BWW Interviews: This Show Is an Adventure!
"It's the heart that makes it fun! The adrenalin gets going; we are all so engrossed in each other with different stories developing every night. There are always discoveries being made. This show is an adventure every single night!"
The speaker is actor-dancer Carson Twitchell, who is talking about Maine State Music Theatre's latest hit, the Patti Colombo staging of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which opened July 17th at the Pickard Theatre in Brunswick, Maine. Twitchell is part of a six-person panel assembled at the Curtis Memorial Library on July 23 for the third Peek Behind the Curtain talkback. Joined by Barbara Whidden, MSMT's Director of Development, Kristen Thomas, House Manager, Leo Stagg, Technical Director, and fellow actors (Ruth) and Merill West (Dorcas), the panelists spoke with BWW's Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold about the thrill of this exuberant musical.
For Twitchell "adventure" has an extra special meaning because the actor jumped into his role of Caleb at the eleventh hour, replacing the injured Eric Stretch. He tells the story to the amazed audience: "I live in LA, and I got a call late Sunday evening from Patti Colombo. She asked me,'What are you doing? We need you in Maine five minutes ago.' I had done the production in LA with Patti a year and a half ago, and I knew I would love to work with her again. So I was on the red eye four hours later. I got in, went to the grocery store, and then straight to music and tech rehearsal. Everyone was so friendly and accommodating that there was little or no stress."
Well, or at least that's how a professional like Twitchell made it look when he and the rest of the cast opened two days later to rave reviews. Colombo, Artistic Director, Curt Dale Clark, and the entire MSMT staff breathed a collective sigh of relief. "I was pleasantly surprised how much I remembered," Twitchell succinctly sums up the experience.
"Such is show business," muses Barbara Whidden, who explains that "for economic reasons MSMT does not employ understudies." She recounts another near mishap of several years ago, when the Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady lost her voice on the morning of the opening. Whidden remembers how one of the cast members suggested that his girlfriend, who had performed the role, could substitute. "As it would happen, she had just paid him a visit and was at the bus station ready to go back to NYC. We drove to the station, put her in the car; she sang a little and read some dialogue right there in the car, and we drove straight to wardrobe. She went on that night with the script, but when she got to "Isn't It Loverly," she put down the script and just sang beautifully. The entire staff exhaled," Whidden chuckles, "and it's funny to tell about it now, but it was SCARY then!"
The ability of a committed ensemble like the MSMT company to field curve balls is part of the resilience necessary for a successful life in the theatre. The young professionals talk freely about the risks and joys of their profession. Twitchell says that being successful involves "walking the fine line between being arrogant and believing in yourself, not comparing yourself to anyone else, because no one else will be as good at being who I am as I, myself, am. You just have to be an individual and bring your A-game and hope for the best."
"You have to love what you are doing," Heverly insists.
Asked about the dangers involved in a production as energetic as Seven Brides with incredible athletic and balletic dancing and tumbling, Twitchell jokes, "There are flying human beings everywhere."
"It requires the people on stage to be very smart and spatially aware because otherwise, lots of injuries happen because of hesitation," Stagg adds. "These guys practice over and over until it is in their muscle memory."
"You can't think about the risk," Heverly says. "You have to just go out on stage and go for it. It's all about trusting your partner and staying fit."
West continues by explaining her routine: "I get to the theatre an hour and a half ahead of time and do a full ballet bar and then roll out the muscle knots. After the show, I roll out again, and ice whatever needs icing. That's something I learned with the Rockettes," she explains, "getting into a seven-minute ice bath after each show." She likens being a dancer to being a thoroughbred horse. "You have to warm her up and cool her down."
Heverly says that besides the exercise, she makes certain to eat well and continues to take dance classes and do cross training "so I go into a show at my best and stay that way."
"Good old-fashioned diet and exercise," Twitchell, who is passionate about nutrition and fitness, concurs - "fueling your body with clean nutrients and rationing those calories."
A show as physically demanding as Seven Brides, of course, burns those calories. Stagg talks about how Dance captain Karl Warden burns 2500 calories a performance "like an Olympic athlete."
West shares how "one of the brothers has had wardrobe take in his trousers three times already."
Such a high-energy show, one that simply bursts with exuberance and delight is, the panelists agree, a trademark of Patti Colombo's work. Whidden enthuses, "It's such a great escape from what is going on in your world, such a happy show!"
Thomas adds, "I see multi-generational families coming to the performance, and as they leave, they are delighted. It's magical!"
Twitchell and Stagg agree that the characters are universal, and Stagg says, "the show is also about how a family changes when someone new comes in. These are universal issues."
"Patti's version goes into more depth and uses the Oregon Trail saga for background. It is grittier, more real," says West.
Heverly praises Colombo for being "smart, creative, open to insight; if something isn't right, she will fix it immediately, so our bodies do what she wants them to. Her choreography is extremely demanding. You have to have good ballet technique."
All three actors talk about developing their roles based on Colombo's emphasis on individualized, character-driven choreography. "She does a great job of storytelling via the dance styles," Twitchell says. "There is clogging, tap action, lots of ballet, lots of athleticism. When we begin in "Goin' Courtin'," the boys are clueless, but Millie teaches them, and by the spring ballet, even though the boys may not be as refined as the suitors, the girls are digging them. She is a genius!"
However, the appeal of this production, as the audience so vividly points out, is not only the dancing and acting, but the lavish, theatrically clever set (Charles S. Kading), lighting (Dan Efros), and costumes (Kurt Alger). Stagg fields numerous inquires about how some of the more mesmerizing effects work. He explains the avalanche scene which is especially compelling:' Prop master, Kyle Melton, actually came up with the idea. It's like rolling Kabuki. We have a full cloth bunched up and tied to a rope and D rings; we pull the rope out of each ring, and it falls. Patti thought it was one of the best solutions she had seen for this scene, but, of course, it relies on everyone to sell it - the lighting technicians, the actors' reactions." Stagg also talks about one of the other brilliant solutions in Kading's set - the tree panels which are painted on flat frame and slide back and forth on track, manned by hidden stage crew, to mask the scene changes and suggest the majestic Northwest forest.
An audience member comments with admiration that MSMT is like a "mini Metropolitan Opera," building everything in-house and mounting elaborate full scale productions."
Stagg attributes this capability to the resources deployed by the company: "For a small theatre, we have a shop of seven people, and we are able to hire the most skilled staff. That's why we are able to put on productions of the highest caliber."
Thomas, who is also an actress and choral music-drama teacher, agrees, saying that after twenty seasons with the company in various capacities, she believes MSMT has been her foundation as an artist and educator. "Everything I know about theatre, I learned here."
Photo Courtesy MSMT, Missy Patterson, photographer