Thursday, September 06, 2007

Best of Broadway at 35

It was pandemonium, with tap shoes. The stage at Luther Burbank Auditorium was filled with children, in all sizes. They were talking, laughing, tapping, turning cartwheels, climbing up and down stairs. A circle of little girls sat in a corner of the stage playing a game.

In the audience were the mothers / grandmothers / siblings / babysitters. It was a sea of blue screens as they sent text messages or chatted on their cell phones. Some read magazines, others watched what was going on on stage and took copious notes. Younger siblings chased each other up and down the aisles, sometimes laughing, sometimes crying.

All of a sudden a voice came out of an unseen speaker telling the kids on stage that it was time to gather together and in an instant, the chaos became discipline, the kids were singing “New Ashmolean Society” and marching around the stage in precision.

While the kids were dancing on stage, the adult performers were in another room at a vocal rehearsal. At some later point in the evening, the kids would move to the vocal rehearsals and the adults would come on stage for the dance portion of their rehearsal.

Sheila Engle was sitting in the auditorium reading a magazine. Her 9 year old granddaughter, Lena Wilson is performing with Best of Broadway for the first time. They saw an ad in the newspaper and, since the youngster had danced in several dance recitals around Sacramento, they thought it would be a fun activity. Grandma drove all the way in from Grass Valley on this night because Lena’s mother had to work and couldn’t get her daughter to the auditorium.

Such is the nature of rehearsal for “Best of Broadway,” Sacramento’s oldest and largest all-volunteer community show, this year presenting “Sounds of the City,” its 35th production.

Thirty-five years ago, David L. MacDonald was working for Good Samaritan Boys Homes as a social worker. “We didn’t have enough money to do the things that we thought every kid should have as an experience – trips and traveling kinds of things, birthdays, Christmases, parties, the normal things that most kids experience.”

MacDonald had a background that included theater. At one time he thought of trying to make a career out of it, until he got sidetracked into social work. He did community theater and ran his own theater company, The Broadway Playhouse.

“The only way I could figure out to raise money for the Boys Homes was to put on a show. I called people whom I had known back in high school and college and people that I’d performed with in community theater and professional theater. I just called every individual I could think of and asked if they would come and do a show with me.”

MacDonald didn’t know what he was getting into. “I had produced small things, but never anything nearly as gigantic as what this is and I didn’t realize what it was going to take time-wise.” He found they were rehearsing nearly around the clock for three weeks. Johnny Wilson, music director for Music Circus for 27 years, became their musical director. “He would sit there at the piano all night long -- 3 a.m., 4 a.m. -- the guy is punching away at the piano and we are learning our songs. It was amazing.”

In addition to learning songs and dances, there were all the other aspects of a theatrical performance to consider. “We were literally pounding nails, painting sets and hanging lights backstage while the audience was coming in. We’ve gotten way, way beyond that now. We’ve kind of become a hybrid between professional theater and community theater now,” said MacDonald.

He expected it to be a one-time event, but reviewers came to see the show, and they said nice things. MacDonald felt they had learned so much that first year, and it had been so well received, why not do it again? Thirty-five years later it’s bigger and better than ever. There were 55 people in the first production and there are over 200 in this year’s extravaganza. The aim is to include people from age 7 to age 70 and this year MacDonald is proud of having achieved that goal. “We say to everybody when they come to the auditions that we are looking to include people,” aid MacDonald. “There are those that we just can’t use because they just don’t have the talent, but it’s a small percentage.”

Diana Ruslin is principal choreographer, and also a dancer in the show. “Auditions every year are very exciting,” she says. “It’s wonderful to see new faces along with the returning performers. The growth of the returning cast members every year is inspirational. Every year it is a privilege to have some of the now professional performers return to perform in Best of Broadway, where they started,” she said.

Ryan Jerzak got his start in Best of Broadway in 1993, at age 11. He has since moved to New York and spends six months out of the year traveling as a choreographer with the Royal Caribbean cruise line. This year he has come back to be one of the choreographers.

“Best of Broadway was my first theatrical experience,” says Jerzak. “I had never really explored dance as an option of what my life was going to be. It was amazing. It teaches you a lot about getting to a professional career in the business. You get a lot of performance experience and working conditions under your belt so when you do get out in the industry you know what you’re getting into because you grew up doing it.”

Best of Broadway has been the training ground for “tons” (says MacDonald) of people who have gone on to work in various areas of show business professionally. Molly Ringwald began her career with Best of Broadway. It was MacDonald who suggested that she audition for a touring production of “Annie.” She did, and won a role as one of the orphans.

Jan Gan Boyd has performed in eleven movies, including “A Chorus Line” and performed on Broadway with Yul Brynner in “The King and I.”

Jennifer Foote is the lead in the touring production of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”

Geoff Vaughn was the head carpenter and technical director for “Grey Gardens,” which had a successful run on Broadway and won three Tony awards.

Christopher Carlsen, another Best of Broadway alum, is back again this year, following a year with the touring company of “Les Miserables.” “There’s always a bond that develops at Best of Broadway,” he said. “It’s such a positive thing, a general good feeling that makes you want to come back again.”

It’s not only the performers who want to come back again. Out in the lobby Mary Morrison and Rena Jordan work the snack bar where the performers can buy sandwiches and other snacks during break times. Morrison’s daughter Megan is performing for the fourth year. “She got married last year in October but she flew home from Santa Fe to do the show,” her mother says, proud that this year her daughter has a solo this year.

Mary and Rena have done lots of types of backstage work. This year they work the snack bar, but in previous years they have done costumes, props and sets. They laugh about the “purple year.” “If I never saw purple paint again in my life it would be too soon. The paint would not stick and every night after rehearsal we’d be back out there painting again,” remembered Mary.

Why do they work so hard? “It gives me a chance to be with my kid,” said Mary.

The women talked about the family feeling that MacDonald creates which keeps volunteers coming back year after year. “The performers make new friends every year. They do a secret buddy thing here. They exchange gifts and cards. They don’t know until opening night who their secret buddy is. It’s a way for everybody to meet each other. They do a cast and crew pot luck just before the show opens. Dave does an opening night party and a closing night party for the cast. It’s just a lot of fun. For me personally I get to watch my daughter sing. I get the chance to come out and do something. A lot of the parents that would otherwise be stuck sitting at home get an opportunity to come out and mingle with other parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins and what-not. It builds a family.”

Zack Tucker was there behind the concession stand because his sister Paige was on stage. This is Paige’s second year with Best of Broadway. “This is the first year I’ve done snack bar. I’m proud of my sister for performing, but I’ve never done it myself,” he said.

Pride is evident everywhere you look, people proud of the work they are doing and eager to give the audience the best possible show. Cathy Carpenter has been making costumes for 17 years and Joan Pohlman for the last 11 years. This year these women will create at least 3 costumes per performer. Some performers may wear up to 20 costumes in each performance. The costumers put in 80 sewing hours per week in the six weeks leading up to the show, though both have full-time jobs during the day.

As I left Luther Burbank auditorium, Ryan Jerzak was on stage working with a group of adult dancers. I could hear singing coming from adjacent rooms. David MacDonald was sitting in the front row watching the rehearsal. Mary and Miriam were packing up the concession stand for the night. Tomorrow they would do it all over again. On opening night, September 7, as the lights go up on the stage for the 35th performance of Best of Broadway, everyone involved with the production can sit back and enjoy the show, along with the rest of us, proud of their part in keeping this tradition alive for Sacramento audiences, and for the organizations which will benefit from the proceeds of the show.

1 comment:

B. Durbin said...

Luther Burbank has a lovely stage. It's a crying shame that the school can't keep a theater department going, but it's good that they'll rent out the facility.

And it's very strange to keep reading things about Jennifer Foote. Not because she is where she is— she's always been angling hard toward theater, since at least second grade— but because my brother still makes jokes about her being evil.

Long story, that.