Allison Bibicoff is Savin' It Up out in Upland
It's almost showtime again at the Honky Tonk Bar and Fill and choreographer Allison Bibicoff is ready to turn her dancers loose for tonight's opening of Savin' Up For Saturday Night. She originally choreographed the musical for its run at Sacred Fools Theatre Company last fall and the new co-production with The Grove Theatre in Upland amps up the fun for a show that played to sold out audiences here in Los Angeles and was extended due to popular demand.
No stranger to the business, Bibicoff has produced and choreographed national touring productions like Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story through her Production Company, Allicat Produtions, LLC., and also directed and choreographed shows like Rogers and Hammerstein's Some Enchanted Evening for The Springer Opera House's touring branch, Springer Theatricals.
She was also assistant choreographer and an associate producer on the Broadway musical, Xanadu, which was nominated for four Tony Awards, including best new musical and best choreography. Earlier this week she took a break from her busy schedule to tell me all about the new production.
Savin' Up was incredibly successful in its initial run at Sacred Fools and now you're remounting a co-production with The Grove Theatre in Upland. Has it been easy to transfer the show from a 99-seat theatre to a 425-seat venue?
It's lovely to have a larger theatre! It makes some things so much easier, and yet it still creates new challenges. There's a quote by Rob Ashford about how, when you're faced with problems and forced to make changes, your end result is often better than had the problem never happened. I truly believe that.
What kind of changes have you made?
We have a bigger stage and it's also deeper. The band was originally placed up center but in this larger space they were too far back. I had the idea of putting a little stage in the center of the dance floor downstage so the lead singer can be closer to the audience, but now that means I'm back to a smaller stage, which also changes the choreography. There's one step I really love in the show called a 'floor sweep' that all of the couples do as the last number. On the smaller stage it meant I needed to take two couples out so no one hit their head on the platform.
Also, the scope of the show is a little bigger. We now have eight dedicated dancers - four partner dancers and four technical dancers. Brendan Hunt (Eldridge) and Courtney DeCosky (Patsy) are returning in the roles they originated and we have two new cast members. Wendi Hammock, who was featured in The Who's Tommy at the Chance Theater, is playing Lucinda, and Doug Gochman is our new Doc. Plus, our composer, Richard Levinson, will be joining the original band members as Roddy on piano.
How did you first become involved with Savin' Up?
I was googling around on the Internet, looking for shows that might be right for me and I stumbled on Savin' Up. It was a show that called for partner dancing, and that's my specialty. I found the director, Jeremy Aldridge, online on Facebook and I sent him a message saying, 'hey, you don't know me, but I'm a choreographer and I think I'd be perfect for your show. I do musical theater and I do partner dancing and I'd love to chat with you.' Now, a year later, he's a great friend.
Some people have categorized the show as a country musical. Would you say that's an accurate description?
I think of Savin' Up as a musical comedy, not a country musical. It's funny because I don't like country music at all, but I love this honky-tonk, dance hall musical. And we do all different styles of dance in the show, from west coast swing and east coast swing, to waltz and two-step. I really believe in the show and this time I'm also a producer, along with Brian Wallis, Richard Levinson and Jeremy Aldridge.
You first started out as a dancer. Was that always a dream of yours?
Isn't that what all little 4-year old Jewish girls do in Brooklyn? My sister was a klutz so she became a lawyer. My family moved to Florida when I was five, then to California when I was seven, so I grew up in Tarzana.
I got my first job as a dancer after I graduated from UCLA and auditioned for Evita. I was really a dancer who had transferred into acting in college but I didn't know a lot about theatre. I remember asking if there was any tap in the show because I don't tap. I didn't know you had to sing. I wish I'd known that when I was four because I would have taken voice lessons. So I sang scales and luckily I didn't have to tap, and I was cast in Evita. From there I went on to dance in a lot of shows.
How did you make your transition to choreographing?
Probably the way most people do...by thinking I could do it better when I saw shows. My first show as a director/choreographer was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Covina Valley Playhouse.
Is it different preparing to direct a show than to choreograph it?
Yes, choreographing is a lot harder. It takes more planning. There are a lot more bodies to juggle and in eight counts of music there is a lot more going on, so just technically there's a lot more prep work. But basically, underneath them both, they're the same thing. You're still telling a story. When I start I always ask, what's happening in this dance? It can't be just a bunch of steps...even if they're great steps.
What kind of story does the dancing tell in Savin' Up?
Funny you should ask that because in Savin' Up there are some numbers that don't tell a story like they usually would. The show takes place in a honky tonk bar/dance hall and the dancers are actually dancers at a dance hall, dancing.
One way I do use it to enhance the story is by furthering the mood of the leads. If they're singing a sexy blues song the dancers are doing sexy blues dancing and it's about the relationships of the dancers. And there is a number called "Now I'm Swinging," where Lucinda is no longer the lead singer and she's trying to steal all the attention from the new singer by jumping around and dancing from one guy to another during the song. That one definitely moves the story along.
Do you use any signature moves in the show?
(laughing) I do. I always joke that I won't do a show without a mirror ball. Xanadu had something like eighty of them, and yes, Savin' Up has one too. I'm also known as being a lift/aerial queen. I love when people get thrown around. I loved doing it when I was performing and I think the audience loves it too. It's exciting for them so I try to put a lot of tricks in my shows when appropriate.
We also have what partner dancers call a 'jam'. Sometimes when you're out social dancing a really hot song will come on and they'll all start clapping and form what's called a jam circle. Then the hot couples go out one at a time and show off all their tricks.
Do you think you direct differently than other directors because you have a dance background?
I hope not. I hope everyone is thinking about what's happening in the number. I think that not all directors can choreograph because it's a different skill. But I think if you're a good choreographer you're a good director because you're telling a story in your dances.
You've worked with and assisted a number of other directors and choreographers. Why?
I like to do it because I learn a lot. I like to be busy and you meet people and make new contacts. About a year ago I worked with Kathleen Marshall as part of the SDC (Stage Directors and Choreographers Society) Observership Program.
Can you share anything you've learned from some of the people you've assisted?
Awhile ago I assisted Gordon Hunt on Camelot at the Hollywood Bowl. From him I learned that whenever an actor asks, 'what about this?' to say....let's try it. That's all he says, let's try it. Because if you don't let them try it they're always going to think their idea is better than yours, or, maybe their idea is good, or maybe something else will come from it. Unless you're on a time restriction there's no reason to say no.
From Kathleen Marshall I learned that I can do this. Whenever she gave a direction I had also had the same thought that something needed to be adjusted, and then she would address it and change it. I was with her when she was setting the choreography before the dancers came in and I saw that she had an assistant that would remember it all for her, and that makes it easier too.
I also wish I could be more like Jules Aaron in many ways. Jules has no ego and he has every right to have one, which I really admire. I've seen him work with some very difficult actors and he just says everyone has their own things they need to do in order to get to their performance. Often the more talented the actor, the less ego they have.
Did you find that to be true when you worked on Xanadu on Broadway?
Talk about no ego...Kerry Butler and Cheyenne Jackson were great to work with. Everyone worked so hard on that show. One day I was sitting outside the stage door with Kerry waiting to come back from break and I told her that I really admired how calm she was during the whole rehearsal process. I mean, here she is, opening a Broadway show and she's been through three different leading men in one week due to injuries, and she had no attitude. Never a word of complaint from her, not one whine. She said... it's just a job. She had recently adopted a baby and she just had her head on straight.
Was it challenging to work on roller skates?
Yes, we had a lot of broken legs. During previews James Carpinello broke his leg, badly, in three places, Marty Thomas stress fractured both of his ankles, Kenita Miller broke her ankle. Opening night the general manager gave us shirts that said, "Do not tell me to break a leg."
Any words of advice for aspiring dancers?
I think in this business you need a specialty. Mine is partnering, so that's my 'in'. I also do swing, salsa and tango. Play to your strengths. If you enjoy it more, you work harder at it, you end up doing it better, and it's a better product.
Recognize that dancing and choreographing are different skills. Not every fantastic dancer can be a good choreographer and not every choreographer is a fantastic dancer. If you do want to choreograph, try to assist choreographers you admire. That's what has worked for me. Kathleen Marshall says this is an apprenticeship art and I really believe that.
Realize that it's never glamorous, no matter what stage of the business you're in. Just enjoy working hard and have a fantastic attitude. Try hard and smile. Really. It means a lot. If I feel like a person will work hard I'll hire them. I've witnessed many Waiting For Guffman auditions and professionalism means a lot.
What other projects do you have in the works?
In addition to Savin' Up for Saturday Night, which opens tonight, I'm directing a staged reading of a new ten minute play called Spanks Giving by Tom Misuraca on Saturday the 23rd for ALAP. I'm also directing a staged reading of Gilbert & Sullivan on Wall Street at the Colony Theatre on November 15th. It was the winner of ANMT's Search For New Musicals. I have two other potential projects that haven't been solidified yet, plus I'm working on getting the rights to a very well known movie and adapting it.
You can catch Allison's work in Savin' Up For Saturday Night by Jeff Goode and Richard Levinson October 22 - November 21, 2010 at The Grove Theatre in Upland. For tickets and more information go to www.grovetheatre.com/ or call 909-920-4343.