Local theatregoers were recently treated to many scene stealing performances. Here are my personal favorites:
Elizabeth Rayca singing “When You’ve Got it, Flaunt It!” at The Producers
at Toby’s – The Dinner Theatre of Columbia.
It was press night, and Elizabeth Rayca introduced herself as my server, and told me she was playing Ulla in the show. For the next 1 ½ hours, I watched as she ran around waiting on her tables, filling and refilling drink orders, schlepping rolls and desserts to tables, always with a big smile. And then, the show began. Elizabeth – now in a blonde wig and a white dress – wiggled and giggled and belted her big number in a Swedish accent -and stole the hearts of the audience, as well as Max and Leo. I saw men in the audience drooling shamelessly.
I asked Elizabeth about playing Ulla, how difficult it is to sing her big number, and whether anyone in the audience has offered to meet her at 11 AM (“When Ulla make love!”):
“Playing the sexy bombshell part of Ulla’s persona was my biggest challenge and really made me stretch my acting muscles. But, if you look beyond her physical beauty, you will find a character with a big heart. Ulla is a very sweet and caring person. Yes, when she first enters the office of Bialystock and Bloom, she is just out to be a star but after she gets to know these men, she begins to really care about their well-being and looks at them as family. In many ways I saw Ulla’s caring characteristics in myself, and wanted to bring them out in my portrayal of her.
I believe this song is a great mantra for anyone. It isn’t just about flaunting yourself physically, but more about just having confidence in yourself. I also think it is showing you that when you want something enough, you have to give everything you’ve got to get it. That is another lesson I learned from doing this role. I have come to find that you will grow so much if you just get out of your comfort zone, and trust yourself that you have what it takes to play any part. When you go into an audition, you have to find that thing that is going to make you stand out from the hundreds of other girls who are up for that same part, and that is what I believe Ulla is doing with “When You’ve Got it Flaunt it.”
To be honest, I do not find this song that difficult to sing. I have been very well trained in my belting, and have been singing songs like this for a very long time. I have not always been a belter though. I mean I guess I always had that talent, but I used to be scared to use it. It wasn’t until my first year in college that I really became comfortable using that part of my voice, and by the time my Senior year rolled around, that is what I was known for. It had been a long time since I had belted before I was cast in this role, so for the first few rehearsals I had to find that placement again, but after that, it was “cake.” It isn’t hard keeping a straight face while singing to Jeffery and David, because that is exactly the reaction Ulla is going for, so really she is just pleased with herself that she is getting such a good response. That is why she is so hurt and confused after the song is over, when Leo seems to not be interested in casting her. Jeffery Shankle and David Bosley-Reynolds are wonderful actors, and I really enjoy working opposite of both of them. It’s great working with actors you can trust on stage.
I have not had anyone offer to meet me at 11AM after seeing the show, but the other night, we did have an all boys high school in the audience and as they were leaving the theater a few of them shouted “We love you Ulla.” I found that quite amusing.”
The Producers plays through November 23rd at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia – 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, Maryland. For tickets, call (301) 596-6161, or go to their website.
Richelle Howie singing “Sad Eyes” and “It’s Morning Again In America” at President Harding Is a Rock Star at Landless Theatre Company.
Talk about a belter! Rochelle (“Ricky”) Howe blows the roof off of the very cramped District of Columbia Arts Center’s (DCAC) space with her earth shattering renditions of “Sad Eyes,” a lament to being the ever suffering wife of the adulterous, crab eating, compulsive gambling President of the United States – Warren G. Harding, and during the emotional finale -“It’s Morning Again In America.”
I asked Rochelle what it’s like for an African American actress to play a Caucasian First Lady, how she prepared for the role and her two big numbers.
“Regarding being an African American actress playing a former Caucasian First Lady, I have to admit I did not really think of it. I just saw myself as the First Lady, someone with values and honor not only about her country but about her husband. The only time it hit me was when it was mentioned in the play that “we” were not allowed in the “White House.” I’m still waiting for the audience to get that joke.
Florence Harding and I are a lot alike. She is a determined woman who is rises to the top with her man in the public eye. She is intuitive about her surroundings and ensures that the family fits in. Also, she understands the undercurrent of day to day life, and either plays with it or above it at all times. I learned that Florence was very much an everyday woman- she had a prior child, and had a prior marriage, and was a trend setter, somewhat “Kennedy-esque.”
“Sad Eyes” is sung after the poker scene when I come out to sing about who I think Warren is as a man. Mind you – I know full well that my husband is about to explode. All I did was put him in a situation, and watched him fall for it hook line and sinker. I invited his old friends – who have a bit of a drug problem – over and the fall begins. This is where Warren can either take the high road or the low road. He takes the low road.
Then there is that scene – the finale where I sing “It’s Morning Again In America,” when Warren realizes what has been going on all along. I have just convinced him that he cannot give up because he feels defeated after being caught with the other women – I knew about [them] anyway. He finally lets me hold him, as I remind him in his final moments of all the good that he has done – including the Tariff Legislation – then I run to get help. Or do I?
The moral is that a woman who holds you up and supports you – can lose faith in you, and you can self-destruct. Over all, the scene is a mad dash backstage from one costume to another in less than 30 seconds. Whew!
I prepared myself for the role of Florence by studying lines with my roommate, self testing myself, and doing research on the other characters. Even though this play is a juxtaposition of the truth, I decided that I needed to know the truth about these characters. I studied past presidential wives like Rosalind Carter, Jacqueline Kennedy, Nancy Reagan and a future First Lady Michelle Obama to help me develop my character. From the start, the thought was to pattern my outward look to that of Michelle Obama. I took on some of her facial expressions, and then layered that with hints of other first ladies. I also looked at past presidential hiccups to understand the fall of Warren G. Harding. No man as President has ever been unscathed, so why not study them to find out how to incorporate how they really were, and how their wives dealt with it? I hope I did them all justice.”
Landless Theatre’s President Harding Is a Rock Star plays through Nov 30th at DC Arts Center, 2438 18th St NW, Washington, DC. Thurs, Fri & Sat at 7:30 pm. One Sunday performance, Nov 23, at 3 pm. Tickets are $18, available on the website.
Steven Rigaux singing “One Song Glory” at Rent-School Edition at Winston Churchill High School.
Schools around the country are gobbling up the rights for the “school edition,” (or the “PG version”) of Jonathan Larson’s Tony and Pulitzer Award Winning musical, Rent. “Seasons of Love” is being heard in high school auditoriums everywhere. On October 24th, I attended a production at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, Maryland and two young stars burned up the huge Churchill stage.
Fifteen year old Steven Rigaux’s emotionally wrenching rendition of “One Song Glory” brought back memories of April 29, 1996, when I bought a $20 standing room ticket, and was blown away by Adam Pascal on opening night of a new musical called Rent at the Niederlander Theatre. Who knew then that twelve years later, this powerful and controversial work would be performed by young actors in their high school auditoriums? We’ve come a long way…
I asked Steven about playing Roger and singing “One Song Glory”:
“To prepare for Roger, I really had to work on my voice. I had to hit some very high notes, which took some getting used to, but what was the biggest challenge was making my musical theatre voice adapt to the hardcore rocker that Roger is. I spent a lot of time making it sound less pure and more teenage angst-y. The list of personal experiences I used for this role is short, because nothing in my life is anywhere close to being as dramatic as Roger’s. My grandfather died in 2001, so I had the experience of going to a funeral in my back pocket, which I definitely tried to whip out during Angel’s death scene. Mostly, I got into character by thinking hard about what it would legitimately feel like to have zero hope, and to hate yourself for letting your girlfriend, your health, your life get away from you.
“One Song Glory” comes very early in the show, right after Mark explains to the audience that Roger has AIDS and that his girlfriend died. It is Roger’s first big number after the song “Rent.” and I think it is in the show as exposition, because it really exposes Roger as a vulnerable human being. Throughout the show, he is often ticked off and ‘One Song Glory’ shows that Roger really isn’t a huge jerk, but that he has a complicated, pitiful situation underneath his harsh demeanor. The song is about leaving your mark on the world. Roger feels that there is nothing left to live for, and he thinks that any day, he could drop dead. So in “One Song Glory,” Roger shows that the one thing he really wants to do before he dies of AIDS is write a timeless song that will remind people of who Roger was once he is gone. When I sang it, I made sure to emphasize certain phrases, specifically “before the virus takes hold” because, as my director Ms. Speck pointed out, this is the only line in the show where Roger directly mentions AIDS. Otherwise, I made sure to connect to the lyrics. Every time I said “Find,” Roger was switching from one memory or thought to another. Roger is really mad at himself in this song – mad for giving up, mad for not being able to write a stupid song, mad for letting the love of his life die on him. It is packed with action, and Roger quickly changes from being nostalgic and upset to being infuriated by his numerous failures. I just tried to be Roger, be this emotional wreck onstage, and to portray everything running through Roger’s head in this song. Time is running out, and he can’t do anything about it.”
Sonya Lillenstein singing “Over The Moon” at Rent – School Edition at Winston Churchill High School.
What an udder delight watching 17 year old Sonya Lillenstein throw her arms up, fall on the stage and “moo” and watch the audience enjoy themselves as they joined her in the “mooing.” Tony Award Winner Idina Menzel, who played Maureen in the original Broadway production, would have been proud. Sonya’s performance was sheer energy and vocally astounding, and I was thrilled and exhausted watching her milk the audience’s emotions.
I asked Sonya about playing Maureen and singing “Over The Moon”:
“I relate a lot to Maureen. Although I cannot say I’m a bisexual performance artist, I can say that I love to perform, and I’m very passionate about it. I also believe that we have the same type of charisma and energy, and since we had that in common already, it was easy to bring to the part. Preparing for the part was somewhat difficult for me. Maureen’s belty, loud, alto voice is very different from my light, flutey, soprano voice. Singing this way was a different and difficult experience, but it all came through for the most part in the end. Some personal experiences I used to prepare for the role were my past performing experiences, and using the audience’s energy to feed off of. In the song “Over the Moon,” rehearsing and performing it were completely different experiences. Having an audience to perform WITH – as opposed to one to perform for – was a great experience for me.
“Over the Moon” is an interesting and probably very confusing song. Maureen Johnson stands center stage in front of 4 backup dancers while the rest of the cast stands in the background looking on. The song is a protest to Benjamin Coffin the Third for the eviction of the homeless and artists from the 11th Street lot. She uses metaphores like “Elsie the Cow” and “Benny the Bulldog” to show how trapped she feels in the “cyberland” of New York City that Benny was creating. By getting the audience to “moo” with her, she rallies a group of protesters to support her. Most of the song is Maureen speaking to the audience and telling the story. I really had to make sure to keep telling the story, and not forget the message I was trying to convey when I stopped speaking and started singing. Overall, it was a very great experience, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to play such a charismatic and fun role in one of my favorite musicals.”
Vishal Vaidya singing “The Speed Test” with Courtney Climan (Millie) at American University’s production of Thoroughly Modern Millie at the Harold and Sylvia Greenberg Theatre.
It was so nice to see Trevor Graydon, the starchy, stuffy, naieve, self-absorbed boss to Millie, played with so much joy and humor, as Vishal Vaidya did on Saturday, October 25th. With his wide grin and smile, and quicker-than-lightning tapping feet, Vishal zipped through the Gilbert and Sullivan-like pitter patter of “The Speed Test” with fast-talking and fast-typing Courtney Clian as the cute and spunky Millie.
I asked Vishal how he related to Trevor and to tell us about his many antics he had to perform during “The Speed Test.” Vishal also tells us what it was like to work with director Cara Gabriel and about studying musical theatre at American University:
“I relate to Trevor namely because I see him as being larger than life, and extremely over the top. That’s kind of how I see myself too, so I used that kind of grandeur to channel Trevor. For example, I wanted to make Trevor vocally large and demanding, so when I wasn’t on stage, I was always speaking with vocal sirens, using my entire range to say a few words. The cast probably thought it was obnoxious (which it was), but it’s what got me to really connect with Trevor. So I guess I made the choice to not make him too serious, because that’s not what works for me. When acting, if I take a character too seriously, I start directing myself and analyzing what I’m doing, rather than just doing it. Plus, I just don’t see Trevor as being “stiff”. I think that in taking a chance on Millie and hiring her, Trevor is learning to loosen up and adapt to “modern” times. Probably most of all, though, I couldn’t take Trevor too seriously because of the ridiculous things he says, like “what a dandy little bundle for a fellow to cuddle”. How can anyone say that without feeling a bit ridiculous?
Cara Gabriel, my director, was awesome throughout this process. I’ve worked with her on a couple of shows before, and I like her style of directing because she gives you the freedom to make choices. She won’t make them for you, so you have to keep trying and working with her to find what works. It’s really good because it forces actors to make really big choices, and in doing so, to trust their instincts, which I think is extremely important. She keeps you imagining and playing with moments, rather than sticking to set blocking and choices made in the first rehearsal.
Courtney Cilman (Millie) and I, for example, worked with Cara a lot on the scene following “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life!” (It’s the scene where Trevor talks to her about his love for Miss Dorothy, while she gets more and more depressed that he doesn’t love her). We staged something initially, and then coached the scene with Cara. But even after that, Cara was cool with us changing/adding a few things, and embraced the fact that we were working outside of rehearsals to try and specify moments as much as possible. Of course, she wasn’t too keen with the suggestion that I point to every white person in the audience when talking about “White Slavery!”, but that was to be expected.
Regarding “The Speed Test,” because Trevor is only in one scene in Act I, I wanted to make sure that he had an epic entrance. I toyed around with a few ideas, but I got really stuck on the idea of using a file clerk as an ottoman. Cara thought it was too much, but I convinced her to have Shane (office boy/ottoman extraordinaire) kneel down at the top of the scene so I could rest my legs on him. It was a small bit, but I thought it was perfect for establishing who Trevor is, and how much pride he takes in being the company boss. As for the tapping, I love how well it is integrating into the show’s concept. The typist/tappist motif is brilliant, and it justifies the need for dancing in the show, especially in “The Speed Test”. I am really glad that I got a little bit of tap time with the girls, because for me, it was a way to show that Trevor was loosening up for the first time, that he could sense Millie’s skill even before she was finished typing. Plus, regardless of the situation, tapping is so much fun!
The great thing about going to AU is that I am not just studying MT. Since is a liberal arts school and I am getting a B.A., I took the opportunity to double major with International Studies, which has been really rewarding. The two fields may seem extremely different, but I’ve been able to integrate them, which is great. My sophomore year I got to travel to the Volkov Theatre Festival in Yaroslavl, Russia with AU’s musical, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Being able to share that production with different performers from all over the world was amazing, something that I will never forget. I got another chance to perform abroad when I studied in Cairo in the Spring of 2008. A bunch of international students put on an Arabic play, and it was a really great way to get a handle on the language. Both of those are opportunities that I could not have gotten at any other school.
Since it is a B.A. program, there is a lot more free time to do other things. In addition to taking classes and doing shows with AU, I’ve been fortunate to be a member of AU’s all-male a cappella group, and to do productions in the D.C. area. These things have given me a broader performance experience, and have augmented my studies. In class, it is nice because you aren’t in class with the same people all the time, but the department is small enough that you get to know everyone, particularly the professors. The staff is really accessible here, and everyone is so different that you learn to create your own dogma, rather than buying into everyone else’s.”
Springfield Community Theatre’s wonderfully purr-fect production of PetPourri – a collection of funny, sad and beautiful songs about pets by Deborah La Puma and Andy Dodds. Not only did the great cast of Janice Rivera, Peter Halverson, Kittie Millan and Mark Hidalgo sing these clever songs so beautifully, they were also very funny. A lovely 90 minutes in the theatre, and cleverly directed by Wade Corder.
Band director Josh Speerstra, who not only played a mean guitar, but also contributed to the hilarity and off-the-wall craziness of President Harding is a Rock Star at Landless Theatre Company. He also knows how to wear fake tattoos really well.
Rita Moreno who overcame a bad cold at her Theater J Benefit with great humor and determination. What a trouper! Her rendition of “With One Look” from Sunset Boulevard was spine chilling. And what a pleasure it was to talk to Rita at the scrumptious post-performance reception. She’s a class act.
Which performers have you seen recently that you think deserve more of the spotlight?