MUSIC CITY CONFIDENTIAL #5: Onstage, Offstage, Backstage and Beyond in the Volunteer State

Ah, midsummer in Tennessee: the heat, the humidity, the thunderstorms that send local television weather people into paroxysms of joy and delight as they use the threat of Mother Nature and God's retribution to make us all retreat to our safe places. Well, for me, my safe place is in a cool and darkened theater where talented folk are enacting a tale to take me out of the wind-whipped world in which I toil-add some singing and dancing and I'm more than happy to avoid a raging hailstorm outside…

So welcome to the fifth installment of Music City Confidential, my column to collect the flotsam and jetsam, informationally speaking, of theatre in Tennessee. Sorry for the long delay since the last installment, but I've been theatering my butt off all over the Volunteer State in search of intriguing gossip and riveting news stories just for you, my gentle readers. I'm going onstage, offstage, backstage and beyond to bring you all the news you need to know...

This is really hard to admit, but I may have been wrong when I wrote that the Real Housewives franchise had lost its mojo. If you'll remember, the day after I wrote those very thoughts I discovered that producers from Bravo's Real Housewives were looking for Nashville-area women for a proposed new series called The Real Housewives of Nashville (or at least we presume that will be the title, although Jef's Girls has a certain ring to it). I suggested that if Andy Cohen would only give us a call or jet us off an email, I'd be happy to help him seek out the very best of the best-the "realest" housewives-in Music City. And I'm very happy to give my official endorsement to my gal-pal, hardworking housewife and devoted mom Lisha Nicholson Pope, who is the very picture of Southern womanhood (and who can decorate a room to put Southern Living to shame or serve up a bountiful regional repast that would make the folks at Garden & Gun sit up and take notice). Lisha is hospitable and gracious, welcoming and warm, charming and pretty and funny and gossipy and-well, in my estimation she epitomizes the modern Nashville woman in all her glory! Plus, she's got friends (yep, I'm looking at you Nancy McNulty, Kandace Williams and Johnny Peppers) who will provide much fodder for series producers and they are guaranteed to help up the "it" quotient while keeping Lisha, who's destined to be a star, grounded and the sweet, simple Southern girl she was raised to be. And she has acting experience (which is very important, to my way of thinking), having appeared in the world premiere productions of Osborne & Eppler's (that's Dietz and Nate) Southern Fried Funeral and Southern Fried Nuptials for the Bethlehem Players. Lisha and Nashville are exactly what the doctor's ordered to rejuvenate the Real Housewives. NeNe who? Seriously, look at Lisha's picture. Can't you just hear her saying: "I love life, life loves me...so bow down to me, Music City, I'm am your queen!"

Here's some news, both sobering and exciting, to bring you down from the high of possibly having our own Housewives series: The First Night Honors 2012 celebration is only six weeks away (I just threw up a little in the back of my mouth) and planning is under way to make this year's commemoration of all things theatrical the very best ever! Next Monday, July 23, at The First Night Preview Party, we'll be revealing the identities of our eight First Night Honorees, the nine men who will be presented The First Night Star Award this year and the names of the younger thespians being recognized as our Most Promising Actors. Janie and John Chaffin, of Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre fame, will be hosting us for the evening from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. for the party. They'll be offering some delicious (and free!) hors d'oeuvres and there's a cash bar, plus while you're mingling and gossiping with your theater pals, we'll be providing you with some entertainment (songs from Stones River Theatre Company's upcoming Jekyll & Hyde in Concert, performed by Katherine Sandoval Taylor and Stephen Michael Jones, and The Roxy Regional Theatre's Happy Days the Musical, featuring Rob Rodems, Regan Featherstone, Kaitlin Doughty, Jama Bowen, Josh Bernaski, Ryan Bowie and Travis Kendrick) and giving you plenty of insider information about the upcoming festival of theatrical delights! You really don't want to miss all the fun and games. And if you come, we'll give you a special discount code for tickets to The Nutty Professor's preview week at TPAC's James K. Polk Theatre!

When last we wrote, I told you about young Patrick Eytchison (that's him on the left) having to miss Kristin Chenoweth's rescheduled Nashville concert because he would be inducted into the U.S. Navy that very same day, as he reported for duty as a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. Knowing that Patrick's mom, Amy Colgan Eytchison had bought tickets to the concert to celebrate his high school graduation (he recently starred as Billy Bigelow in Christ Presbyterian Academy's spring musical Carousel) and to wish his sister Emily Eytchison well before she jetted off to see theater in Europe as part of a group of theater students from her alma mater Baylor University, I felt compelled to somehow help Make Up For that. So…I sent an email to Julie Trussell, KC's trusted (and I daresay miracle-making) assistant, to enlist her help in getting Kristin to give Patrick a call before he had to turn over his cel phone for the seven weeks he's going through the paces of becoming a midshipman. As expected, KC jumped at the chance and on the day before her Nashville concert (which still makes me weep when I think of it), she called up Patrick while he and his family traveled through Northern Virginia en route to Annapolis. The call came as a complete surprise to Patrick (although Amy, husband Brian and daughter Emily were in on the plot) and, in fact, it was his last cel phone call before he entered the service of our country. How great is that? Amy said Patrick mainly just smiled broadly and said "Yes, ma'am." It is also reported that Kristin mentioned reading somewhere in a review by ME! that Patrick had been a masterful Billy Bigelow. "Well, I'm not so sure about that," he allegedly responded. Patrick's younger brother Lucas-whom Amy assures us would still be on the phone with KC, given his talkative nature-kept telling him to tell KC he loved her in RV. Now that's a true fan. So, I suppose that means that when Lucas goes into a national service academy, he'll be expecting me to get KC to at least give him a kiss on the cheek to wish him well. You know what this proves? The Kristin Chenoweth we've all come to love onstage, onscreen and in concert is the real deal. And, at the very least, she's my heroine. 

What are you doing this summer? With so many of our most talented actors/dancers/performers/artists/techies and the like out of town for the summer, we're searching out some of our favorites to find out what they're up to. For example, Stephanie Jones Benton...who is in Hershey, Pennsylvania for the summer, entertaining crowds at Hershey Park.

Stephanie fills us in on the details: "I am the female singer for Tap: the Show.This show takes you around the world of tap dancing to include everything from Broadway styles to tribal, irish step dancing, and rhythm tapping. The show closes on September 30 so if anyone is up this way in Pennsylvania, come and see it! I am very passionate about this show and the amazingly talented cast I am so fortunate to have with me every day. These are honestly some of the best tap dancers I have ever met, not to mention steller performers. They have helped me grow so much as a singer, dancer, and performer. However, I feel like they have truly helped me grow as person, helping me discover that a passion for performing should never be ignored and never be taken for granted when the opportunities are present. I miss everyone back home, and I can't wait to see everyone in October!"

We can't wait until she's back in Nashville, but I gotta admit: I love me some tap!

Area theater companies are busily firming up plans for their upcoming seasons and Cathy Street, producing artistic director at Street Theatre Company, has announced plans for wide-ranging 2013 season, which will kick off with Love Letters. February 1-9; Cats in Concert, February 20-24; Maltby and Shire's Baby, March 29-April 14: Eight-time Tony Award-winner Spring Awakening, May 10-26; George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum, June 14-30; Spamalot, September 6-22; Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour, October 11-27; and Hair in Concert, November 27-December 1. Two ClassAct Dramatics shows are also in the works: Really Rosie, July 12-27, and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, November 2-10.

Franklin's Pull-Tight Theatre will open its first show of the 2012-13 season when Bye, Bye Birdie opens August 3 at the theatre in historic downtown Franklin. In the show, it's 1958 and rock 'n' roll star Conrad Birdie is about to be inducted into the army. But Albert, his agent, and Albert's faithful secretary Rosie have concocted one last publicity stunt: Conrad will bid a typical American teen-age girl goodbye with a kiss on the Ed Sullivan Show. When small-town girl Kim MacAfee wins the honor, Sweet Apple, Ohio will never be the same. Bye, Bye Birdie runs through August 25, and tickets are available by calling the box office at (615) 791-5007 beginning July 23 or you can purchase tickets online on and after that date at www.pull-tight.com. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday evenings and at 2:30 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $16 for adults, $14 for seniors and $12 for students in high school and younger.

Hot on the heels of the conclusion of its critically acclaimed and audience lauded second season, Studio Tenn Theatre Company will host its second annual Summer Gala on Wednesday, July 25 at the Franklin Theatre. The event promises to be an unforgettable evening of elegance and entertainment featuring American Idol finalist Melinda Doolittle and Sean MacLaughlin, star of Broadway's Phantom of the Opera, The Woman In White, Lestat and the upcoming Rebecca. They will be joined by Studio Tenn's managing director and Broadway's Jersey Boy Jake Speck as well as artistic director Matt Logan, along with a host of other Nashville and Broadway stars. The event starts promptly at 7 p.m. Tickets are is $100 for a seat or $1000 for a VIP cabaret table, and drinks and heavy hors d'oeuvres will be provided.  The purpose of the gala is to raise funds for Studio Tenn's upcoming season, which includes Smokey Joe's Café, Twelve Angry Men (at the Historic Williamson County Courthouse), A Christmas Carol, Big River and My Fair Lady.  Season tickets are now available at www.franklintheatre.com or by calling (615) 538-2075.

Last week, as I "theatered" my butt off, I spent a lot of time in the dark, seeing shows at The Arts Center of Cannon County (Legally Blonde The Musical), Cumberland County Playhouse (The Music Man), The Roxy Regional Theatre (Happy Days The Musical), Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre (The Odd Couple) and at The Larry Keeton Theatre (Into The Woods), proof that the magic of live theater in Tennessee is alive and well (and you can read my reviews of all those shows right here on Nashville.BroadwayWorld.com).  The week also included lunch with Jeremy Benton (director/choreographer of Backwards in High Heels: The Ginger Rogers Musical that runs July 27-November 2 at Crossville's CCP) at The Pharmacy, the theaterati's favorite place for burgers, beer and wursts in East Nashville, and interviews with his stars Jessica Wockenfuss and Douglas Waterbury-Tieman who are tapping their hearts out in anticipation of their show's opening.

I also spent an entire day learning more about The Nutty Professor Musical than we ever thought possible-starting with a press conference early in the morning, spending some time in the Polk Theatre to check out set designer David Gallo's (he won the Tony for The Drowsy Chaperone, one of my favorite musicals) amazing set, and then being treated to five numbers from the score by Marvin Hamlisch and Rupert Holmes performed by the production's crackerjack ensemble under the direction of "the king of comedy" Jerry Lewis-and over the past several days we've been introducing members of the company to Nashville. They're a very talented lot, I can assure you, and I can also tell you this: KLea Blackhurst (that's her at left) is just as delightful as you would imagine, JoAnn Hunter's eye-popping choreography is Tony-worthy, the show's star Michael Andrew really is all that and a bag of chips, Hamlisch has written leading lady Marissa McGowan a lovely ballad that is exactly what you might expect him to create for her, and Holmes has crafted a book that is not only funny, but very heartfelt. Who knew?

All of this I tell you because when I think about the breadth and depth of theatrical talent and the sheer number of hours that goes into the creation of onstage magic in our state, I'm staggered by it. And I'm humbled that this is what I get to do every day. It's beats the hell out of picking cotton (which I did for four days once when I was 10-yes, it's true, I lived through a time when schools were shut down for two weeks to allow children to pick cotton-hand to God-Tennessee ain't so far off from a third-world country)!

So…with The Nutty Professor just the latest in the long list of movies recreated as musical theater, we asked local theaterati what movies they think should be turned into stage shows. And their answers were somewhat suprising...

LaToya Gardner: Tangled! I ust want to see how an actress would pull off having to wear really, really, really, really, really long hair.

Barry Honold: South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut or Team America: World Police. Parker and Stone made a hit out of a religious textbook-imagine what would do with established properties.

Jamie Lynn Scott: The Princess Bride and Dirty Dancing…no reason, I just like them.

Angela Gimlin: Team America: World Police, The American President and Showgirls.

Spencer Dean: Mean Girls or Easy A. They're both hysterical and I feel like they would be the next Legally Blonde or Lysistrata Jones. Some may hate the idea, but I love it!

Ginny Cavin: I'd like to see a musical based on the original Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

Memory Strong: Sleepless in Seattle! Memoirs of a Geisha!

Irina Sundukova: Taxi Driver.

Linda Sue Simmons Runyeon: The Count of Monte Cristo! It has passion, betrayal, revenge, love, loss, triumph over adversity-and the costumes would be fabulous!

Memory Strong: I didn't give my why: The soundtrack to Sleepless in Seattle is one of my all-time favorite movie soundtracks and I think it could be incorporated into a staged musical easily and it's a timeless love story. I think Memoirs of a Geisha would be beautiful and the music could be amazing. I also think Forrest Gump would be a good stage musical-I can already hear the "shrimp" song!

Anthony Just: Moulin Rouge and The Count of Monte Cristo (which I would like to write).

Lynda Cameron-Bayer: American Psycho-because it could have a great 1980s new wave style score and, honestly, it'd just be wrong in so many right ways!

Danny Proctor: Fried Green Tomatoes.

Amanda Lamb: Sweet Home Alabama. I love that movie and I am not ashamed to say so.

Russell Qualls: Two films I'm astonished haven't made it to the stage: Moulin Rouge and The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Michael Adcock: Forrest Gump-I'm amazed no one has written it yet with all the easy song possibilities. It would practically write itself.

Don Hillaker: Annie Hall, my favorite #1 movie.

Halee Culicerto: Down With Love. My friend Dalles Wilie was working on one a whle back and it was great!

 

Pictured (top to bottom): Lisha Nicholson Pope, Patrick Eytchison (that's Kristin Chenoweth on the phone with him), Cathy Street, Sean MacLaughlin, Douglas Waterbury-Tieman and Jessica Wockenfuss, KLea Blackhurst and Angela Gimlin, along with the official 2012 First Night Poster, designed by David Arnold, featuring the newly redesigned First Night Honors medal from Michael Adcock, who also is responsible for the Music City Confidential logo.

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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis

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