Saturday, November 10, 2007

Sneak Peak at Rehearsals - Swingtime Canteen

Posted by John Steils

I think Swingtime Canteen is going to be a GREAT show, and the rehearsals have been fascinating to watch. The marketing office at Theatre IV is connected to the tech booth of the Little Theatre. Nosy marketing interns (who, me?) can watch what’s going on in the Little without disrupting anything. And with Swingtime Canteen rehearsing on the Little stage, a LOT’s been going on.

Steve Liebman, who smiles in real life a lot more than he’s smiling in this internet photo, came down from New York to vocal direct the production. Steve is much beloved in Richmond, I’m told, for his work at TheatreVirginia, where he played Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and the radio D J in A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline. Liebman fans should know that he’s just as warm and hilarious as a music director as he is as the star of a show.

For a week and a half he led Vilma Gil, Jan Guarino, Audra Honaker, Katrinah Lewis and Debra Wagoner through their vocal paces. They’re an amazing, hard-working cast, and the three, four and five-part harmonies in Swingtime make the most of their talents. That's Audra in the photo to the left, appearing as Little Red Riding Hood in last summer's Into the Woods, opposite Russell Rowland.

Weeks before Steve arrived, Bruce Miller (director of the show, pictured below and to the right) began hunting for a pianist to play the run. The usual suspects were all booked. So the net was expanded and a parade of previously unknown pianists (at least unknown to Bruce) began arriving one by one.

The biggest challenge, it seemed, was the loosey-goosey nature of Swingtime’s printed score. Pianist after pianist would come in, look at the hand-written and photocopied sheet music, struggle to decipher the musical penmanship of the arranger, and ultimately throw his or her hands up into the air.

Sam French, if you’re reading this, the musicians in Richmond all agree that it’s time to upgrade the Swingtime orchestra materials to something more complete and more readable!

Finally Bruce connected with Ryan Corbitt, a professional jazz pianist who has taken this lemon of a printed score and made lemonade. (Ryan is the tuxedoed young man in the photo to the left with jazz great James Moody.) In Ryan's talented hands, the improvised sections soar and the authentic 40s flavor of the vintage arrangements is beginning to emerge.

After the week and a half of singing, Bruce and Jan Guarino (choreographer, pictured to the right) spent a week staging the 30+ numbers. Bruce and Jan make an excellent team, and apparently have worked together on lots of previous hit musicals, including Annie Get Your Gun and Anything Goes. The staging of the Andrews Sisters Medley is 90% Jan and 10% Bruce. The rest of the movement is probably 70 / 30. Maybe even 60 / 40.

Bruce calls himself the “anti-choreographer,” and one look at him trying to demonstrate a move that he wants the women to do justifies his terminology. With all due respect, Bruce dances like a gorilla impersonating Homer Simpson. But he comes up with some really fun staging ideas, and then Jan “translates” his moves into something that can actually be replicated by a human. They have a lot of give and take, and obviously a lot of respect for each other’s talents.

All five women in the cast are terrific dancers and phenomenal singers. And they all seem custom-made for their characters. I can’t imagine a more talented or “perfect” cast, anywhere. That's Katrinah Lewis to the right, performing with Hannah Zold in last summer's Into the Woods.

Vilma Gil, the strongest dancer in this troupe of strong dancers, is still recovering from the major knee surgery she had just a few months ago. During a dance mishap at another theatre, Vilma did some serious damage to her knee joint, and wound up having her left knee replaced with bones from a cadaver. That’s right folks. “Cadaver knee” jokes have been flying left and right as decisions were made regarding which knee to pivot on, etc.

This week, Bruce and stage manager Joseph Papa are beginning to add props to the show, and they include everything from a vintage Roy Rogers double holster (complete with dye-cast cap guns) to authentic Zippo lighters to Hollywood Canteen aprons to two air cannons that will fire, over the sixteen week run, a thousand dollars worth of red white and blue streamers over the heads of the audience.

Interestingly, the cap guns were among the hardest things to find. After careful searches through Toys-R-Us, KayBee Toys, Wal-Mart, Target, Party City and several variations of the Dollar Store, no holstered cap guns were to be found in Greater Richmond. Eventually the perfect set was purchased on line.

If the performances of Swingtime are half as much fun as the rehearsals, we’re in for a great run. That's Debra Wagoner in the photo to the right, and she sings her heart out in Swingtime Canteen. The show opens Nov 16 at Hanover Tavern, and has already been extended to run through March 2. Thankfully, tickets are going fast. Call for yours today!

--John Steils


Hillary Dendas said...

What an incredible cast. I can't wait!!!

Anonymous said...

That's an interesting picture of you, Bruce, but at first I didn't know who it was. Was it taken about 20 years ago?

Bruce Miller said...

Yes, it was taken when I still had my teeth and hair.

Patty V. said...

This show looks superb. Well done on gathering such a talented cast. I enjoyed the picture of Audra Honaker and Russell Rowland. Is he doing anything soon? He's a favorite of mine.

Bruce Miller said...

Russell is waiting tables right now at Tarrant's on Broad Street near the Empire. We love Russell too, and hope he'll do another show soon.

jj said...

Those who want to see a current photo of Bruce can do so by revisiting a blog entry from about five weeks ago - Bidding Adieu to Betty Ann Grove (God Speed but not Goodbye), Oct 7, 2007. Despite his humorous self-deprication, you'll see that he still has his teeth and hair and continues to flash one of Richmond's warmest smiles. The older photo included in the blog and this current one both look like the same guy to me.