BWW Interviews: Choreographers Patti Colombo and Karl Warden Thrill Maine Audiences
"I definitely have a choreographic style - much of what I do is ballet-based and athletic, but I was trained in the Jack Cole manner. My mentors, Ron Lewis, Ron Fields, were all Jack Cole people. I have a strong sense of jazz, true American jazz based in ballet."
The speaker is a petite, svelte, red-haired dynamo of energy and bubbly enthusiasm. Seated opposite me a few days before the opening of her latest theatrical endeavor, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at Maine State Music Theatre, director-choreographer Patti Colombo talks about her Maine debut and her other award-winning theatrical projects - among them, On the Town, West Side Story, Mask, L'il Abner, Peter Pan, Seussical, which have taken her to Broadway and around the world.
"Patti is able to incorporate the details of the music in her work so that no interesting moment, whether silence or an intricate instrument, goes unnoticed or unchoreographed. She also creates character-derived choreography. No one feels as if he is doing a dance routine," interjects Karl Warden, Colombo's associate director/choreographer and a frequent collaborator.
Warden, who began as a competitive diver before taking some dance classes and realizing that he had a talent for movement and a photographic memory, met Colombo at a non-Equity audition for her production of Seven Brides at Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House. After retiring from diving at age twenty , he moved to New York City, where he studied dance, performed with the Michael Mau troupe, and toured in Chicago, CATS, and Fosse. In 2005 "I came to the final Goodspeed callbacks and there were eight guys," Warden narrates. "I can do the math; two of us were not going to get hired. After I did combinations, sang, and read sides, Patti asked me if I tumbled, and I said I did. She said, 'Our stage is very small, so if you can start over there and tumble toward me, land right here (she indicated her feet) and not hit me, it'll be fine.' I told her,'Absolutely, no problem.' I walked away five paces and executed the acrobatics, landing right in front of her."
Colombo's eyes twinkle remembering. "There he was, 6'3" looking me right in the eye and saying calmly, 'Like that?' That was it! He did Seven Brides for me at the Goodspeed and then on the national tour, and then he came to England with me ten months ago to stage the British tour. That was the first time I got to direct the show as well as choreograph."
The chemistry and respect between the two artists is abundantly apparent, as is their enthusiasm for this latest Seven Brides revival at MSMT, which opened to rave reviews July 17th. Colombo's vision of this romantic comedy set in the American Northwest in the 1850s is a less glossy, more realistic one than that of the famous 1954 movie version.
"These were not wimps who crossed the Oregon Trail," she says. I researched all those diaries, not because I wanted to be heavy handed, but because there is a reason why we are here, why this heritage is important to us. Those settlers left their homes to head West to escape sickness, crowding in the cities, to receive free land; it was a tremendous opportunity, but a difficult journey. Knowing that anchors the story."
Not that Colombo wishes to minimize the pure fun of this musical. "Of course it is far-fetched like so many other musicals, and it is tremendous entertainment, but if I were to direct it again, I might go even further with it. It is an important piece of Americana. I hope that the audience takes away from this production a sense of pride in the American spirit, that they understand that this story is part of our mythology, part of the American quilt."
Warden concurs citing their experience in Britain where "The Brits don't know the history of our American West the way we do. I grew up playing the Oregon Trail game on my computer, but in England we had to flesh it out a little." And he sees the story they are telling as relevant, as well as historical: "One of the really cool parallels I see is between the American families of the 1850s and those of today. The brothers have created their own family dynamic, and Millie comes in and adds to that fabric. This show is about redefining what the American family is and can be."
Attention to detail and "keeping it real" are hallmarks of Patti Colombo's work. Warden, who plays Benjamin in the revival, describes it: "Unlike many other musicals, there is no ensemble in Patti's production. Everyone has a name and an identity - a past, present, future. It takes a lot of work for actors to come up with their back-stories, but it becomes a good showcase for everyone in show. We are not blending into an ensemble doing same dance steps. Everyone is doing movement that is appropriate to his character; everyone has an arc. Just as singing comes because talking can no longer get the point across, I have learned from Patti that dancing comes because walking is no longer enough. Everyone has a signature dance vocabulary. The brothers are athletic; they have mountainous movement. The townsfolk dance pulled up because they are wearing three-piece suits or corsets, and they are literally and metaphorically shorter than the brothers, who are as tall as trees."