Friday, July 11, 2008

TMP program tells story behind the show

Published in The News Tribune, July 11, 2008

On the Sunday before the opening of each new show at Tacoma Musical Playhouse, the theater offers an entertaining and informative preview event called Behind the Curtain. Managing artistic director Jon Douglas Rake describes Behind the Curtain as “a very informal presentation with the audience being able to ask questions about the production or anything they want to know about TMP.”

I asked a couple of people who have long been associated with TMP about these events. Kat Dollarhide said, “People seem to really enjoy them, and participation seems to be growing as more and more people become aware of them. Jon gives a brief history of the show, including often some amusing trivia of which the average theatergoer would be unaware,” she said. “He usually shows examples of costuming – if the show calls for something unique. If the lighting is particularly complex, he goes into detail regarding what might be needed. Often our costumer and lighting director are in attendance, and expand further on what Jon has presented.

“If the show is a difficult one to mount, he describes directorial challenges, and gives the audience an idea of how (he) overcomes such obstacles,” Dollarhide said.

Lighting designer John Chenault explains and demonstrates the lighting for the upcoming show, and musical director Jeff Stvrtecky goes into detail about musical styles by demonstrating on the keyboard. Then cast members perform selected songs from the production, and finally the audience is offered the opportunity to ask questions of both the directors and the cast.

“A favorite question is always what each actor does to earn a living,” Dollarhide said.

“I’ve had the good fortune to be a part of the Behind the Curtain events and think that they are a wonderful benefit to the community,” actor Chris Serface said. “It’s been amazing watching the attendance grow and the variety of patrons that attend it. The first one that I took part in was lightly attended by more of an ‘older’ crowd. As the years have gone by, the attendance has grown tremendously.

“What has been the most memorable for me is the Behind the Curtain for ‘Beauty and the Beast,’” Serface added. “As you can expect with that show, a large number of the patrons were youth and their parents. For many of them it was a first time experience at a theater, and they were full of questions for the cast about what it’s like to be on stage and what we do in real life. For that show in particular, they were allowed to come up on stage and see the set up close along with some of our costumes. You could see the awe in the eyes of the kids and an interest in theater that wasn’t there before.”

This week I attended the Behind the Curtain for “Grease.” It was a wonderfully entertaining event. Rake began the presentation by giving a brief history of the play, which was written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey as a parody of early 1950s rock ’n’ roll with characters based on their high school chums. It opened in a tiny community theater in a barn near Chicago and eventually went to Broadway where it ran for 3,381 performances. It was nominated for seven Tony Awards but did not win any.

Rake mentioned a few of the many stars who have appeared in “Grease,” from John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John to former Monkees Mickey Dolenz and Davy Jones.

He talked a lot about trivia, slang and pop culture of the time in which the play is set, 1959, which he said he had to teach the cast because none of them were alive in 1959. One other interesting sidebar he tossed out was that, once when he was touring South America, he kept hearing talk about a play called “Vasolina” and finally figured out that was what they were calling “Grease.”

Stvrtecky gave an entertaining demonstration of the music, showing how the songs (and nearly all rock ’n’ roll songs of the time) were all based on the same four-chord progression with a strong bass line and simple harmonies.

Finally, a dozen of the 32 cast members entertained the audience with seven songs from the show, and then they took questions from the audience. Questions ranged from how much did the rights to the play cost (a whopping $17,000) to the expected “What do you do in real life?” Of the dozen performing Sunday night, two are theater professionals and many are students – some of theater and some of other things such as psychology, education or nursing. One works in a taco shop, another drives a beverage cart, and one is a mortgage loan officer at a local bank.

Overall, I was impressed with the event, and I would definitely recommend attending a Behind the Curtain event before the next Tacoma Musical Playhouse production. And based on what I saw and heard Sunday night, I also highly recommend “Grease.”

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