Alena Bernardi's 'Legendary' Journey ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

Alena Bernardi's 'Legendary' Journey ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURYThere's a story going around about Alena Bernardi that has the ring of a show business legend yet-to-be, but is, in fact, a true story about how the plucky and determined actress-singer-producer is making her own dreams come to life.

Currently starring as diva Lily Garland in the Proof Doubt Closer Theater production of On The Twentieth Century at Los Angeles' Pan-Andreas Theatre (5119 Melrose Avenue) through Sunday, Bernardi says her decision to mount her own rendition of the Cy Coleman-Betty Comden-Adolph Green musical should come as no surprise to people who know her - to be certain, those folks probably expected no less from her.

"I have had a love and a knack for producing theatre and film my whole life," she explains. "I've always been the one to get a group of people together to do a show or put on a performance. About a year ago, I partnered with Trace Oakley, my co-founder [of Proof Doubt Closer] and the director of On the Twentieth Century, and we decided to start doing shows that were under represented that we loved ourselves. On the Twentieth Century was one of Trace's favorites and a show he had always wanted to do. I knew that I needed to play Lily so I dove in headfirst and didn't look back. Really that's the only way to take on something of this magnitude."

Perhaps surprisingly, On the Twentieth Century wasn't a show that Bernardi was particularly in love with from the get-go - like all good showbiz legends yet-to-be, that came to be during the creative process of bringing the show to life.

Alena Bernardi's 'Legendary' Journey ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
Georgean George (Leticia Peabody Primrose), Nate Beals
(Owen O'Malley), Wade Kelly (Oscar Jaffee),
Rafael Orduna (Oliver Webb), Alena Bernardi
(Lily Garland) and Nathan Jenisch (Bruce Granit)

"I have to be honest and say I wasn't head over heels with the show when I first watched clips of the revival and listened to the soundtrack," Bernardi says. "I am a big fan of anything musical theatre, so I liked it in that sense but wasn't 'in love' with it. I didn't really start falling in love with the show until I began really studying the score and the script and getting into the world of the writers and the composer.

"It is so brilliantly written, musically and literally. Comden and Green somehow make these farcical characters complex and wrought with emotion as well as absolutely hysterical and Coleman's train harmonies and strong melodies are nothing short of genius."

How long was it before Alena Bernardi knew she had to play - maybe even was destined to play - the show's engaging lead Lily Garland? "I would say when I first watched a clip of Kristin Chenoweth singing 'Babette' on a morning show during the Broadway run in 2015. Not only was she incredibly glamorous but her singing style wasn't what I was used to hearing out of a Broadway show. She was singing this contemporary style upbeat number with personality and pizzazz and she was singing it LEGIT! Like how I sing legit! At that moment, I almost felt like this role must be made for me. I love being able to play deep comedic characters and being able to really sing to the peak of my potential in a role such as this one that really stretches the entire range of the soprano voice is such a gift."

Alena Bernardi's 'Legendary' Journey ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURYWith Chenoweth's performance to inspire them and with their shared vision of a production of On The Twentieth Century spurring them on, Bernardi and Oakley launched an IndieGoGo initiative to raise $8,000 (used primarily to pay the musicians involved in the project) via an "intense" crowd-funding campaign that ultimately proved successful.

How did that happen? Bernardi offers her own recollection of the entire process which, though complex, was far more straightforward than the circuitous route one might imagine: "Well, it first starts with picking the dates for the show, buying the rights, and securing the theatre. Luckily, Trace has a rehearsal space in the upstairs of his house so we didn't have to worry about renting that. After that we start casting. Trace and I cast for three weeks to a month in May before we started rehearsing in mid-June. It's not always easy in independent projects such as these out in Los Angeles because you're trying to find diamonds in the rough. Really talented comedic actors and singers and that have not yet been swept up by the equity ordeal and are willing to spend their entire summer working on an independent show.

"We had some people who had worked with us on previous projects that are very strong talent wise and were willing to take this on, so I am so grateful to them. We also made some changes to the way the roles are typically played. For example, we had Conductor Flanagan (Philip McBride) perform as part of the porters, and we made two of the porters played by women (Nicole Sevey and Talya Sindel). Rowan Treadway played the other male porter. In the original show, four men play the tap dancing and singing porters. I, personally, enjoyed the porters having two women within them because the porters sing in barbershop harmony throughout the whole show. When women are singing in the foursome you can really hear Coleman's train harmonies because the upper registers of the females' voices ring out like a train whistle. It is nothing short of fantastic.

Alena Bernardi's 'Legendary' Journey ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
Alena Bernardi and Nathan Jenisch

"What's beautiful about casting is that when you find your people you know that they are in it purely for the art because the process is filled with blood sweat and tears. It's a challenging script and a challenging score and we really had to push the actors to get them to where they needed to be to do this fabulous book and score justice.

"After casting, we had to think about raising the money for the show. We threw a benefit concert with the cast and that got us a little bit but we knew that we needed more to take on this big project. We decided to do what most 21st century artists do these days and run a crowd-funding campaign. We hired a crowd-funding campaign coach called the "Kickstarter Guy" - his name is Justin Giddings and he took on coaching us on how to effectively raise the money we needed throughout the month of July. Now, historically, theatrical projects are the hardest to get funding for through crowd-funding (I'm not sure why, perhaps because it is a more niche market than film and TV and fancy gadgets for your home) so we knew we had a challenge ahead of us. We created a team with some of the willing cast members and together while smack dab in the middle of the rehearsal process we ran a pretty intense IndieGoGo campaign and raised $8,000.

"This gave us enough money to hire a four-piece band to accompany us for the run. The band consists of piano (Cynthia Heath), upright bass (Millie Martin), drums (Michael Dubin), and trumpet (Christian Robinson). With this band, we were able to clearly capture the feeling of being on the train and also still carried the integrity of Coleman's strong horn lines in the iconic overture and other numbers. The rest went to publicity, sets, costumes, props and the occasional pizza for the cast after long days during tech week.

"Now this is still a measly basically nothing budget for a show as grand as On the Twentieth Century, but I have to be honest and say that we really did it justice. I always feel like if the talent is there acting wise and the musicality is there singing wise you can really make it all work, and from the response we've been hearing we really truly did."

Alena Bernardi's 'Legendary' Journey ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
Rafael Orduna, Stephen Juhl, Alena Bernardi, Wade Kelley,
Nicole Sevey, Georgean George, Philip McBride
and Anagabriela Cordero

Audience response to the show has been encouraging, even inspiring, Bernardi maintains as the production enters its final performance weekend. "It has been fantastic. People love the show. Better than I even could have imagined," she suggests. "It has taken on a life of its own. I mean, I know I can sing and I can act, but this role has really pushed me to my highest potential and it feels so great to be acknowledged for that."

Reviews have been consistent, singling out Bernardi's performance for particular notice.

"Alena Bernardi (Lily Garland) surprises audiences with her silvery soprano voice in 'The Indian Maiden's Lament,' then keeps us entranced with her consequent musical numbers," wrote Ryan Luevano (www.ryaluevano.com). "Bernardi offers so much breadth in this complex character while keeping audiences following her every move."

"The best voice belonged to the female star of the show, Alena Bernardi," says Karen Salkin (www.itsnotaboutme.tv), adding parenthetically herself, "It appears that she runs this theatre company, so she gave herself the lead. But I can see why!"

With tickets being sold to shows - and critics being sold on her performance and the production itself - would Bernardi recommend other creative types taking the route she did to bring a special project to the stage? "As long as they know it's no walk in the park. I not only produced the show and ran the crowd-funding campaign, but I also music directed and starred in it obviously, but yes I would recommend it to other actors yearning to play their dream role," she says. "It is so easy in Los Angeles to get caught up in looking good and being better than others and comparing and competing. I think it's good to get back to your roots. Why are you an actor? Why are you here? Well, most of us are here because at some point in our life, (most of us high school) fell in love with theatre and with the ability to create a story powerfully and emotionally with other people.

"These projects help you remember that, they get you connected with your creative community and they allow you to be a contribution to others within your community and outside of your community. It is what art is really all about in my mind. My biggest bit of advice would be to become a person that people want to work with and want to be around because you will need all the help you can get. Don't be afraid to ask for help. I can't tell you how many people are involved right now just for the sake of being a part of something bigger than themselves and being a contribution to art. Be compassionate, be loving and be inspirational and everything will come together."

In the retrospective haze of memory and with the final curtain set to ring down after Sunday's performance, would she do it all over? Put herself, her reputation and her dreams on the line and do it all again? "I would. I hope to produce many more shows and star in many more of my own projects," she answers.

What's been her favorite memory from her journey On the Twentieth Century? "There are so many," she readily admits. "I guess I would have to say the energy circles before the show. I'm a sucker for a good energy circle. We always sing through the opening number together in a circle as a warm-up before every performance. The love, talent, and partnership in the room is so apparent. It's almost like everything is buzzing."

About the show On the Twentieth Century is described as an epic farce of an operetta, in which producer/director Oscar Jaffe hops aboard the luxury train to convince his leading lady, Lily Garland, en route to New York City, to agree to star in his latest musical extravaganza.

Featuring (alphabetically): Alena Bernardi, David Colville, Anagabriela Cordero, Georgean George, Tatiana Gomez, Stephen Juhl, Wade Kelley, Philip McBride, Rafael Orduna, Chelsea Pope, Nicole Sevey, Talya Sindel, Rowan Treadway and Rob Warner.

Music by Cy Colemand. Book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Based on the play by Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur and Charles Bruce Milholland. Directed by Trace Oakley. Musical direction by Alena Bernardi. Choreography by Averi Quinn Yorek. Produced by Proof Doubt Closer Theater Company. At Pan-Andreas Theatre, 5119 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles. Through August 27. Call (800) 838-3006.

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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis

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