Friday, June 29, 2007

Stretchin' Season Finale

Posted by Russell Rowland

If you're looking for a chill way to enjoy your weekend, head on over to the lobby of Barksdale Willow Lawn. Sunday the 8th will conclude a season of spectacular artists with their roots firmly planted in Virginia. Some may be national touring acts, but with the tremendous charm and magnetism of BJ Kocen and his helpers we get a night of pure organic entertainment.

I have been lucky enough to attend four of the performances and it feels so good to be in that room soaking in the music. It is almost as if you are listening to a jam in someone's living room. The intimacy of the space lends itself so well to the music being created ... and hey, you can't beat the price.

If you haven't been before, think of the Unplugged series on VH1. Make sure you catch this final performance of the season ... but don't worry about it's fate, word is we'll have a brand new lineup beginning in the fall.

So if you're looking for a laid back evening of musical spontaneity at Barksdale Willow Lawn from some of the area's finest performers, come on down. The show will run from 6 to 8pm. No advance ticket sales.

A few performers from the first season include BJ Kocen, Jackie Frost, Drew Gibson, Billy Ray Hatley, Jim Wark, Scott Elmquist, and Sheryl Warner & The Southside Homewreckers.

July 8th, 2007
Brad Tucker, Craig Evans, Harry Gore, Chris Fuller, Jackie Frost, Stephen Leckey & BJ Kocen
**10 dollars
Cash bar

-Russell Rowland

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Helping "Into the Woods" into their clothes

We would be a cast of bedraggled actors on Barksdale's stage if it wasn't for one special woman keeping us together during every performance of Into the Woods. That person is Renee Jones and she is the Dresser/Quickfixer/Magician, and every actors' best friend behind the scenes. Ever wonder how an actor can somehow magically appear three lines of dialogue later entering on the other side of the stage in a completely different costume head to toe and no sweat? .... No we do not conjure up magical fairy dust .... it has a name and that name is Renee Jones.

To explain more about the phenom that is Renee, we must understand where she comes from and what brought her to us here at Barksdale Theatre. She lives in the house she was born in right here in Richmond. Renee is a graduate of the dance program at Henrico High School's Center for the Performing Arts which, coincidentally is where Into the Woods director Robin Arthur was the school's first Head Director. Renee is also a graduate of UNC Wilmington. You may recognize the campus from Dawson's Creek episodes, as it was used as the set for the High School in the series. Her first professional production in Richmond was Theatre IV's Charlotte's Web at the Empire Theatre followed by Proof at Barksdale Theatre. Following other local shows she headed off to HersheyPark in PA to hone her skills even more. Recent credits since her return to Richmond include Mame, Intimate Apparel, and Beehive. On the right is a picture of Renee making sure everything is perfect on Adanma Onyedike's costume during Intimate Apparel.

It takes a person with a strong constitution to see and do the things Renee does. We're talking actors sweating buckets everywhere and people literally falling out of costumes. This woman has seen it all. Each costume change is like a choreographed dance between Renee and each actor. As you can imagine each actor has a different "modus operandi" so she has to accomodate each one. Although I do enjoy my time with Renee, I am lucky enough to have only one real costume change....of course this change is from a carniverous wolf in full make-up exiting stage left, and coming in 1/2 a page later as a dashing (sweat-free) prince entering stage right (see photo on the left). Not only does she keep us dressed, she also keeps us in good repair. The costume designers and staff do a superb job at assembling all our phenomonal costumes, but as you can imagine falls, tears, weight loss....or gain, and missing buttons happen. Renee can be seen post-show, intermission, and at many times doing upkeep on our costumes. She is a huge asset to this summer's production of Into the Woods, she is truly a star.

-Russell Rowland

* Firsthand account by Amy Hruska, one of Renee's "Dance Partners":
"After I walk onstage as "Sleeping Beauty", I have 3 lines and then appear again as "Granny". Renee has my "Granny" wig sitting atop her head and as she is velcroing me in, I snatch the wig off of her and place it on my head. A pair of glasses completes the ensemble. Remember all is done in 3 quick tempo lines. Renee stays calm through all of this and gets me back onstage on time every time."

** Sidenote: We also have a "Set" Dresser, in a way. His name is Ronnie, and among his other jobs is fitting Amy Hruska two times a show, in and out of a 9'-10' tree "costume" , moving branches and all.
*** Personally I miss my appearance as a large piece of white celery (Prize to the first person,vegetable , or mineral who can guess the show)
Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV employees void.

Anyone else like to share their strangest or most outrageous costume?

Monday, June 25, 2007

Red Hot Coffee and Cole

The intrepid Barksdale Bifocals Theatre Project crowd held their June lunch meeting last Friday, and the program focused on "Video Memories of Red Hot and Cole." Original Cole company members Phil Whiteway and Bruce Miller shared fond and hilarious memories of this legendary production with a rapt audience of about 40 theatre lovers, including Lyde Longaker (costume designer for the original Cole) and Helen Levinson (homeowner of the site where much of the original script was written).

Perhaps the most fun was had watching video clips of the Tenth Anniversary revival of Red Hot and Cole that was presented in partnership by Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV in 1987 at the historic Empire Theatre, fourteen years before the two nonprofit theatres entered into the current strategic collaboration that we all now enjoy. It was this major revival that lured representatives of Music Theatre International down to Richmond, and that encouraged them to include Red Hot and Cole in their catalogue, enabling theatres all around the world to produce this wonderful musical in the intervening years.

A final film clip included a short segment of very dimly lit and wavering footage from the 1978 extension of the original production at Hanover Tavern. Sadly, this already decaying recording (now transferred onto a permanent DVD) is practically all that remains of the films taken of the original production. All of Barksdale Theatre’s video and audio documentation disappeared sometime prior to July 2001.

Bruce put out a plea to one and all asking anyone who had copies of video or audio archival tapes of Barksdale productions prior to that date to please donate them to the Barksdale Theatre archives at the Library of Virginia. He added that the theatre staff would be very happy to facilitate such a donation, giving the theatre opportunity to make a copy to keep in the “in-house” archives for future programs such as this one.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Meet the Cast of "Into the Woods" – Part II

Every few months, someone will step forward to complain that Barksdale and Theatre IV keep casting the same people over and over, and that new people may as well not audition, because Richmond’s theatres run closed shops.

It is completely true that Barksdale and Theatre IV benefit greatly from an informal company of national caliber/Richmond-based actors who, if we’re lucky, perform once or twice a year on our stages. We believe this practice serves both audiences and artists well.

However, it is completely untrue to say that newcomers don’t stand a chance. During the Signature Season that is now concluding at Willow Lawn, we cast 62 different roles in five productions. The great news is that 31 of the actors who performed those roles were performing at Barksdale Willow Lawn for the first time since we assumed leadership in 2001.

Three of these exceptional “newcomers” are playing leads in our hit summer musical, Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. All three attended high school in Greater Richmond, and have since moved on to larger markets to pursue their careers. All three are performing with Barksdale for the first time.

Rita Markova is doing an absolutely magnificent job as Cinderella. She’s beautiful, as anyone can see in an earlier blog entry, and acts and moves with intelligence and assurance. But it’s her voice, an exceptional lyric soprano, that simply knocks me off my feet. Rita recently played Maria in West Side Story at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina and New Jersey Concert Opera. She also appeared in Cats at Northern Stage, Titanic at Media Theatre, and Godspell, A Chorus Line and Grease at Shawnee Playhouse. Coincidentally, Rita originated the title role in the world premiere workshop of Rumpelstiltskin’s Daughter at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Theatre IV will be presenting the official World Premiere of the finished script during our 07-08 Season.

Rita attended Godwin High School during several of her student years, and is a graduate of New York University with a Bachelor of Music degree in Vocal Performance.
Visit Rita's website

Zak Resnick cuts a dashing figure as Rapunzel’s Prince and a second Wolf. Again, I refer you to the photo that appears in a previous blog entry. A rising junior at Carnegie Mellon, Zak is truly someone to watch. Last summer, Zak vaulted to the big time when he was cast in Broadway and Beyond with the legendary Ann Reinking and Ben Vereen. Shortly thereafter, Zak made his NYC debut in Scott Alan’s prestigious Monday Night’s New Voices series.

But Richmond audiences are not unfamiliar with Zak’s many talents. At the Firehouse, he appeared in Bat Boy and starred in The Last Five Years. He also saved our necks once a couple of years back. Due to some difficulty I can no longer recall, we were forced to cancel a performance of one of our Willow Lawn productions—it may have been Anything Goes. As fate would have it, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts had booked a large number of seats for the cancelled performance on behalf of a group of supporters who were coming in from out-of-town. We couldn’t bring the group in to see our show, so, at the last minute, faithful friend Stephen Rudlin put together a full evening’s cabaret performance to take to the Museum, and Zak agreed to perform. Not only was he terrific, he helped us fulfill a major responsibility and defuse a potentially explosive situation.

The third “newcomer,” at least to us, is Drew Seigla, who is charming everyone’s socks off as Jack (of Fee Fi Fo Fum fame). Drew is studying classic voice as an undergrad at Juilliard in NYC (probably the most prestigious performance training program in the nation). He made his opera debut with Le Nooze di Figaro in Rome two summers ago. Last summer, he was an apprentice at Flat Rock Playhouse, the State Theatre of North Carolina. One earlier summer during his Richmond high school years, he appeared with SPARC in Footloose at Theatre IV’s Empire Theatre.

Referring back to Part I in this Meet the Cast series, if anyone can give Ford Flannagan a run for his money in the physically fit competition, Drew is probably the man to do it.

One of the best features of the Into the Woods cast is that the supporting roles are filled by new and veteran talents who are just as amazing as the leads. Amy Hruska (Cinderella’s Mother, Granny, Giantess, Sleeping Beauty) was our hard-working music director and pianist for Annie Get Your Gun, James Joyce’s The Dead, Olympus on my Mind, They’re Playing Our Song and Where’s Charley?, but she hasn’t acted on Barksdale’s stage since appearing as one of the sisters and the cousins and the aunts in Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore at Barksdale Hanover Tavern way back in 1981.

Jackie Jones, on the other hand, is back as Jack’s Mother in Into the Woods, but she works so steadily in Richmond’s theatres that it’s hard to think of her as “back.” Jackie recently brought down the house as Letitia Peabody Primrose in Henrico Theatre Company’s On the Twentieth Century, somehow shoehorning that star turn in after two consecutive gigs at Barksdale Hanover Tavern in Over the River and Through the Woods and Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, which immediately followed her critically acclaimed turn at Swift Creek in Steel Magnolias. As busy as she is beloved, Jackie is a true charmer.Visit Jackie's website

Katrinah Carol Lewis (Lucinda) is back after performing so beautifully in Intimate Apparel.

Kim Reuter (Rapunzel) lends her magnificent voice to Into the Woods after completing a year of touring with Theatre IV.

Craig Smith (Cinderella’s Father) is sharing his talents with us at Willow Lawn while simultaneously sharing his theatre with us at Steward School. All right, the state-of-the-art Kramer Center is not exactly his theatre, but it’s where he teaches Acting and English and heads the theatre program during the school year. And Steward School will be sharing the Kramer Center with us for the second incarnation of the Greater Richmond High School All Star Musical, which opens in July.

Harriet Traylor (Cinderella’s Stepmother) is truly a Barksdale favorite, having graced our stage as Regina in The Little Foxes and Miss Maudie in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Eric Williams (Steward) is being all aristocratic now, but a few months ago he brought tears to every eye as the brother recently released from prison in Smoke on the Mountain at Barksdale Hanover Tavern.

Completing our cast of 17 is Hannah Zold (Florinda), who is fast becoming a Barksdale and Theatre IV musical mainstay. She recently turned in wonderful performances in The Wizard of Oz, Mame and The Full Monty.

Richmond theatre is blessed to have so many talented artists working in its midst. I hope you’ll catch their inspired performances this summer in Into the Woods.

--Bruce Miller

A "Bridge" to Cherish

Early in the performance of Austin’s Bridge, now enjoying a wonderful World Premiere with Firehouse Theatre Project, the character of Austin Quinn sings that his actions are about to finally set him free. Watching the musical play that follows, I kept thinking that author Bill C. Davis was also experiencing a sort of freedom.

Much of the action of Austin’s Bridge is set in a residential community for mentally and developmentally disabled adults in Upstate New York. For four summers, I lived and worked at a similar residential facility, Camp Baker in Chesterfield County, and for one full year thereafter I was employed at the Development Training Center in Richmond.

I remember as if it were yesterday how strange the residents of those facilities seemed to me at first. I felt like 95% of their physical, psychological and emotional traits were different from mine. By the end of that first summer, I realized that the opposite was true. In 95% of the ways in which we thought and felt and acted, we were exactly the same.

Except they had one major strength that I lacked. Freedom. I was living my life behind a wall of self-consciousness, social mores, artifice and subtext. I regret that I still do. The residents seemed to me to be completely free of these obstacles. They said exactly what they felt, they asked for exactly what they wanted and needed, their emotional lives were rich and layered and unencumbered by a desperate need to appear to be “normal.”

Lacking this freedom, I began to feel like I was the one who was disabled.

Very early in his career, Bill Davis (pictured to the left) wrote a super-hit—Mass Appeal, which has been internationally successful both on stage and screen. Mass Appeal is a beautiful play. We produced it years ago at Theatre IV with an African American cast.

I’m sure that writing a super-hit can provide traps just as easily as it can provide freedom. I’m so glad that, at least at this stage in his career, Bill Davis seems to have chosen to be free.

Austin’s Bridge is not like most contemporary plays. It wears its heart on its sleeve. It is honest and gentle and sweet in a way that reminded me of The Fantasticks, except it is of course completely different. Like the residents it portrays, it makes no attempts at artifice or subtext. It’s all about freedom and feeling and shucking off the need to hide. To be honest, it took me a while to get used to its simplicity and sweetness. But ultimately, I found myself caught up in its spell, in a very similar way to the manner in which I remember becoming enthralled by the unencumbered emotions of the Camp Baker residents.

Depending on what kind of person you are, Austin’s Bridge may seem beautiful or sappy, baldly honest or sentimentally manipulative. I’m sure that Bill Davis knows this, and he has written freely the play that shows the inner-workings of his heart. He openly shares emotions with us, writing honestly with the courage of his convictions.

Chalk me up among those who found his work to be beautiful and honest. When one central couple explains, in two or three words, the absolute necessity of marriage, my heart leapt into my throat.

And let me express my admiration for the wonderful cast, who entered into their roles with body, mind and soul. Not to mention the fact that they sing their hearts out. You guys knocked me out.

By all means, go see Austin’s Bridge. However you respond, you will surely be impressed by the fact that this World Premiere is happening right here in River City. And just like Bill Davis, his startlingly gifted composer Brett Boles, and the multi-talented cast, the Firehouse itself is going for it with everything its got.

I’m jealous of theatrical intentions and exercises and institutions that are so pure, and simple, and free. I wish this run, and whatever runs may follow, all the success in the world.

--Bruce Miller

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Meet the Cast of "Into the Woods" – Part I

There’s an age-old theatrical saw that says that casting is 80% of the director’s job. If you cast a show well, the saying goes, everything else takes care of itself.

Well, not exactly. But it’s certainly true that casting well is a unique and invaluable skill. Director and choreographer Robin Arthur (along with musical director Jimmy Hicks) has cast Into the Woods brilliantly, with a mix of talented actors both proven and new.

Blog entries are not meant to go on forever—our blog chiefs are trying very hard to drum this into my thick skull. So today, I’m going to talk about six returning veterans, and then later I’ll focus on three incredible newcomers and our amazing supporting cast.

Steve Perigard and Rachel Abrams play the Baker and the Baker’s Wife, the two “everyman” characters around whom the fantasy swirls. Steve is Barksdale and Theatre IV’s not-so-secret weapon, our Associate Artistic Director. In many ways he is the artistic conscience of our theatres—the partner who is always advocating for more artistic risk-taking and professionalism. He is also an acclaimed actor, having appeared in leading roles in The Constant Wife, Fifth of July and They’re Playing Our Song at Barksdale; You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, Seussical the Musical and Honk! at Theatre IV; A Devil Inside and Fit to be Tied at Theatre Gym; and Avow and Bat Boy at the Firehouse.

Rachel works out of New York, and this is her second summer gig at Barksdale. Last season she performed in the Joplin track in our revival of Beehive at Steward School. Those who have been involved in Richmond theatre for a while will enjoy knowing that Rachel was “practically raised” by R L Rowsey after he moved from Richmond to Maryland, Rachel’s home turf, in the 1990s.

Barksdale cornerstone Robyn O’Neill returns to play the Witch, a role she’s been longing to play for years. Robyn is cursed with the reputation of being “Bruce’s favorite,” (sorry, Roby) because I cast her as Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes, Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun, and Sonia Walsk in They’re Playing Our Song. “Richmond favorite” is a more apt descriptor. Outstanding directors Robin Arthur, Tom Width, John Glenn and Steve Perigard cast her in leading roles in Into the Woods, Seussical the Musical, Children of Eden, Floyd Collins, Me and My Girl, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, Sunday in the Park with George, and James Joyce’s The Dead.Visit Robyn's website

Audra Honaker is knockin’ ‘em dead every night (literally?) as Little Red Riding Hood. I think I’m right in crediting Susan Sanford for introducing Audra to the Richmond audience in Theatre IV’s production of The Secret Garden. I know that’s when I first had the pleasure of seeing Audra on stage, and subsequently wooed her for the role of Mary Warren in The Crucible here at Barksdale. Since then, Audra has become a Richmond All-Star, dazzling audiences in Brooklyn Boy and The 1940’s Radio Hour at Barksdale; The Miracle Worker and The Diary of Anne Frank at Swift Creek; and Seussical the Musical and Sing Down the Moon at Theatre IV.

It’s great to have Russell Rowland back on stage at Barksdale as Cinderella’s Prince and the Wolf. It’s hard to believe, but Russell started his career with us when he was a child. If memory serves, he was in 9th or 10th grade, somewhere in Chesterfield County Public Schools, when he auditioned with lots of other children for a Theatre IV production of ‘Twas the Night before Christmas. He was so tall, and sang with such a rich baritone, I cast him in the adult ensemble. It’s been all uphill from there. Russell played El Gallo in the national tour of The Fantasticks; Frank Butler in Annie Get Your Gun, the Captain in Anything Goes, Sir Francis Chesney in Where’s Charley?, Teddy in The Full Monty, and Valvert in Cyrano de Bergerac (all here at Barksdale); and Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls, Lancelot in Camelot, and Tommy Albright in Brigadoon in regional theatres outside of Richmond.Visit Russell's website

Last but in many ways first is Ford Flannagan. Among the various talented cast members, Ford is the one I’ve known the longest (with Jackie Jones and Amy Hruska—we’ll talk about them later—tied for close second). Ford’s been working for Theatre IV for 28 years, but I actually met him when he was still in high school. Ford’s brother Alan, who began working with Theatre IV in ’76, had been a college buddy of mine in the early 70s at the University of Richmond. When U of R students would have theatre parties, Ford would occasionally accompany his brother. You seldom see Ford today without a GI haircut, but in those days, his hair was really long, cut well below his shoulders, very blond and very straight.

Ford may be playing the Mysterious Old Man and Narrator in Into the Woods, but in many ways he’s forever young. He’s probably in better shape than almost anyone else in the cast, and his fanciful personality keeps him eternally youthful. In fact, in the spring of ’08, he’ll be returning once again in the title role of Peter Pan at Theatre IV. Ford is another of Barksdale and Theatre IV’s not-so-secret weapons. He’s won the hearts of Richmond audiences in The Full Monty, Scapino! and The 1940’s Radio Hour here at Barksdale; in Greater Tuna, Little Shop of Horrors and The Hasty Heart at Swift Creek; The Robber Bridegroom at TheatreVirginia; and Peter Pan, Da, Of Mice and Men, Four Part Harmony, Crimes of the Heart and Cotton Patch Gospel at Theatre IV.

I hope all of you will join us this summer for Into the Woods. The stellar cast is not to be missed.
--Bruce Miller

"Into the Woods" Earns Rave from T-D

The first critic has spoken, and declared Into the Woods to be a “MAGICAL” summer hit! Susan Haubenstock’s assessment appeared in Monday morning’s Times-Dispatch (April 18), and the review’s headline and sub-headline said it all: “Barksdale gets Ambitious, Scores” and “Work on Sondheim Classic is Dazzling in All of its Facets.”

Stephen Sondheim is almost universally recognized as the greatest Broadway composer and lyricist of the final third of the 20th Century. Described by Frank Rich in the The New York Times as "the greatest and perhaps best-known artist in the American musical theater," he is one of the few people to win an Academy Award, multiple Tony Awards (seven, more that any other composer), multiple Grammy Awards, and a Pulitzer Prize. His most famous scores include (as composer/lyricist) A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, A Little Night Music (my favorite musical), Follies, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, and Into the Woods, as well as the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy (probably my second and third favorite musicals).

The stellar cast we have assembled for Into the Woods is second to none. “The performers are a true ensemble,” writes Haubenstock, “with Steve Perigard’s low-key baker and Rachel Abrams as his spunky wife perhaps at the center. Robyn O’Neill is vibrant as the witch, and Rita Markova makes a lovely Cinderella. Russell Rowland and Zak Resnick are both hilarious as lascivious wolves and roving-eyed princes; Ford Flannagan’s narrator reminds one of Joel Grey with his lightness and grace. Drew Seigla plays Jack (of beanstalk fame) as naive but lovable, and Jacqueline Jones is his brash, exasperated mother.”

“But the scene-stealer here is Audra Honaker as Little Red Riding Hood, who earns a laugh with every line and applause with every exit. The character is written funny, to be sure, but Honaker’s deadpan performance ratchets every gag up from chuckle to guffaw.” Haubenstock goes on to praise our brilliant director and choreographer (Robin Arthur), our music director (Jimmy Hicks) and our designers (set – Mercedes Schaum, costumes – Terry Snyder, and lights – Lynne Hartman). To those well deserved kudos, I’d like to add a special thanks to our indefatigable production crew, led by my greatly respected and invaluable colleagues: Bruce Rennie, Tech Director; Richard Koch, Production Manager; and Ginnie Willard, Production Stage Manager.

As Haubenstock suggests, Into the Woods is a hugely ambitious production for a theatre of our size. Phil and I feel privileged to be producing such a rewarding show, and to have the opportunity to work with such talented theatre artists.

For the full review of Into the Woods, go to: Richmond Times-Dispatch review

FOLLOWUP-Read another rave from, go to: review

To puchase tickets, call our Box Office today at 282-2620. I know you’ll enjoy this glorious production.

Special thanks to the Title Sponsor of Into the Woods, Village Bank, who helped make this production possible.

--Bruce Miller

In Memoriam: Martha Hill Newell

Martha Hill Newell
July 26, 1921 – June 6, 2007

I am without words right now, other than to share the reflection that I read at Martha's memorial service on June 9, 2007. Martha was the best friend I have ever known. Her love for the theatre and the actors, playwrights and directors that brought it to life were her heroes. It seems almost grotesque to write so little for someone who meant so much, but my heart is so broken right now that I hope you will accept this poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson as my token to the bawdiest, bravest broad I've ever known.
Her best friend,
Dawn Westbrook-Boyd

To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people
And the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics
And endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty;
To find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by
a healthy child, a garden patch
or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed
Easier because you have lived;
This is to have succeeded.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Joke's On You
A tribute to the memory of playwright Martha Hill Newell.
7-8 p.m., July 9, Barksdale Theatre, Willow Lawn, 1601 Willow Lawn Drive.
Not for children.
Directed and hosted by Dawn Westbrook.
Info: (804) 310-5907 or

Monday, June 18, 2007

"Into the Woods" for a Wonderful Summer

It was so much fun to attend the exhilarating Opening Night of our ’07 Summer Musical, Stephen Sondheim’s glorious Into the Woods. Joining in Friday evening’s celebration of Director/Choreographer Robin Arthur’s magnificent production were past and present Board leaders (and spouses) Rhona Arenstein, Roy Burgess, Kevin and Jeannie Kilgore, Charlotte and Andy McCutcheon, and Sara Belle and Neil November. Bifocals All-Stars Tom and Carlene Bass, John and Mary Jane Board, Vaughan Gary and Lyde Longacre lent enthusiastic support, as did Richmond theatre luminary Suzanne Pollard, who was beaming ear to ear throughout intermission.

The irresistible Essie Simms, who, legend has it, hasn’t missed a Barksdale production since the founding in 1953, brought Connie Sarvay, former Program Director at Westminster-Canterbury. Melinda Scott, Theatre Coordinator at Westminster, came as a special guest of the Novembers. Isabella Witt, who has been irreplaceable in the Barksdale family for decades, joined them for the evening’s festivities.

Also raising a glass to the new production were steadfast volunteer Jean Hartley, and dedicated staff members Sara Marsden, Andy Boothby, Joy Corbin, Judi Crenshaw, Catherine Dudley, Jackie Gann, Sarah Grady, Amy Sullivan, Wendy Vandergrift and Jennings Whiteway (who staged the tantalizing post-show reception).

Chase Kniffen, director of this summer’s Disney’s High School Musical, escorted his sister, Mary Carter Kniffen, in celebration of her high school graduation earlier this week. High School Musical cast members Gray Crenshaw, Hannah Miller and Andrea Ross eagerly soaked in the performances, anticipating their rehearsals that begin on Monday.

Several of Central Virginia’s most talented theatre artists were particularly enthused to realize that this was Barksdale’s first Sondheim since Sweeney Todd in 1982. Sandy Dacus, Paul Deiss, Tony Foley, Richard Koch, Dee Lynch, Jennifer Massey, Vickie McLeod, Joseph Papa, Melissa Johnston Price, Jim Smith-Parham, Linda Snyder, Jill Bari Steinberg, Erin Thomas, Robert Throckmorton, Lynn West, Donna Whiteway and Joy Williams enhanced the evening with their presence.

To whomever I’m leaving out, please forgive me. It was a busy night.

Director and Choreographer Robin Arthur, Musical Director Jimmy Hicks, Lighting Designer Lynne Hartmann, Costume Designer Terry Snyder, Props Master Jay Dempsey, Light Op Lynwood Guyton, and deck crewmates Virginia Varland and Jason Weinbarger all graciously accepted kudos as the audience waited for the actors to transform from witches, wolves etc. and join the party. Stage Manager Ginnie Willard, Assistant Stage Manager Rick Brandt, and Sound Op Wendy Vandergrift worked diligently to address various technical issues that needed their attention.

When at last they appeared, the 17 actors who make up our amazing cast were greeted with praise and admiration. The multi-talented ensemble includes Rachel Abrams, Ford Flannagan, Audra Honaker, Amy Hruska, Jackie Jones, Katrinah Lewis, Rita Markova, Robyn O’Neill, Steve Perigard, Zak Resnick, Kim Reuter, Russell Rowland, Drew Seigla, Craig Smith, Harriett Traylor, Eric Williams and Hannah Zold.

Appreciation was also showered upon our gifted orchestra, including musicians named above plus Claire Archer, Taylor Barnett, Jay Calabro, Bentley Cobb, Sarah Davis, Susan Davis, Doug Draucker, Rusty Farmer, Damian Muller, Roxanne O’Brien, Robert Quallich and Alex Samawicz.
As always, I will leave it to others to critique the show. But Phil Whiteway and I are thrilled with the production and proud of all the talented artists involved. We look forward to a long and glorious run of this enchanting American musical.

If you love great theatre, don’t miss this funny, soaring masterpiece from the foremost Broadway composer and lyricist of the last forty years.

Richmond Times-Dispatch review

Special thanks to the Title Sponsor of Into the Woods, Village Bank, who helped make this production possible.

--Bruce Miller

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Serving the Community Both Near and Far

Today we finished a wonderful few weeks of touring the 35-minute radio play version of Arsenic and Old Lace. I’m very proud of this production.

All of us in the cast enjoyed the privilege of performing the show in senior centers and retirement communities throughout Greater Richmond. Phil and I actually acted in this one—something we seldom do. How could we say “no” to the chance to share a stage with such amazing colleagues, most notably our memorable leading ladies, real-life sisters Mary Jane Board and Charlotte McCutcheon? They were terrific—very funny and completely professional. The play also featured the more familiar but equally enjoyable talents of Bob Albertia, Chase Kniffen and Tom McGranahan.

Barksdale’s Bifocals Theatre Project provides a chance for senior actors (55 and up) to perform for senior audiences both near and far (2 shows on our lobby stage at Willow Lawn and 10 performances in various senior enclaves around town). All performances are presented on a sliding scale, with each senior center paying only what it can afford. The Bifocals Theatre Project is another way in which Barksdale reaches out to the community, entertaining and invigorating hundreds of high-spirited Richmonders, many of whom are no longer able to attend our mainstage shows at Willow Lawn and/or Hanover Tavern.

My mother, Amy Miller, is a perfect example of the audience member whom the Bifocals Theatre Project is meant to serve—an audience member who otherwise would be all too easy to overlook. A native New Yorker, my mom was and always will be a true-blue theatre lover. But these days, even though her spirit is willing, her mind is no longer able to make it through a two-hour production, and physically it’s just too difficult for her to leave her safe and comfortable home at Westminster-Canterbury.

And so, through the Bifocals Theatre Project, Barksdale now comes to her—and to hundreds of others who regularly benefit from this exemplary service initiative.

My mom may be 91-years-old, dealing with Alzheimer’s and permanently confined to a wheelchair, but she lit up like a Christmas tree during our recent reading of the Arsenic radio script in Westminster’s beautiful Sara Belle November Theatre. Acting is always fun. Acting in a Bifocals production is not only fun, it’s also uniquely rewarding.

Many thanks to all those who make this and other Bifocals Theatre Project events possible. If you would like to learn more, or participate, or become a sponsor, please contact our Special Projects Manager, Chase Kniffen, at . But whatever you do, don’t drink the elderberry wine.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Three Days at the Kennedy Center

Anne Murphy Douglas, President of the Board of Theatre IV, and Bennett Fidlow, new Board member at Barksdale Theatre, joined Phil and me for a three-day seminar with Michael Kaiser and others at the Kennedy Center. We returned yesterday afternoon after a highly informative, intensive and fun learning experience. We’re eager to put our newfound insights to good use here in Richmond.

For those who don’t know, Michael Kaiser (who also recently spoke at the University of Richmond’s Modlin Center) is a world-renowned arts leader. Prior to becoming President of the Kennedy Center in 2001, Michael served as Executive Director of the Royal Opera House (the largest performing arts organization in the UK), Executive Director of American Ballet Theatre, Executive Director of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater (the world’s largest modern dance organization), and General Manager of the Kansas City Ballet.

Spending two and a half days with Michael feels a little like cramming a year of arts administration training into 20 hours. Part of his brilliance is that he is able to speak clearly and simply, boiling down his extensive experience and research into comprehensible two-hour sessions. His focus areas at seminars such as this include Building an Effective and Energized Board, Strategic Planning, and Institutional Marketing. Other senior executives from the Kennedy Center staff spoke from their areas of expertise: Business Management, Development, Technology and Program Marketing.

Phil and I have been in our positions for 32 years, and never have I felt more in sync with a speaker. In point after point, it was clear that Michael knew exactly what he was talking about. And the points he made applied not only to mammoth international organizations (the Kennedy Center has an annual budget of approximately $160 million) but also to large regional organizations like Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV (combined annual budgets of approximately $5 million).

If you’ve been to many seminars like this, you know that experts can sometimes speak for hours in a theoretical realm, offering little practical advice. Michael knows how to cut to the chase—how to identify the challenges we face and then offer specific suggestions on how to address these challenges. It really was a terrific learning experience, very validating, mind-stretching and informative.

Special thanks to the Virginia Commission for the Arts for funding our participation through their Technical Assistance grant program, and to Anne and Bennett for giving up their time to join us. This is one seminar that I think will pay off handsomely in the futures of Barksdale Theatre, Theatre IV and the Metro Richmond arts scene in general.

First Fridays at the Empire

First Fridays June 1 at Theatre IV's Empire Theatre! The groundbreaking for CenterStage Richmond, the exciting new performing arts complex, started off the evening. The facilities will be ready to welcome the public in 2009. CenterStage Richmond will incorporate:

* the renovated 1760 seat Carpenter Theatre (formerly the Carpenter Center, home to the Richmond Ballet, the Richmond Symphony, the Virginia Opera and an occasional touring show),

* the new 176-seat Libby Gottwald Community Playhouse (home to African American Repertory Theatre and Richmond Shakespeare),

* the wide open Rhythm Hall (with full catering facilities, casual seating and intimate acoustics, a major rehearsal space for the Richmond Symphony), and

* the Genworth BrightLights Education Center (giving local students the chance to see, participate in and learn through the performing arts).

Our own Tony Foley (star of Barefoot in the Park and Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap at Hanover Tavern) served as Master of Ceremonies for the groundbreaking. And our own Alia Bisharat, (Dorothy in Theatre IV’s The Wizard of Oz) sang "Over the Rainbow" while the groundbreaking began. The crowd then set off for the First Fridays Artwalk, most on foot following a brass band and others by trolley.

Rosanna Bencoach and Catherine Dudley, two true theatre enthusiasts, share their perspectives on the Empire’s most recent First Friday.

Rosie –

The afternoon had kicked off with the ceremonial groundbreaking
for Richmond CenterStage, which will incorporate a renovated Carpenter Center and other, new performance spaces.

Alia Bisharat, wearing the blue gingham dress and ruby slippers from her role as Dorothy in Theatre IV’s The Wizard of Oz, capped the ceremony with a lovely performance of “Over the Rainbow.”

Oversized versions of Dorothy’s ruby slippers were still perched atop the Empire marquee, immediately drawing the visitor’s attention. The display window by the main doors featured posters from Barksdale Theatre's upcoming production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods and brand-new color publicity photos from the show.

Inside, all the photos on the walls and cast board had been replaced with photos from outstanding Theatre IV and Barksdale Theatre productions from recent seasons. The newly framed color photos down the hallway brightened the space, and led to numerous “I remember that!” comments. Labels below the photos helped those who didn’t immediately recall the show or year, or hadn’t caught that production.

Visitors streamed into the auditorium for a better look at the 1911 theater, and helpful staff answered questions about the building (Virginia’s oldest extant theater) and productions. Large set pieces from The Wizard of Oz (including Dorothy’s house and parts of the Emerald City) were arranged on the stage, and the yellow brick road was still in place. (They looked much different without stage lighting.) Staff explained that they don’t have room to store set pieces for reuse, so they create them individually for each show. They’re presently busy building Into the Woods sets for Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn.

At one end of the lobby, a video about 10 minutes long looped continuously on a wall-size screen, showing highlights from recent Theatre IV musicals. My compliments to whoever selected and edited the clips they did a great job, capturing some the spirit -- and sheer joy -- of those shows.

But the highlight of the evening was the opportunity to see a collection of costumes from various Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV productions, up close. The display included costumes from Disney's Beauty and the Beast, Seussical The Musical, The Magic Flute, Intimate Apparel and others, gowns to hats, elegant to comical, with photos of the actors wearing the outfits in the shows. The detail in the costumes was amazing, and showed beautiful workmanship. Great care had obviously been taken in selecting the costumes and properly arranging the display. I hope that such displays will become at least a semi-regular feature of First Fridays at the Empire. (I hear that they have a treasure trove of shoes in the Empire’s attic!)

-- Rosanna B.

Blog editor’s note: Rosie is one of Barksdale Theatre/Theatre IV’s fantastic volunteer ushers. For information on volunteer opportunities, visit the Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV websites. Many thanks, Rosie, for the generous and passionate personality you share with everyone you meet!

And now, an additional note from Catherine Dudley, the staff member who coordinates Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV's First Friday participation.

Catherine -

I just wanted to let you guys all know… if you’re not coming downtown on the first Friday of every month- you’re missing out! Every event the streets are swarming with people and the energy is amazing. The restaurants are packed, the art galleries are filled to max capacity, the music is spilling out into the streets from numerous storefronts and we, here at the Empire Theatre, are proud to show off our beautiful and historic building. Some months our lobby presents live music from awesome bands around the Richmond area, and some months we have a video montage of several of our past productions playing on a large screen in the lobby. Every month there is a gallery display of some kind- photography, artwork, sculpture, costume display, etc…, but there is always a ton to be seen. The bar is ready to serve and the theatre space itself is ready to be admired. So come on down and join us every first Friday night and see what you’ve been missing! The theatre beckons…

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Cole II - Fun with Photo / Singing on Soundtrack

Our Where Are They Now blog entry on Michael Cole received a welcomed comment from Carol de Giere (picutred to the left), webmaster of a comprehensive, free Stephen Schwartz e-zine (, brought to you by, the official fan site for Stephen Schwartz. The article and photo that appear below are sent by Carol, and they're a fun addition to the Michael Cole / Stephen Schwartz saga. We post them here with Carol and Michael’s permission.

Those with good memories (and some longstanding Richmond theatre knowledge) will know that the face that has been replaced by Stephen Schwartz's visage in the photo Carol sent is none other than Richmond’s own Joe Inscoe, TheatreVirginia’s Ebenezer Scrooge extraordinaire, pictured here (seated to the right) in our production of The Drawer Boy, with Brett Ambler and David Bridgewater.

And now the story from Carol:

Michael Cole doctored a photo that started as a publicity still from a production of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at TheatreVirginia, in which Michael portrayed the role of Fred. Stephen Schwartz's face was added later. Michael provides background explanation for this playful photo in the text that follows.

"It doesn't happen often, but sometimes I sit down at my desk in my office on West 54th Street and among the to-do's and checks and bills, I find a hand written note from Stephen Schwartz on a yellow

legal pad asking me to go on some crazy errand. This errand might involve cab rides or trips on the subway. It might also include meeting so-and-so at such-and-such a place to pick up a package to be addressed and delivered to Federal Express so it will arrive at its destination by the next business morning. Or the note might instruct me to take the keys from the kitchen counter and move his car from one side of the street to the other on the days when 'alternate side of the street parking rules are in effect.' This errand includes sitting in the car for an hour until the parking rules allow me to legally park his car again.

One day Stephen was feeling very "Dickensian" as he was scribbling a note to me that would send me running all around the city doing his chores. He invented a "Pen name" and jokingly signed the letter Ezekiel Scrubb, Esq. When I see a note signed "Ezekiel" I know I'm off on a merry chase. He always apologizes to me before he sends me on one of these errands, and though I appreciate it, I never feel an apology is necessary. Aside from doing the usual bill paying and office managerial duties, a big part of my job is to do anything I can to make his life easier and less stressful. I decided I wanted my own pen name and now sign my notes to him simply 'Boy.' "

Michael also sends this current news:

Folks might like to know that Stephen Schwartz has a new Disney movie coming out in November of this year, and I had the terrific pleasure of singing on the soundtrack. Here is a link to the fantastic trailer for Enchanted - Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz:

This is actually a different link than the one that Michael provided, but I couldn't make his link work on my computer. More info on Enchanted can be found on Carol’s e-zine at: