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."
Colombo acknowledges that one of her methods of conveying character is through visual images. I cast all the brothers tall and the town's boys of average height, so that when one of the girls looks at a suitor and then at a brother, she jumps into the brother's arms. Who wouldn't want a 6'4" strapping boy?" she smiles. "The sheer athleticism of all those men dancing together on stage is irresistible," she muses. "Even my father, who was a baseball player, liked it, as do the women, as well."
Colombo talks with admiration about the MSMT cast, which she helped to assemble along with Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark and Managing Director, Stephanie Dual, who preside over the annual spring company casting calls in New York. "Both leads, Heidi [Kettering] and Jarid [Faubel] are some of the best I have worked with. Heidi is so strong and such a good actress that I believe she would have made it across the Oregon Trail, and Jarid is such a well-trained actor. He is sexy, has found the humor in the role, and gives us reasons to like him. Both of them sing so well and play well together."
Warden adds that the musical has a great deal of dialogue. "Every time Heidi and Jarid do the scene, it is flavored with originality. You honestly feel these people are having the conversation for the first time. It feels truly authentic so you believe the story is enfolding before your eyes and no one knows where it is going. Everyone is in the moment."
"Ninety percent of acting is listening," Colombo continues. "In Seven Brides we have both interns and Equity actors, and it exciting to see the interns and non-Equity cast members grow so much in such a short time."
Similarly, the brief fourteen-day rehearsal period, during which the company does not get on stage until twenty-four hours before the first preview, is a challenge, but Colombo and Warden seem to be taking this in stride. "I haven't seen the stage yet," Colombo confesses, but I am sure we will be fine," and she is pleased with Chuck Kading's atmospheric scenery. In England we even had to deal with some raked stages, and that was scary. I closed my eyes, and somehow it all worked," she laughs.
Warden says they have also made use of some additional timesaving devices, such as rehearsing for fifteen minutes in the scene shop on the tricky bunk bed units, while the carpenters were on break. "The shops are so well run, that we were able to coordinate this, and this will help enormously, come tech."
Immediately after the Seven Brides opening, Colombo, with Warden again as her associate, will begin rehearsals for the last show of the MSMT season, Footloose. At the time of our conversation, she is still working on her concept. "I am trying to get that hook, something that will make it look different. Sometimes music helps, but we will see. I currently envision it as fun, young, and starkly different visually. It feels like an Andrew Wyeth to me with the barn, flat sky, heart on the disco, all hard edges and hard colors."
In addition to this last summer show, Colombo is scheduled to mount a revival of Cole Porter's Can Can with Kate Baldwin and Jason Danieley at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse in the Fall with the intention of afterwards bringing it to Broadway. Colombo, who played Claudine early in her career and had staged the show at the Pasadena Playhouse, has fingers crossed that her work will arrive on The Great White Way. "It's a stunning story, and with the recent revisions, finally a story well told. And then there is all that dancing and that delicious Cole Porter score! The CanCan itself is twelve minutes long!"
Of course, it is!" Warden chimes in with obvious admiration. "It's Patti Colombo!"
Photos: Courtesy of Maine State Music Theatre