage drama. Obviously, such drama would be a cornerstone in the plot that I began to construct. But, there’s more to show business than just drama: there’s passion. Performers, as all artists do, create because they are driven by a force that they cannot control. Rue McClanahan described the call to act on stage or film “a religious experience.” Rightly so, if you ask most artists, they’ll usually explain that they put in the time, work and endurance simply because they must. Their lives aren’t complete without fulfilling that urge to express themselves. As the original cast of A Chorus Line stated: “can’t regret what I did for love.” It was then that the second part of my plot dawned on me: allow my characters the chance to share stories, experiences, anecdotes, and general feelings about their lives in “the biz.” More than just recollecting, I also wanted to give my characters an opportunity to have some fun: workshop ideas, sing songs that they’ve always dreamed of singing. Where else would be the perfect place for my characters to accomplish these tasks other than a bar? More specifically, a bar owned by, run by, and catered towards actors. A bar that was constructed on the stage of an abandoned theatre in Brooklyn. A bar with a simple name, like “Backstage.” And why not make the name of this bar the title of the show? Most of the action will occur there anyways, and doesn’t that word bring to mind everything I am hoping to convey through my story? So there you have it: the show will be entitled Backstage: A New Musical Revue.
James Gregory grew up watching stand-up comedy on programs like Jack Benny, Milton Berle and the Ed Sullivan Show. After some nudging from his friends, he started doing open mic stand-up in Atlanta and things just took off. Today he performs his down-home stories of food, funerals and funny relatives to sold-out theatres, casino’s and corporate events working 48 weeks of the year. He’s also a regularly invited guest on national radio shows, like The Bob & Tom Show, Rick and Bubba and The Big Show with John Boy and Billy.
Early in his career he earned the moniker, “Funniest Man in America,” but, he’s quick to tell you, “At that time there were only 13 states.” His jokes are squeaky clean as, he says, “My mother wouldn’t let me tell them if they weren’t.” It’s the kind of show you could feel comfortable bringing your date or your grandmother.
What’s really unique about Gregory is his appeal to people of all ages, races, creeds and colors. It’s not unusual to see three generations rolling in the aisles. He comes off as that funny uncle that everyone gathers around at family reunions, because he has the best stories – and so reminds people of their own families.
While his routines include such Southern subjects as covered-dish suppers, road trips to Stuckey’s, and the healthy aspects of fried foods, it’s a mistake to consider him a regional comic. Says Gregory, “To me, Southern comedians are guys who get onstage and talk about pickup trucks, rifle racks and cow-tipping. I don’t talk about the South; I just deliver my material with a Southern accent. My comedy is based on the real life-the people I grew up with. My notions about food came from them. They all eat fried foods and many of them are in their eighties. Meanwhile you read in the news how some health nut kicked the bucket jogging on the way home from the health food store.”
He says, “People come to a comedy club to laugh. It seems like the new thing in comedy today is ‘stream of consciousness’ or ‘cerebral’ material. I doubt if a husband and wife ever looked at each other on their way to a comedy club and said, ‘Gee, I hope this guy is going to be real cerebral tonight.’ I think they say, ‘He sure better be funny.'”
You could image that after 30 years, a comedian might become a bit jaded. Not Gregory. When he hits the stage, he comes alive like someone just plugged him in, and his fans adore him. After each show, he truly enjoys meeting with fans and signing autographs. He says, “We’re living in such a cynical age, sometimes people don’t believe me when I tell them, ‘I’m really glad to be here’ during my show. But it’s true. I owe them all a debt of gratitude. If not for them, I wouldn’t get to do what I most love.
People wanting to see James Gregory at The Town Theatre, Saturday August 6th can find tickets and information for the shows at www.towntheatre.com or by calling 803-799-2510.
Be sure to join us for opening weekend of The Honky Tonk Angels! Guests who are with us on Friday and Saturday nights will be able to participate in some good old fashioned country fun! Weather permitting, we’ll have corn hole on the patio. Grab a BBQ sandwich and cold one before the show (on us!). And, one lucky person each night will be the recipient of a Honky Tonk Angel prize package – you’ll have to see it to believe it! Vittles with be served from 7:15 to 7:40 pm.
Tickets on sale to the general public on Friday, Feb. 12! Regular members can start calling Fri. Feb. 5 at 12 noon OR can use the link that will be sent to your email tomorrow morning!