Such a Funny and Loving Gentleman - Remembering Will Moreau Goins by August Krickel

Will Moreau Goins

Duyugodv Ayosdi Ji Dekananogis Awohali Tsiyohi Uhyali Do

December 2, 1961 - November 11, 2017

will in MFL.jpg

Around the theater, he was always called Will Moreau. Or sometimes just Moreau. And among friends, "Dr. Moreau," a winking reference to the H.G. Wells character played on screen by Charles Laughton, Marlon Brando, and Burt Lancaster, but also an acknowledgement of Will's life outside the theater, as a scholar of Native American culture with a doctorate in anthropology. In that world he was more often referred to as Dr. Will Goins, and he always explained with a laugh that stars like Angelina Jolie and Tom Cruise use their middle names for their acting careers, so why couldn't he?

 

My friend William Moreau Goins came into this world on December 2, 1961, and left us Saturday, November 11, 2017. Like the face of America, his heritage was a mix of ethnicities, but he was descended from Cherokees in North and South Carolina on both sides of his family, including a great-great-grandfather who was a medicine man in Oconee County, and that's the path he followed, becoming Chief of the South Carolina Cherokee Tribe, and Chief Executive Officer of the Eastern Cherokee, Southern Iroquois, and United Tribes (ECSIUT.)  Film maker Antara Brandner, who worked with Will on a number of cultural and spirituality-themed projects, says that he told her recently that his full Cherokee name was Duyugodv Ayosdi Ji Dekananogis Awohali Tsiyohi Uhyali Do. (Although several sites have only the final three names listed.)

 

Growing up in the Washington, DC area, Will double majored in Anthropology and Communication (including TV, Radio and Film Production and Performance) at George Washington University, and his first professional jobs were media-related, at agencies including the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Indian Health Service. He later joked that he and his co-workers - many of whom acted in The Free Spirit Players, a Native American theater company that Will founded and was its artistic director in the 80's - were "Fed-skins," taking a pejorative term and turning it into a joke. Which is the sort of thing Will always did. He later earned a Master's degree in Educational Administration, and a doctorate in Anthropology from Pennsylvania State University. Only a couple of weeks before his death, while he was promoting his upcoming film festival, I teased him, asking him if that was Penn State, or State Pen? That kind of banter flowed freely whenever Will was around.

 

After working for museums in Pennsylvania, DC, and the Detroit area, Will moved to South Carolina in 1997 to be closer to family. He told me that he was amazed to discover that "the state didn't know who its first residents were," and that almost no one with Native heritage - Cherokee in particular - considered themselves to be Native. Much of that stemmed from a couple of centuries in which most of South Carolina's indigenous peoples opted to blend in with and marry into the state's white and African-American population, at a time when their relatives in North Carolina were being relocated to Oklahoma, and when a Native person of color wasn't allowed to own land. 

 

And so Will set out with a simple mission: to educate people of Native descent about their heritage, and to tell the rest of the world "We're still here." 

 

Along the way he partnered with the Nickelodeon to host the Native American Film and Video Festival of the Southeast, the organization's first "niche" programming event which provided the template for more elaborate events like Indie Grits; the festival concluded its landmark 20th year earlier this month. He worked with representatives from state government to acknowledge November as Native American Heritage Month in South Carolina, and to designate November 18th as Native American Awareness Day. The symbolic importance of those proclamations aside, he also helped the Cherokee in South Carolina to achieve formal state recognition as a tribe, and worked with the Commission on Minority Affairs to expand their mission to include Native Americans.

 

He led the Cultural Arts Ensemble, an American Indian dance group, which performed at numerous festivals and events, and was active with the South Carolina Traditional Arts Network. Will did countless presentations to school groups as a visiting artist and speaker through the S.C. Arts Commission and the SC Humanities Council, sometimes appearing in character as a particular historical figure, such as Sequoyah. He was always a popular guest lecturer at Heathwood Hall, which his niece Amanda attended, and he was instrumental in the creation of an Indian Medicine Wheel Garden in front of the school's campus center in 2010.  He painted. He sang, and danced.  A video clip of Will performing a traditional song can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JFRobuzlqn0


He also created beadwork, a traditional craft learned from his great aunt. He did demonstrations of Native cooking techniques, and I fondly recall his appearance on campus a few years ago, serving his "Cherokee chili" to intrigued international students at an event hosted by USC's Office of Multicultural Affairs. (It was basically dough dipped in boiling oil, then lifted out to serve as a sort of flatbread on which chili was then poured.)  Books that he edited included: South Carolina Indians Today : An Educational Resource Guide (1998),  The People Speak: A Collection of Writings by South Carolina Native Americans in Poetry, Prose, Essays and Interviews (2002), and South Carolina's Native American Cooking : Cherokee Traditional & Contemporary Recipes with Additional Southern Recipes by Other Indigenous Natives (2005.)  As a member of the McKissick Museum's Advisory Council, he helped revive their annual celebration of folk life, rebranding the event as "FOLKFabulous," and served as guest curator for the year-long exhibition “Traditions, Change and Celebration: Contemporary Native Artists in the Southeast.”  Most recently, he collaborated on expanding the footprint of FOLKFabulous to reach a much wider audience, relocating to become part of the annual State Fair, and promoting their current exhibition “WELL SUITED: The Costumes of Alonzo V. Wilson for HBO’s Treme” which celebrates the blending of Native and African American culture and music in Mardi Gras.  In 2008, he was given the Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award for his work in the preservation of traditional arts and culture.  

 

Will was also a fervent supporter of progressive and faith-based causes. He served as Board President of the Interfaith Partners of South Carolina, representing the inclusive spirituality of Native Americans. At a screening of the film Kateri, about the first Native American saint, just three days before his death, Will was asked about the movie's historical authenticity. He noted that had the film been written by a person of Native descent, a key line spoken by a priest would instead have been spoken by Kateri herself, that the Christian God and the God worshipped less formally by Indians were one and the same. 

 

Some in the theater community knew much of the preceding, but many didn't. They just knew Will as a prolific actor, and a fun guy to be around. Who knows how many shows he was in?  I saw him in 19 over the last 9 years, and that was surely only half that he did in that timeframe, and there would have been that many or more dating back to 1997, when he made his Columbia stage debut as Bernardo in West Side Story at Town Theatre. Just a few recent credits include Ado Annie's shotgun-totin' father in Oklahoma!, the gambler whose heart is set on a horse named Valentine in Guys and Dolls, and the elocution professor in Singin' In the RainSugar, Evita, Les Miserables, Amadeus...the list is nearly endless. Will never had a problem being in the ensemble, or playing small character roles. In fact, he could often be found crewing backstage for shows he wasn't in. Family was very important to him, and often he wouldn't audition for a play if he knew that the runs dates conflicted with one of his nieces' graduation ceremony. 

 

Laurel Posey had this to share: 

I think Will was in the majority of the shows I've done since moving here in 1994, including The Producers, The Full Monty, Ragtime, La Cage Aux Folles, Seussical, and many others, mostly at Workshop. He worked everywhere, loved every single role, and loved to bond over those shared experiences....  I did love doing Tarzan with him (at Town Theatre) mostly because I loved watching (him with my husband) Frank together in an ad-libbed, pre-2nd-act bit where Frank as Professor Porter dubbed him "Kangala," his trusty companion on safari. I loved watching him work in Oklahoma at Town, too; he made Andrew Carnes hilarious and unforgettable (which is a tough job as scripted).  No matter where you put him, he gave it his all and usually offered something unexpected, unique, and memorable.  Will never did anything halfway... he was bigger than life, in all things. He was passionate, strong-willed, and tough. He was also incredibly generous. One of the things I've been thinking a lot about over the last few days is how he accepted everyone for exactly who they were. Now, if he thought you ought to be doing something differently, he'd tell you, repeatedly and in detail!  But no matter who you were, he appreciated you, warts and all. He wanted everyone to succeed... friends, strangers, his community, organizations, governments... he saw potential in everyone and everything.  He was a good man and I can't believe he's gone. We'll not see his likes again and the world's a little dimmer now.

 

Kerri Roberts played Will's daughter in My Fair Lady at Town in 2016. When I met her a few months ago, we pointed out this made her my stage granddaughter, or perhaps step-daughter, since I had played Will's role of Alfie many years previously. Will and I joked that the text clearly states that Alfie is part Welsh, and that was the reason for Will's tan complexion - he wasn't Native, he was just Welsh. Kerri shared these thoughts, which could have come from any of hundreds of former castmates:

In 1998, I was a senior at Columbia College. I auditioned for my very first role in a musical theater production, Town Theatre’s West Side Story.  I was cast as Maria - a dream role - but I felt nervous going into rehearsals because I really only knew one other person involved in the show.  Will Moreau was cast in the role of Bernardo, Maria’s brother. Having recently moved to Columbia, this was also Will’s first show in the Columbia theater community. From the very beginning Will was kind, reliable, supportive, and committed! Even though he, in his mid-thirties, had already done so much with his life, and I was a 21-year-old college kid, he made me feel special and took time to encourage me!  That show, that cast, was magical!  Some of those people, including Will, became friends that I will always have a special connection to.  I would not share the stage again with Will for 18 years, but he was implanted in my heart!

My family moved to Africa to live and work for 7 years and shortly after we returned at the end of 2014, I saw an audition posting for Mary Poppins.  I decided to go for it and audition!  It felt SO great to be back on the stage after 10 years and doing what I love most!  When tech week came around, who did appear backstage working crew?  None other than Will Moreau!  What a joy to reconnect!  He was so genuinely interested in what my life had been life in Africa, what my life was like now, my kids, etc.  He was such a person of great depth. There was nothing at all shallow about him.  We could skip over the small talk and get right to the good stuff.  The stuff that mattered, that we were passionate about.  Interspersed with silliness of course - Will was never always serious!

In the summer of 2016, my three daughters also got to know Will as he played King Triton in Town’s The Little Mermaid.  They were in the ensemble for that show and of course they also loved him. During that summer the announcement came out for My Fair Lady auditions.  I remember basically jumping up and down and squealing with Will because we were both so excited!  Eliza Doolittle was a bucket list role for me and Will really wanted to play the role of Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s father.  Auditions and call-backs later, more squeals and hugs and jumping around ensued when we both accepted the roles we so desperately wanted to play. It was definitely the role of a life-time for me.  Will was there all the way encouraging me once again - always making me smile and making me feel so good about my performance.  And he has to be the most lovable Alfie Doolittle that there ever was.  Oh my goodness.  Will poured his heart and soul and so much time and research into that role, as I’m sure every role he ever played.  He just loved it and his love radiated as he performed. After that he never stopped greeting me as “my noble daughter”.

He often asked me about roles and told me which ones he thought I needed to do someday.  We also dreamed about doing a “reunion” of our West Side Story cast and performing the “middle aged” version of the show!  Can you imagine? He was so supportive of the arts and artists in Columbia and really worked to try and bring people together within the arts community.  He was a great example in that way.

Some of my favorite memories will be fighting over the Secretary of State parking place (after hours of course) in the parking lot next to Town Theatre; watching Will, Chris Kruzner, Bob Blencowe, and Bill Dewitt pal around together; the adventure of never knowing what might come out of his mouth on stage; the time he performed “With a Little Bit of Luck” with his fly down (and the comments that followed!); watching him engage my introverted husband in deep conversation; his encouragement to me in ministry opportunities I had; his willingness to be involved even if he was just lending a hand back stage; his passion for the marginalized; his intellect; his ability to gently and gracefully talk to those who disagreed with him on political, religious, or social issues; his openness to learn from others and to teach; his very recent visit to my daughter’s 3rd grade class and her new-found interest in her Cherokee heritage. 

I wish now that I had many more opportunities to talk to him.  To learn from him. There was still so much about him that I didn’t know. Certainly I wouldn’t claim to be one of Will’s closest friends, but I would call him a big brother.  Mi hermano. I will miss him.  The world will not be the same.

 

Two other bucket list roles Will achieved were the Engineer in Miss Saigon, and Clopin, the Gypsy King in Hunchback of Notre Dame, the latter becoming his last role on stage. Shirley McGuinness was in both productions with him at Town Theatre, and also knew Will from St. Peter's - few people knew that Will was actually raised Catholic, and still attended mass on occasion. She said:

There are faces around Columbia that remind you that even though this City is the State Capital, it really can be a small welcoming town if you are willing to open your heart, broaden your perspective and be willing to share an experience.  Such moments can be epic as sharing a stage, motivating as calling for justice at a rally or moving as holding a hand in prayer.  Will Moreau was one of those first faces for me.  Not only was he willing to share the story for anyone who took the time to hear, but he was an active listener and encourager of making sure your voice was heard

 

Former congressional candidate Arik Bjorn shared this:

I considered Will a mentor, which he perhaps did not realize. I wanted Will to be at every major rally and event in which I participated. His presence was a very blessing upon the cause, and his embrace an encouragement that I was headed on the right path. (Because he never would have hesitated to tell me otherwise.)

One of my favorite moments was at the recent Love Thy Neighbor rally at the SC State House, which I emceed. Just minutes before the rally began, “YMCA” by The Village People started playing over the speaker system. Will, in full Native American regalia, performed impromptu the familiar dance upon the State House steps, then a few minutes later gave a very inspiring, spiritual benediction about people helping people. Will was a “full spectrum” public figure.

 

"This is how we did it in the 80's, y'all," Will proclaimed with glee in that video clip. And indeed, when he appeared in a scene in The Producers at Workshop in which the ensemble turns up in Village People attire, one guess which member Will embodied.

 

Visual artist Faith Mathis posted this on Will's Facebook page:

I remember the first time I saw you, was at the International Festival when I was 13. I had felt discouraged to represent the USA, and chose instead to dress in Japanese kimono to represent my cousins, because my schooling had made me think the USA had no original culture to celebrate. I saw you... in full traditional Native dress, (and) you sang our national anthem, and everyone was silent because your voice moved people. I too, was moved. Your presence and voice not only brought a much needed awareness and understanding of Native peoples to our community, but also showed what pure forgiveness, and pride for one's heritage looked like, and influenced me to feel proud of Native ancestors I have, who helped the natural beauty of our land flourish. You helped us to never forget who we are by just being yourself, and we will not forget you.

 

Antara Brandner offered these thoughts to Will:

Our collective hearts are broken at losing you so soon.  You leave such a powerful legacy of loving kindness, compassion and inclusivity.  From your friends at Heathwood Hall and The Academy For Future Science, we thank you and offer up blessings on your ascent.  From the stars you came ... and to the stars you shall return.  Wado, beloved friend, Wado Sgi.

 

At a candlelight memorial service outside the Nickelodeon - the marquee read "Rest in Power, Dr. Will Goins" - Antara Brandner and Jean Asbill Chow spoke eloquently and with great emotion about Will's compassion and humanity.  The latter's daughter, Kelsey Asbille, auditioned with Will for her first role at Workshop Theatre before going on to a career in film and television, and credits him with welcoming her into the Columbia theater community. Her mother explained how supportive Will had been of her daughter's career, encouraging her to seek out Native roles in the film Wind River - which opened the most recent Native American Film Festival, and for which Asbille returned to town as the guest of honor - and in the upcoming tv series Yellowstone, and to explore her Native heritage further.  Will always explained to me that his tribe had no percentage blood test or requirement - if you were of Cherokee descent, then that was part of your heritage.          

I was only in one play with Will, for about 10 seconds, my "cameo" in Spamalot at Town Theatre in 2015. Yet while I was waiting backstage, I enjoyed hearing his outrageous ad-libs during the scene in which Sir Lancelot storms the swamp castle. Voices from offstage are supposed to be screaming in terror, and the mike leading to the speaker I was closest to seemed to always pick up Will's voice from among dozens, with every line he spoke dripping with double entendre. And once that candlelight vigil ended, we all became less serious, and acknowledged that for all his gentle compassion, Will Moreau was a very, very silly man. Colleague Frank Thompson plans to organize an event in his memory in the new year that will be one part memorial, one part wake, and two parts roast, only appropriate for such a funny and loving gentleman.

 

The official celebration of Will's life will be held the day after Thanksgiving; details can be found at: http://www.palmermemorialchapel.com/obituaries/William-Goins-4/.  

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to

The Will Moreau Goins Memorial Fund at Town Theater 

1012 Sumter Street, Columbia, SC 29201

or

St Peter’s School - Children’s Arts & Music Program in Honor of Dr. Goins

 1035 Hampton Street, Columbia, SC 29201

~~~

A sound clip of Will singing Amazing Grace in the Cherokee language can be found at:  https://knowitall.org/audio/amazing-grace-will-moreau-goins-digital-traditions

Will in regalia.   

Will in regalia.

 

will nick marquee.jpg

"Oklahoma!" opens this weekend at Town Theatre - a preview by August Krickel

Oklahoma

Oklahoma!  - yes, the exclamation point is part of the title - is one of those those shows that everyone knows by heart - or do they?  It's part of our shared cultural heritage, and most of us can probably sing the first line or two of the title song, since it actually begins with the title.  You know, "O-o-o-o-o...klahoma, where the... something something goes something something..." and that's where our memories start to cloud.  It's actually now  the official state song of Oklahoma. A few of us may also connect the familiar song "Oh What a Beautiful Morning," to the musical, and might even know the next line "oh what a beautiful day," and the basic tune. We may even have heard or used the expression about the corn being "as high as an elephant's eye," whether or not we knew its source. Having been a mainstay of high school and community theatre repertoires for decades, Oklahoma! is something we all know backwards and forwards.
Or is it?  I fell into that trap too, realizing only recently that I have never seen the show live, and to my knowledge have only seen the famous film version once, when I was in 5th grade or so.  And in those days I was much more interested in spotting the mom from The Partridge Family  (i.e. Shirley Jones) in the lead, playing opposite the real-life father of one of the girls from Petticoat Junction (i.e. Gordon MacRae, father of Meredith), with Mr. Douglas from Green Acres (Eddie Albert) providing comic relief.  Then I realized that for years, I've been mistakenly thinking one of the big hits from the show, "People Will Say We're in Love," was from South Pacific!  That's not too bad a lapse, though, since the same composers, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, wrote both.  Along with Sound of Music, The King and I, and the tv Cinderella. Wait, the same guys wrote all of those?  Exactly.  Meaning that Oklahoma! may be worth a little more attention than we might naturally be inclined to give something that we think is so familiar already.  Especially since it's opening at Town Theatre in just a few days, featuring some of Columbia's top talent.

(L-R) Zanna Mills, Parker Byun, Sirena Dib, Haley Sprankle, Bryan , Kristy O'Keefe

Would you believe Hugh Jackman - yes, The Wolverine - starred as the lead, heroic Curly the cowboy,  in a London revival in 1998?  Yep, he was doing big musicals long before the film of Les Miserables. When that version transferred to Broadway in 2002, Curly was played by Patrick Wilson.  Yes, the second Nite Owl in Watchmen!  That revival was nominated for many Tony Awards; the Tonys didn't exist yet when the musical first came out in 1943, but it's a frequent nominee and winner whenever it's revived. Harry Groener was even nominated for a Tony as Will (the juvenile love interest in a subplot)  in a 1979 revival, and yes, that's the guy who later played the evil Mayor of Sunnydale on Buffy (well golly!)  so there's that.

Curly sings of the glories of O-K-L...well, you know. — with Joey Florez, Therese Talbot, Helen Hood Porth, Zanna Mills and Bryan R Meyers at Town Theatre

So why is Oklahoma! such a big deal?  The music of Rodgers and Hammerstein is certainly a large part.  This was their first collaboration together, after many hits with other writing partners. How it came into being is fascinating though. The story was originally a non-musical play from 1930 called Green Grow the Lilacs, that wasn't a big hit, even though it was about settlers in Indian Territory only a few decades removed from when that was actually happening, and even though there was serious star power in the cast:  future film star Franchot Tone as Curly,  future country music star Tex Ritter (yes, father of John!) as a cowpoke, and Lee Strasberg (yes, the Method acting teacher, and Hyman Roth in Godfather II !) as a comic peddler.   Producers saw a summer stock production of Lilacs, years later, that incorporated authentic square dancing and folk music from the period/locale, and thought this might make a better musical than straight play.And boy did it.   It ran for more than five years, a  record for Broadway in those days, unbroken for twelve years, and was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize. And this was right in the middle of World War II, when there were plenty of other things on the public's mind, and not a lot of disposable income for entertainment.  The two biggest components that both critics and audiences raved about then, as now, were the way in which the songs and dances became an integral part of the story-telling process - previously musicals often just stopped the action long enough for the leads to break into song, as a chorus entered to back them up - and an unheard-of extended ballet sequence (it's part of a dream that plays out live on stage) choreographed by Agnes DeMille, one of the titans of the dance world in those days.

 People Will Say We're In Love... — with Haley Allison Sprankle and Bryan R Meyers at Town Theatre

So that's the show.  What's special about this production?  I'd say the people - lots of good folks that Jasper loves are in this one.   Frank Thompson directs - he's better known as a prolific comic actor, appearing as everyone from Captain Hook in Peter Pan to Igor in Young Frankenstein,  but he has directed shows like Chicago and A Christmas Story at the Kershaw Fine Arts Center,  Ho Ho Ho at Columbia Children's Theatre, and 9 to 5Stand By Your Man, and South Pacific at Town Theatre.  Plus he brought his Chicago cast to perform at the first even Jasper ever held at the Arcade, back in early 2012.   I had just recently met him, after reviewing him in Forever Plaid: Plaid Tidings, and making some wisecrack about how ironic hipsters from the Whig would douse themselves in lighter fluid and look for lighters rather than sit through that show's wholesome Christmas music... and he still thought he got a good review!  Well, he did, after a fashion.  Christy Shealy Mills choreographs, and we interviewed her last spring for this blog; you can still read all about her here. Daniel Gainey is music director, and he's done outstanding work as both actor (in In the Next Room at Trustus and Legally Blonde at Workshop) and as music director for shows like Songs for a New World and Camp Rock the Musical at Workshop. Lori Stepp is costumer,  Danny Harrington is scenic designer, and we profiled  him in the July 2012 issue of Jasper - there's an expanded version of that story here.

(L-R) Sirena Dib, Kathy Hartzog, Haley Sprankle, Rob Sprankle

Then there's the cast. Heroine Laurey is played by Haley Sprankle.  Yep, one of Jasper's new interns, whose work has already appeared on this blog twice in the past week.  The first time I ever saw her on stage was in the ensemble Dirty Rotten Scoundrels; as the curtain opened, she and several other dancers were frozen in place, and her extension went up to Mars.  A few months later I wrote of her in Grease:   "She has one of the stronger voices in the cast (you can always tell where she is in group numbers) and is one of the better dancers as well. Add comic timing to that, and Sprankle is a remarkable triple threat."    Two years after that I wrote this about her performance in Biloxi Blues:  "Winsome Haley Sprankle shines as Daisy, the adorable sort of red-headed Catholic school girl that we’d all go fight Hitler for in a heartbeat."  In other words, I was a fan long before she came aboard the Jasper team.  Bryan Meyers, who was in the cast of Les Miserables (winner of the Free Times Best of Columbia award for best production) plays Curly opposite her.  Will Parker, the second lead, is played by Parker Byun, who's done good work in plenty of shows recently, including playing the lead in Tarzan the Musical last year.

 A yip-eye-oh-eee-aaay... — with Kristy O'Keefe, Bryan R Meyers, Haley Allison Sprankle, Parker Byun, Sirena Dib and Zanna Mills at Town Theatre.

 

 

Will Moreau

But wait, there's more!  Haley's father Rob Sprankle, who joins Jasper as a staff photographer in the issue that comes out in about 48 hours, plays the peddler Ali Hakim.  He's had roles ranging from the King in The King and I  to Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Opposite him (in a triangle with the Will character) as Ado Annie  is Sirena Dib, seen as Fiona in Shrek the Musical this past spring, as the lead in Cinderella at Workshop, and as Martie in Grease when Haley Sprankle was playing Frenchy, and Frank Thompson was Vince Fontaine.   She too will be joining the Jasper staff, plus we featured her in the centerfold of the November 2012 Jasper,  along with some other talented young performers.  That same issue also profiled Will Moreau, who plays Annie's father. Other principal roles include Kathy Hartzog as Aunt Eller,  Kevin Loeper as Jud Fry, and Kristy O’Keefe dancing the ballet role of Dream Laurey.

And that, parders, is why I think Oklahoma! is worth checking out. Good people, good material, and the chance to see it done live.   Oklahoma! opens this Friday, September 19 and runs through October 11;  Thursdays through Saturdays are at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m.  Tickets are $15-25 and may be purchased by calling the box office at 799- 2510. For more information, visit www.towntheatre.com.

 ~ August Krickel

 

 

 

 

.

 

 

 

 

Bringing to life Stephen Sondheim’s "Follies" in concert (pt. 1) - a guest blog by Charlie Goodrich

It all started with Yvonne De Carlo.  Yes the actress, Yvonne De Carlo.  I happened to pick up a book entitled Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time one afternoon in the spring of 2009 during my final semester of grad school in the USC Russell House Bookstore.  I opened it up, looked through a few pages, and knew I had to have this book in my personal library.  That evening, I began to flip through and read about all of the various shows that the authors had designated as “The Greatest.”  When I got to the “F’s,” I noticed a rather long article about a musical simply entitled Follies.  As I read, what caught my eye immediately was that the Stephen Sondheim musical had starred Yvonne De Carlo. De Carlo was an actress that I had been a fan of for as long as I could remember, beginning in elementary school, when I would watch reruns of The Munsters on Nick At Nite. As I went through middle and high school, I became what one might call a “film buff,” and began to watch every classic movie that I could get my hands on.  I began to notice De Carlo in such films as The Ten Commandments and McLintock!  Remembering my fondness for The Munsters, I always watched any and every film I came across with her name in the credits.  Not only was De Carlo beautiful, talented, and a joy to watch perform; she had something so engaging about her, a quality that surely had a lot to do with her stardom.  It always baffled me that such a beautiful and classy lady took on a role as a Bride of Frankenstein-esque horror film housewife, but I was extremely grateful that she did.  Her approach to the role of Lily Munster was by all means brilliant.  I noticed De Carlo’s name and photo in Broadway Musicals, and began to read the article on Follies more in depth.

a page from the original Broadway Playbill

Follies, as I found, was designated by many critics, as perhaps THE greatest Broadway musical ever produced, despite the fact that it was a financial failure when originally staged in 1971.  It had a very loose script, and primarily focused on a group of former chorus girls and boys attending a reunion at the fictional Weismann Theatre, the night before its demolition.  I began to read about all of the classic show-stopping moments in the original production, including De Carlo’s marvelous rendition of the now classic Sondheim tune, “I’m Still Here.”  I had to hear one of my favorite actresses belt this number, which I read was written specially for her about her life.  Within 10 minutes, I had downloaded the Original Cast recording off ITunes and in less than 24 hours was hooked on Follies.  I began to research the show obsessively. My research was aided in part by the definitive tell-all book on the original production entitled Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies, by Ted Chapin, who worked as the Production Assistant.

The first thing about the 1971 production that I noticed had made it so great was the casting. Everyone among the cast of actors had in one way or another lived the life of the characters that he or she portrayed.  De Carlo, for example, was a former chorus girl that transitioned into movie stardom and now appears on a campy television series, just like her alter ego Carlotta Campion.  Alexis Smith had started out as a ballet-dancing chorine, who went onto a successful career in films that showcased her dramatic and sophisticated capabilities.  This career was not a far cry from the cool Phyllis, her stage counterpart, a chorine turned society woman.  Dorothy Collins, also formerly a chorine and now a warm, witty, and talented television personality, singer, and devoted mother, embodied perfectly Sally, the “everywoman housewife,” with an emotionally crippling vulnerability lurking beneath the surface.  Gene Nelson was a former tap dancing acrobatic movie star, best known for his portrayal as Will Parker in the film adaptation of Oklahoma.  Now retired from acting and dancing and primarily a director and family man, he too mirrors his character Buddy all too closely.  I could go on forever about how each original cast member WAS in fact his or her character, but to save time, I will quickly mention a few noteworthy personalities.  Fifi D’Orsay, former French Canadian chanteuse and comedienne, portrayed Solange, also a chanteuse and comedienne.  Ethel Shutta, a huge Broadway musical star from the 1920’s, played Hattie, who had the same history.  Ethel Barrymore Colt, the daughter of Ethel Barrymore, portrayed Christine, a former chorus girl.  While Colt spent the majority of her career appearing in straight plays and singing soprano arias in supper clubs, she started out as a chorine in The George White Scandals.  Finally, Helon Blount, now a seasoned character actress, portrayed Dee Dee, another former chorus girl.  Before drifting into character work, Blount had been a dancer and Off-Broadway musical star for a number of years.

I soon began thinking about the perfect actors in Columbia to portray this plethora of interesting characters.  I wanted to  direct a production of Follies with the same intricate casting as the original production.  A number of names popped into my head, and while I soon had the entire show cast in my mind, I set my plans aside for a few years.  The time didn’t seem right, and I was not sure of an available venue to direct such a show.  And I didn't feel confident in my directorial skills yet.  It was not until I went back to school to study Theatre,  finishing in 2011, that I felt ready.  I directed a production of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer at USC’s Benson Theatre.  I also directed an original Bob Fosse revue that I entitled Damn Sweet Pajama Cabaret, while working professionally at The Lost Colony in the Outer Banks.  Upon returning to Columbia in the fall of 2011, I again became super-involved in local theatre.  While performing in numerous productions, Follies always remained in the back of my mind.  With each show I worked on came one or two more perfect candidates for my dream production.  Finally, in 2013, I spoke with a friend, local actor and director Frank Thompson, about the many fundraisers that he organized to benefit Town Theatre, all of which contained his original ideas.  He then encouraged me to approach Sandra Willis, Executive Director of Town, with my vision of Follies as a fundraiser that could benefit the theatre.  Fortunately, Mrs. Willis loved my idea, and we made plans for the production to occur in the summer of 2014.  Obviously mounting the entire show was too big an undertaking for a fundraiser.  However, a concert version of the major hits from the show would be perfect for August, a month between Town’s summer show and its next season opener.

It was now time to choose what numbers from Sondheim’s score I wanted in my concert, and which actors to  invite.  Being faithful to James Goldman’s original Libretto for the show, I wanted to use all original 38 characters, because I knew that there was enough talent to fill these parts in the Columbia area, and then some.  19 of these characters are the reunion attendees that I spoke of earlier, former chorus girls and boys that sang and danced enthusiastically in their youth, but were now retired for the most part.  The other half are the ghostly “young” counterparts of these characters.  Part of the brilliance of Follies is the fact that while the former Weismann performers are attending this reunion, the ghosts of their youth wander throughout the action, sometimes performing, sometimes not, but always serving as a constant reminder, a memento mori if you will, of the natural human occurrence of aging and decay.  These youths physically embody the major metaphor of the show: “all things beautiful must die,” a line from “One More Kiss.”  The innocent rapture of our youth gradually gives way to the harsh and abrasive reality of adult life. Marriages careers, families, etc are never what we envisioned them to be.  Using this brilliant dichotomy, Goldman and Sondheim fashion a show that reflects upon the decay of our society as a whole, particularly in post-World War America.

Clockwise from top: Bryan Meyers as Ben, Melanie Carrier as the Ghostly Showgirl Young Vanessa, Andy Nyland as Buddy, Kathy Hartzog as Carlotta, Ruth Ann Ingham as Sally, and Rebecca Seezen as Phyllis.

When casting the “reunion attendees,” I needed 19 local actors of a certain age that had been doing theatre for a number of years and seemed to embody their characters as well as the original Broadway cast members did. The first part I cast was easy, Ruth Ann Ingham as Sally Durant Plummer.  Ruth Ann has been my music teacher, vocal coach, and friend for going on twenty years now.  I could not wait to hear her beautiful operatic voice tackle the classic Sondheim ballad, “Losing Mind.”  Then I asked Andy Nyland, an expressive and talented singer and actor with whom I had appeared in 6 productions to play Sally’s husband Buddy.  Andy has the perfect voice for the part and agreed to join the project. Next, it was extremely simple to cast Kathy Hartzog as Carlotta.  Kathy has been entertaining audiences in Columbia theatres for many years with her impeccable comedic timing and warm personality.  “I’m Still Here,” would be a piece of cake for her.  The rest of the soloist casting began to happen even more quickly:  Nancy Ann Smith to sing “Broadway Baby,” as the wry and witty Hattie; Jami Steele to portray the fabulous Solange and sing “Ah Paris;” Frank Thompson and Shannon Willis Scruggs to portray the fun and adorable vaudevillian couple, Emily and Theodore Whitman, and sing “The Rain on the Roof;”  and Will Moreau to play the humorous former director Dmitri Weismann.   All of these actors are staples at Town Theatre, and the audience will recognize each of them from the numerous memorable roles that they have created over the last twenty years.

I then enlisted Christy Shealy Mills to portray Stella Deems, a former tap soloist and ensemble leader in the former Weismann showstopper, “Who’s That Woman,” which Stella and her friends recreate at the reunion.  Stella is backed up by 6 former chorine tappers in the number, including Sally, Carlotta, and the yet to be cast Phyllis.  The other female characters in the number are: Meredith, the youngest former Weismann Girl; Christine, the former leader of the parade of beautiful girls in the follies opening numbers; and Dee Dee, a serious and confidant former chorine.  I easily found 3 women that could tap dance and bring to life these ladies: Becky Lucas Combs, who I had grown up with, to play Meredith; my cousin and frequent costar Agnes Babb as Christine; and my friend and co-performer Robin Blume as Dee Dee.

Agnes Babb and Christy Shealy Mills

I still had a few more roles to cast.  I also decided to expand upon the role of Sandra, who in the original production was a swing understudy, portrayed by the retired Russian ballerina and pin-up girl Sonja Levkova.  I cast a highly talented actress that I had worked with in Elvis Has Left the Building and Les Mis, Resi Talbot, who was relatively new to Columbia theatre, in this role.  I also chose a song that was cut from the original production for Resi to perform: the hilariously smart “Can That Boy Foxtrot.”  “Foxtrot” was intended as Yvonne De Carlo’s big moment, but when the actress couldn’t make the largely euphemistic lyrics work, it was cut and replaced with “I’m Still Here.” The song has become a cult classic over the years, and was included in the Sondheim Revue, Side by Side by Sondheim.  Knowing Resi had the comic timing necessary, I gladly offered her the chance to sing it, and she took me up on my offer.

follies4

I also needed to cast the role of Heidi Schiller; an 80-year-old retired opera singer, and the oldest attendee at the Weismann Reunion.  I approached Mrs. Carmella Tronco Martin, the retired owner of Villa Tronco (also my place of employment.)  Mrs. Martin is the daughter of the late Sadie Tronco, who founded the restaurant in 1940.  In her 80s, Mrs. Martin is just as sharp and witty as ever, and at first nervously dismissed my offer, stating, “I can’t sing.”  What Mrs. Martin didn’t know was that I had heard her sing karaoke at an event I helped the restaurant cater a few years back, and knew that she possesses a lovely voice.  When I informed her that she would share the stage with the “ghost” of her younger self, she seemed more confident, and agreed to make her stage debut at the age of 89 (!!) in Follies.  I was delighted, because it is a rare in a production of the show, including even the 1971 production, to have an actress actually in her 80’s play the part.

Coming up in Part 2:  more casting challenges!

Selections from Stephen Sondheim's "Follies" in Concert  goes up on Friday, August 15, at 8:00 PM at Town Theatre. Tickets are $10/General Admission, and are available by phone (799-2510) or at the door.

 

Selections from Stephen Sondheim’s Follies in Concert

Friday, August 15, 2014 at 8:00 PM

Directed by Charlie Goodrich

Musical Direction by Jeremy Buzzard

All Choreography (after Michael Bennett) by Charlie Goodrich

Except: Bolero D’ Amour Choreography by Tracy Steele

Costumes by Christy Shealy Mills

Scenic/Tech Design by Danny Harrington

Lights by Amanda Hines

Sound Design by Robert Brickner

Stage Manager: Jill Brantley

Assistant Stage Manager: Russell Castell

Dance Captain: Allison Allgood

Pianist: Susie Gibbons

Photography by Rebecca Seezen, Britt Jerome, and Charlie Goodrich

"Ho Ho Ho" at Columbia Children's Theatre - a review by Melissa Swick Ellington

hoho3 Ho Ho Ho offers bright and energetic holiday entertainment at Columbia Children’s Theatre.  Designed to engage even the youngest audience members, this production features wacky humor in the custom of British pantomime.   As “panto” embraces audience participation and madcap folly, Ho Ho Ho keeps viewers shouting with gleeful laughter at the silly antics of familiar festive characters.  Father and Mother Christmas (i.e. Santa and Mrs. Claus) face rollicking chaos as they strive to reclaim elusive holiday spirit amid comical mishaps.  Tradition blends with pop culture references as elves cavort to contemporary hit songs. Audience members will enjoy participating in this rowdy ride through pursuit of Christmas magic.  The boisterous comic style of the show embraces broad physical jokes as in vaudeville, including slapstick sequences that may startle some of the youngest viewers, as well as a bit of potty humor that will appeal to a wide cross-section of audience members. (Truth be told, my husband and I laughed even harder than our children did during one particularly memorable sound cue sequence…I bet you’ll know which one if you see the show.)

As directed by Frank Thompson, the production maintains a brisk pace and admirable clarity. Cast members work together in a vibrant, captivating ensemble. In the central role of Father Christmas, Lee O. Smith brings empathy and warmth to his character in the midst of the wild hijinks. Will Moreau as the Musical Elf shares a special talent for mesmerizing the young audience, often without speaking a word. Mother Christmas (Christy Shealy Mills) drives the play’s narrative with vivacity, while the effervescent elves are portrayed with enthusiastic commitment by Elizabeth Stepp and Bill DeWitt. (Andy Nyland serves as understudy for the role of Elf Boy Len).

(L-R) Bill DeWitt, Christy Chealy Mills, Elizabeth Stepp, Will Moreau

As ever with a CCT play, commendable production values are maintained, with sound design by Frank Thompson and costume design by Donna Harvey and Jerry Stevenson. Costumes combine recognizable holiday attire (that iconic red suit) with surprising delights (an ever-changing parade of zany hats). Complex action onstage relies on offstage support; clearly, this production has a superb team in place. Stage manager extraordinaire Jami Steele-Sprankle keeps the mayhem under control and provides effective backstage organization. Sound technician Anthony Harvey delivers praiseworthy precision in the execution of numerous sound cues which are essential to the show’s comedy, while David Quay supplies dependable light board operation.

As a parent, I was particularly gratified by the actors’ knack for nurturing my preschool son’s focus throughout the performance. He was able to engage in the audience-actor transaction of live theatre at a level of understanding that I hadn’t seen from this little boy before. The youngsters in attendance at this matinee performance were charmed by the actors, and became visibly invested in the play’s events.

audience participation

Before the performance, cast and crew members involve children in coloring stocking ornaments and helping to decorate the onstage tree. A gentle approach to audience participation invites eager kids to take part in various opportunities, but does not overwhelm more reserved children. Stick around after the show to meet the cast, get autographs, and take photos. (My daughter observed, “I love when the actors autograph my program at Columbia Children’s Theatre!”)

Early in the performance, my youngest child chortled with laughter after a funny physical sequence and declared, “Ohhhh that is SO silly.” Yes, Ho Ho Ho, scripted by award-winning British children's playwright Mike Kenny, is indeed “so silly,” in the most affirming and affectionate sense of the term. Columbia Children’s Theatre offers our community a comedic gift this holiday season in a fast-paced and cheery romp. Head on over to Ho Ho Ho, jumpstart your holiday spirit, and laugh your cares away with Father Christmas and friends at Columbia Children’s Theatre.

~ Melissa Swick Ellington