BWW Interview: The Courage Within: David Girolmo in OZ
"In the musical they all learn that the thing they believe is missing is already inside of them. We all have within us everything we think we are deficient in - everything we need to become the person we are supposed to be." Actor David Girolmo is speaking of the lesson his character, the Cowardly Lion, learns in the stage version of L. Frank Baum's iconic classic THE WIZARD OF OZ, which runs from August 7-24 in a spectacularly fantastical production co-directed by narc Robin and Curt Dale Clark at Maine State Music Theatre.
Girolmo, a beloved presence on the MSMT stage, returns to a role he has played four times previously to join a quartet of friends that include debuting Carolyn Anne Miller as Dorothy, Ian Knauer as the Tin Man, and Marc Robin as the Scarecrow. Last season he appeared in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, and this season, he has already played leading roles in TREASURE ISLAND and HELLO, DOLLY!, with the two years before that crammed with exciting theatrical activity that has taken him from Chicago to Broadway and to Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
In 2017 Girolmo joined the cast of WAR PAINT, the musical about cosmetic titans Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden at Chicago's Goodman Theater, playing a trio of male characters and understudying the Tommy Lewis role. He transferred to Broadway with the production and played on the Great White Way until the show closed in 2018. He recalls the pleasures of that experience: "I loved working with those two ladies [Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole]. It was a different experience with each of them. Patti likes a little variation; she likes to connect with you on stage and is not afraid to do something a little different, such as the time I went on as Tommy Lewis. She has a clarion voice, and she is a great actor. Christine is a great actor and a beautiful singer, too, but she likes to do her show without variations. Both are incredible!"
Of the long run - almost fourteen months in all from Chicago to New York - Girolmo says "You get into a groove and you have to find ways to re-establish your focus. Whereas with a short three-week run such as a regional theatre show, you can't get bored because the show doesn't really settle in until the run is almost over. In fact, it's a miracle that we are able to get it up and running and teched and everyone safe, and it is really good! And that only happens because of so much support and collaboration - everyone working hard the way they do."
Girolmo recalls the longest run he ever performed in was THE IRISH AND HOW THEY GOT THAT WAY, directed by Marc Robin and also starring Curt Dale Clark in 1996 at The Mercury Theatre in Chicago. "The show ran thirteen months, and after twelve, Marc asked me to do an OVATIONS program with him, so I took a short vacation and did that concert, but when I came back I felt disconnected [to IRISH]. My head wasn't completely in it, and I felt these little panic attacks on stage wondering if the words coming out were the right ones. Mercifully, they were, and we closed after St. Patrick's Day."
After leaving WAR PAINT, Girolmo began a series of whirlwind consecutive engagements in a variety of leading roles. He and his wife, Heidi Kettenring, starred in Theatre at the Center's ANNIE WARBUCKS - "a beautiful way to while away a couple months and work with a dear friend of ours, Artistic Director Linda Fortunato" - and then Girolmo joined Marc Robin for a series of projects in Lancaster and Maine. He played Arvide in GUYS AND DOLLS at the Fulton, followed by stunning performances as Frollo in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, and then the developmental reading of TREASURE ISLAND in May. After that he headed to Maine for the Robin production of SINGIN' IN THE RAIN and then back to the Fulton for the September world premiere of TREASURE ISLAND.
Girolmo rejoined the cast of this epic new musical by Marc Robin and Curt Dale Clark in June of this season when it made its East Coast premiere at MSMT. It is a work to which he is deeply committed. "I go far back with this project," he recounts. "I played Captain Smollett in the original children's show version at the Drury Lane Evergreen Park. This show is another one of those miracles. Marc and Curt are not only great friends of mine, but they are also both such remarkable artists that it makes me feel I want to do well by the piece and support it. For these two guys to write this play and get a fully realized production is a monumental endeavor. I wanted to do well by the material. I like how [the character of] Captain Smollett has developed - how he helps to tell the story. He is a solid citizen and a commanding presence on stage and is someone else for Jim to look up to. "
Girolmo followed TREASURE ISLAND at MSMT by making his role debut as Horace Vandergelder in the hugely successful run of HELLO, DOLLY!, directed by Donna Drake and choreographed by Rhonda Miller, which just closed this past weekend. He was thrilled to have the opportunity to have "my dear friends" Charis Leos and Lauren Blackman as co-stars. "I have done some twenty-five shows with Charis over the years, and she and I and Lauren love each other," he says warmly, noting that he believes that's why the production struck such a genuine and heartfelt chord with audiences.
Girolmo describes his take on the relationship between Horace and Dolly as "genuine. Horace has lost his first wife, and he is looking for someone to make his life complete. I think Horace comes around to seeing that Dolly is a unique human being. She has always been right there, but he had to go through a number of experiences to find her. I think Dolly starts with seeing Horace's money, but ends by seeing him very differently, especially in the last scene when he talks about spreading money around like manure and he helps the young wallpaper guy. I think they reach a genuine meeting of minds and hearts, and their relationship is not mercenary. To play that with Charis is a dream come true. We really see each other."
Girolmo also admires the craft of HELLO, DOLLY! ":I find the rhymes in this show so beautiful. I tingle every time I hear one. They are pure genius. HELLO, DOLLY! is a great chestnut and a great showcase for a great actress. Everytime I hear it, I hear something else!"
The same kind of indestructible appeal applies to Girolmo's current project, THE WIZARD OF OZ. "Who doesn't love this play?" he enthuses. "Who doesn't know and love the movie? We are doing a version based on what John Kane did in London and Marc Robin did at the Fulton. It basically encompasses everything in the movie except the Professor Marvel stuff. We have a cast of more than fifty with over twenty kids from ages five to fourteen and our terrific quartet of the four friends."
Girolmo cites other exciting pieces of the production, including Travis M. Grant's "stunningly beautiful costumes" and Robin's sensational choreography. Of the former he says, " My lion's outfit has brown fur, claws, a headpiece with a nose piece that come down, and not much makeup so my face shows." Of the dance, he highlights the incredible work of the dancers playing the human tornados and Yellow Brick Road, as well as the show stopping jitterbug number. He jokes, "And fortunately, my friend Marc knows my knees cannot do what the lovely Carolyn Anne Miller or amazing Ian Knauer and Marc Robin can do, so in the jitterbug he has me, [instead], run screaming across the stage several times."
The actor smiles as he recounts this happy collaboration with some of his favorite artists and friends. He remembers how he and Marc Robin first met in Chicago in 1993 and Robin invited him to play the Cowardly Lion at the Drury Lane Evergreen Park in a production he had adapted for young audiences that also starred Curt Dale Clark as the Scarecrow. It was the start of lasting friendships and inspirations that have been sustaining elements in Girolmo's artistic life.
So returning to the Cowardly Lion at MSMT is also a kind of homecoming for David Girolmo. And that sensation of returning home prompts him to sum up what he sees as the wisdom of THE WIZARD OF OZ: "Dorothy has the ability all along to go home; she is looking for something outside herself to make her happy, but the fact is that she - all of us - have that something we desire within ourselves. We just have to find the way to access it."
Photos courtesy of MSMT
THE WIZARD OF OZ runs from August 7-24 at MSMT's Picard Theater, 1 bath Rd., Brunswick, ME 207-725-8769 www.msmt.org