David Samuel Talks Touring with Willy Wonka and the Gang

Seattle audiences will spot a familiar face in the touring production of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory landing at The Paramount Theatre at the end of this month. Playing the father of golden ticket recipient Violet, David Samuel hopes that greater diversity in the show will help children connect with a story that he’s loved for years. He talked to Encore Spotlight about his “late” start in musical theatre, why diversity is so important in casting, and what type of chocolate he’d make in his factory.

Rosemary Jones: In earlier interviews, you mentioned that you came to musical theatre late. What inspired you to try this career?

David Samuel: When I say I came to musical theatre late, I mean that I didn’t have the typical “I grew up in dance classes and singing lessons from the age of five” story. I started considering musical theatre around the age of 19, when I took a musical theatre history class as a part of my degree requirements at the University of Maryland, College Park. I had a number of great teachers at that school, and Scot Reese was the musical theatre professor. I then went to graduate school at Brown University/Trinity Rep for my MFA in Acting. In that program we had a lovely singing teacher, Kathryn Jennings, as well as our head of voice and speech, Thom Jones. He really made me believe I had a voice, and I can’t thank him enough. 

Actor David Samuel. Courtesy of Broadway at The Paramount

What were your earliest experiences as a professional actor after college?

After graduate school I moved to New York City and musicals were not really on my mind. I did Shakespeare Off-Broadway at Classic Stage Company and as the universe would have it, my first show was with a who’s who of New York actors, one of them being André De Shields. 

A few months after our show closed, André called me and asked if I wanted to be in the upcoming production that he was directing of Ain’t Misbehavin’ with Crossroads Theatre at NJPAC. I said yes, and it was the most challenging thing I had ever done. The rest of my cast (including Borris Anthony York, who is in this production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) was so supportive and shoved with love all through our brief rehearsal process.

All of these experiences and lessons fueled me as I went in and out of audition rooms for months, ending up in front of Telsey Casting Director Rachel Hoffman and the creative team—Jack O’Brien, Matt Lenz, Josh Bergasse and Ali Solomon—for this production. Thankfully, whatever I did in that audition room worked in my favor.

Noah Weisberg, David Samuel, Brynn Williams and company in 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.'
Noah Weisberg, David Samuel, Brynn Williams and company in ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.’ Photo by Joan Marcus

You also worked in Seattle recently. Can you talk a little about what you did here last summer?

Last July, I was fortunate enough to be in The Williams Project’s production of Blood Wedding by Federico García Lorca, playing Leonardo. The Williams Project is a Seattle-based “theatre ensemble that strives to make theatrical excellence accessible to diverse and engaged audiences, while paying our artists a living wage.”

We performed at Equinox Studios, a studio space created for artists and artisans to collaborate, and we had local vendors sell food and drink prior to, and during the show. It was a beautifully immersive experience and I am grateful that Ryan Purcell, the artistic director (and a Brown/Trinity graduate), asked me to be in the production. 

The cast of Roald Dahl’s 'Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.'
The cast of ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.’ Photo by Joan Marcus

In this return visit to Seattle, what do you want to do first in your time off? 

When I’m not performing, I’d love to go see The Williams Project’s latest production, The Bar Plays, which is two plays, Small Craft Warnings by Tennessee Williams and The Time of Your Life by William Saroyan, performed in repertory. I’d also love to check out Pike Place or find some live music in the city. 

When did you first encounter Charlie and his trip through Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory?

I went to a small Lutheran school in Hyattsville, Maryland and I remember that the 1971 film with Gene Wilder was one of the only things we were allowed to watch. I have very fond memories in primary school and middle school of watching this film, munching on a bag of Cheetos and getting swept up in Charlie’s journey.

Though the Beauregardes are not the focus of the story, I hope with our presence on stage the audience is inspired to imagine and create a more diverse, equitable and inclusive world for themselves and the generations that come after them.

David Samuel

It’s lovely that there’s greater diversity in this version. What do you think it means to the audience to have the Beauregarde family be African American in the musical?

I think diverse, inclusive and equitable representation is extremely important, to say the least. When we were performing in Los Angeles, a young black girl came up to me and said, “You were great! You looked just like my Dad up there.” I was honored that she saw her life reflected back to her through the performances of my castmates and I. A similar interaction happened in Baltimore, when one of our Willy Wonka understudies, Clyde Voce (who made history by being the first African American Willy Wonka), went on for Noah Weisberg. A white mother came up to us holding back tears because by seeing Clyde Voce perform as Willy Wonka, she was able to have the opportunity to explain to her young son the importance of diversity in casting and why people of color should have more opportunities to be seen all across the entertainment landscape. 

Though the Beauregardes are not the focus of the story, I hope with our presence on stage the audience is inspired to imagine and create a more diverse, equitable and inclusive world for themselves and the generations that come after them.

The cast of Roald Dahl’s 'Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.'
The cast of Roald Dahl’s ‘Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.’ Photo by Joan Marcus

Since you’re playing the very proud father of Violet Beauregarde, what Violet moment is your favorite in this show?

First of all, Brynn Williams (who plays Violet Beauregarde) is the sweetest human being and a vocal powerhouse. I learn so much from watching her onstage. All her moments are my favorite. If I had to pick one, it would be something that future audiences may not be able to see but speaks to the skill that Brynn brings to the role of Violet. One night, Violet’s microphone was not working and our audio team handed Brynn a handheld wireless microphone so that she could perform “The Queen of Pop.” She commanded that stage and brought an electricity that could only come from having to commit to a sudden change so quickly. She’s a rock star for that.

So, if you did win a chocolate factory, what would be your treat of choice?

I would try to combine baked goods and chocolate. Some sort of a chocolate bar with brownie bits and caramel. 

See David Samuel as Mr. Beauregarde in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory playing at Broadway at The Paramount July 31–August 11. Tickets are available online.

Rosemary Jones has written about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest for the Cornish MagazineCapitol Hill Times, Encore, Examiner.com and others. Additional work can be seen at rosemaryjones.com.

Dancing Like its 1929 in ‘Bright Star’

Bright Star, the musical currently playing at Taproot Theatre Company, keeps toes tapping with the stories of two couples, Alice and Jimmy Ray in the 1920s, and Margo and Billy in the 1940s. Filling the stage with period-appropriate and lively dance numbers was the job of choreographer Katy Tabb, whose work has been seen at Village Theatre, Seattle Symphony and Showtunes, among others. Tabb talked to Encore Spotlight about how she tackled this show and how a solo moment amid couples dancing became her favorite.

Rosemary Jones: Bright Star tells two interrelated stories set in different time periods. How did you set the dances to reflect that?

Katy Tabb: Historical research is always a huge part of my choreographic process and certainly informed the movement in this case. The show flashes back and forth between the 1920s small-town Zebulon, and 1940s big city Asheville. At the Zebulon “Couple’s Day Dance,” I wanted to make sure that the dance truly felt like an exciting social event in a small Southern town rather than a highly choreographed or refined performance. The script details very specific steps as called out by the Dance Caller in this scene—it was a very fun challenge to decide how to interpret these commands. For the number “Another Round” I incorporated swing dance that was en vogue in 1940s America. It was important to me to accurately reflect what was happening in the dance halls as soldiers returned home from war.

Choreographer Katy Tabb.
Choreographer Katy Tabb. Courtesy of Taproot Theatre

You’ve choreographed some really big shows, like the recent Newsies at Village Theatre. When you’re prepping for a Newsies or a Bright Star, what are your initial steps? 

Every show process starts with reading the script and listening to the score at least three times as I begin generating ideas for the choreography, followed by immense historic research. I will often listen to the popular music and watch film clips from the era (or eras) of a show to begin wrapping my head around the pulse and movement of the time period. Once I have some “big picture” ideas, I spend lots of time with the director discussing their vision and brain storming together. Typically auditions and casting follow—this step is always a very exciting part of my planning process. Watching future cast members in auditions always inspires new ideas! Actual movement invention and detailing of steps really begins in earnest after I know the cast and their unique skills. I typically have a very detailed plan for every number before heading into rehearsal, but my very favorite part of choreographing a show is exploring, changing and fine-tuning all of this brainstorming with the actors and creative team in the rehearsal room.

You regularly teach dance and also how to audition. What are your favorite classes to teach?

I absolutely love teaching Musical Theatre Dance—a class which allows me to explore the many styles of dance in theatre. On any given day, this class can explore a Jerome Robbins ballet, the specificity of Bob Fosse’s style, the athleticism of Newsies, the contemporary flavor of Wicked and beyond. Movement and dance in theatre requires versatility of its performers. Not only do actors need to be remarkable storytellers, they also need to have the “tools” to best tell their story. I find that the performers who continue to keep up with consistent training in a variety of dance styles (a tall order for a working artist) bring a greater wealth of possibility to a rehearsal room.

What type of training do you recommend for musical theatre performers?

Performers who have trained with a variety of dance teachers and choreographers tend to retain choreography more quickly and prove to be more adaptable to change and exploration during the creative process. I encourage all actors, whether they are a “trained” dancer or not, to take foundational ballet classes that will give them the dance vocabulary, fundamental technique, and connection to their physical instrument necessary for working with most choreographers in theatre.

Brain Pucheu and Brenna Wagner in the 1920s couple's dance.
Brain Pucheu and Brenna Wagner in the 1920s couple’s dance. Photo by Erik Stuhaug

Space is a bit of an issue on the Taproot stage—as is the closeness of the audience—so how do you choreograph in those parameters?

Interestingly enough, I find that having strict parameters actually frees space for creativity in my planning—these limits create structure for me to play within. I particularly love choreographing on Taproot’s Jewell Mainstage because it allows me to explore more interesting three-dimensional staging than I may be able to explore on a more traditional proscenium stage. On the Taproot stage, I constantly have to make sure that actors are changing direction to ensure that every audience member can experience the show completely—this requires a consistent flow of movement that is not necessarily required on the larger stages. Though space for dancing is more limited, I find that the opportunities for creative formation changes are particularly exciting in this space.

Which number was the biggest challenge?

Margo’s beautiful song “Asheville” was the number in this show that I most struggled with at first. The song itself is so beautiful, it could easily be done with Margo singing solo onstage in a spotlight, but I really wanted to utilize creative staging that would help to illustrate Margo’s experience as well as utilize the wonderful male backup vocalists in a unique way. I ultimately decided to play with staging a scene with the two customers (backup vocalists) in her bookshop; the movement “freezes” and “unfreezes” to highlight how Margo is feeling. Finessing this concept in tandem with specific, detailed lighting cues was very challenging. Despite it also being the most challenging number for me to create (and one of the more deceptively simple looking numbers), “Asheville” has become my favorite number in the show. The song is so sweet and I am proud of the full team collaboration and heart that went in to its creation.

Bright Star is now playing through August 17 at Taproot Theatre Company. Tickets are available online.

Rosemary Jones has written about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest for the Cornish MagazineCapitol Hill Times, Encore, Examiner.com and others. Additional work can be seen at rosemaryjones.com.

Celebrating Love, Revolt and Transformation in Seattle Men’s Chorus’ Upcoming Concert

For their summer concert, the Seattle Men’s Chorus (SMC) commemorates Stonewall’s 50th anniversary with pop music of the 1960s and a commissioned work. Executive Director Steven F. Smith promises the Summer of 69 concert will be full of chart-topping and culture-defining songs to send its audience dancing out the door.

Rosemary Jones: The summer of 1969 may have been called “The Summer of Love”, but it was also a summer of profound social change. What do you think were the most pivotal events that summer?

Steven Smith: Music events like Woodstock might have been part of a culture of love and openness for certain folks, but I think 1969 was about the distillation of righteous anger and action. Stonewall was a flash point for the simmering rage and frustration against discrimination in the LGBT community but it did not happen in isolation. At the same time, Vietnam War protests and rampant racial discrimination were roiling the country. The country was angry. What was pivotal was the need for change from the status quo.

Executive Director Steven Smith. Courtesy of Seattle Men’s Chorus

How do the songs selected for this concert reflect what was happening beneath the surface, as well as the headline-making events?

We wanted to explore the sense of division and “coming-apartness” in the country at that time. In addition to Stonewall, you had “hippies” and war protesters descending on Woodstock, Nixon’s law and order campaign, and the unifying wonder of the first moon landing. If you turned on the radio in 1969, the “Top 40” pop music of the day reflected that culture clash in a way that you don’t hear today. We’ve got the funk of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” juxtaposed with Frank Sinatra’s old school “My Way.” And Neil Diamond’s ultimate sing-along “Sweet Caroline” and Marvin Gaye’s iconic “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” The music reflects the convergence of culture, sex, identity and politics in a way that began to redefine America.

The concert also includes the new musical work “Quiet No More.” Can you describe this piece?

It’s a suite of music theatre style songs commissioned by more than 20 LGBT choruses around the country, including SMC, for this 50th anniversary of Stonewall. It’s a bit of history and a bit of forward-looking inspiration to continue the fight for equality. Because the patrons of the Stonewall Inn (who became victims of police brutality during the uprising) were gay and lesbian and trans folk and people of color, we found diverse composers who reflected these identities to create a collection of songs about what happened during the riot, what it felt like and how it has inspired and reverberated in our community since then.

What’s the one song that you can’t get out of your head after listening to rehearsals?

For the finale we wanted a sense of celebration and unity, so the classic Edwin Hawkins’ gospel song “Oh Happy Day” has had me dancing and swaying all week. It’s timeless and joyful.

Summer of 69 with the Seattle Men’s Chorus takes place at Benaroya Hall, June 21 at 8 p.m. and June 22 at 2 p.m. Tickets can be found online.

Rosemary Jones has written about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest for the Cornish MagazineCapitol Hill Times, Encore, Examiner.com and others. Additional work can be seen at rosemaryjones.com.

Training Up the Next Generation of Theatre Artists

Fifty years ago, as the Summer of Love engulfed San Francisco, the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) expanded its class offerings to hold its first Summer Training Congress for actors. Today, its educational offerings and related community programs continue to inspire theatre artists year round.

From a Master of Fine Arts program to summer intensives for teens, education at A.C.T. is designed to be rigorous and to take full advantage of the professional theatre company they occur in.

“The summer training program is the oldest education program,” said Melissa Smith, A.C.T.’s conservatory director. The program, begun by Robert Goldberg, served as a way to keep the actors training, to grow the number of actors available and to give them work teaching. Today, it’s difficult to attend any of the Bay Area’s many theatres without finding an alumni connected to one of A.C.T.’s programs.

“In the mid-1980s, they launched the M.F.A.,” said Smith, who came onboard in 1995. “Right before I came, the accrediting body asked us to make the M.F.A. a three-year program.”

Also launched in the 1980s was the Young Conservatory program that provided more intensive training for younger actors. “Summer is a very busy time for us,” said Susie Falk, interim director of education and community programs. “We have the audition-based musical which is a very competitive program every year. We’re doing Into the Woods this summer and the students get to perform at the Strand with members of the M.F.A. program in the cast.”

The Young Conservatory offers three different age levels of programs, from elementary to high school, ranging from one-week to three-week classes. All the classes take place at the company’s studios near Union Square in downtown San Francisco. Classes this summer include improvisation, singing and dancing, voice and speech, on-camera acting, Alexander technique, audition preparation, stage combat and introduction to Shakespeare, among others.

“It’s high caliber training with professional theatre artists,” said Falk. “We want them to gain confidence and collaborative skills, as well as have a high quality experience. Many will pursue theatre for a college or graduate degree program.”

“Connections between the M.F.A. program, the Young Conservatory and other education programs have grown to become an important part of the experience,” said Smith. “Around 2007, the M.F.A. launched the Shakespeare school tour. It began as a pedagogical tool and with wanting our actors to perform in different spaces. Once the education program launched seven years ago, they took on the booking of Will on Wheels.”

A.C.T.’s Master of Fine Arts program. Photo by Alessandro Mello

Today, M.F.A. students work with younger students year round throughout the conservatory programs and on-site visits. “Our collaboration began with Downtown High School because they were meeting up in the halls,” said Smith. “It got rolling in a grassroots way and then we took it over.”

Downtown High School teachers Charmaine Shuford and Robert Coverdell work with A.C.T.’s M.F.A. students to create a theatre project each semester. “Our students examine a theme each semester. Our partnership with A.C.T. is great because they provide tickets to see their shows and read the plays that they [will perform]. We partner with their M.F.A.s. At the end of the semester they help us put on a show. This spring we looked at identity: what are the forces that shape our identity? Environmental pressures, biological pressures, all the thing that impact teenagers,” said Coverdell.

Working with M.F.A. students and their instructors, the teens at Downtown High School crafted their show around this theme.

“A.C.T. dreamed big for our students,” said Coverdell. “For some of [DHS students] it is their first time going to the theatre and they’re always really appreciative of it. A lot of these students don’t ever get a chance to get their work showcased the way that we showcase it here. After they do [their performance], they are always so proud of themselves. You can feel that joy and accomplishment. Audiences come and are amazed by the work that the students put into it.”

Last year, one audience member noticed that a piece about changes in the Mission District featured District Supervisor Hillary Ronen. “One of our students who grew up in the Mission wrote a play and Hillary Ronen was a character in the play. One of Hillary’s friends saw it and texted Hillary. Then they invited us to go perform at City Hall. The student who wrote the play is so proud of that,” said Coverdell.

 The inspiration goes both ways, for those who teach and those who perform. “At the end, all the M.F.A. students have the experience of working with Downtown High School students in their first year,” said Smith. “This experience of working with somebody who is younger and looking up to them is inspiring. Many discover that they want to go on to community work. It’s a great gift. It works both ways, a great gift to them and to the Downtown High School.”

A.C.T.’s Young Conservatory.

As the founders hoped in the 1960s, this connection between the San Francisco community and a professional theatre has become one of the program’s strengths. “A couple of things set us apart,” said Smith. “We are the only freestanding M.F.A. in the country. The fact that we are freestanding and attached to a professional theatre, right here we are apart. Engagement with Young Conservatory, the engagement in the summer programs, and the citizen-artist pieces that happen in the community are truly unique as well. Three features that you wouldn’t get someplace else.”

For all the students who move through A.C.T.’s educational offerings, Falk and Smith see the importance of arts education going beyond just an appreciation of the theatre. “For all of our residencies we’re working together to deliver the content,” said Falk. “It’s important for these students to work on writing, acting, speaking from their own voice and own experience. It’s great to see how these kids can grow. We have a residency with one of the chapters of the Boys & Girls Club. One of the students didn’t speak for the first two years in the program and then she was up there on stage, acting the lines that she wrote.”

“I believe that people have different talents and aptitudes,” said Smith. “For some people, computer programming is an endless walk up a hill. There are people who are born into this world who want to grow up and make art. I think people who are studying the arts are preparing themselves to lead creative lives. We train them to go out into a world that is hungry for them.”

More information about A.C.T.’s M.F.A. program, Young Conservatory and other educational programs can be found on A.C.T.’s website.

Rosemary Jones has written about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest for the Cornish MagazineCapitol Hill Times, Encore, Examiner.com and others. Additional work can be seen at rosemaryjones.com.

Anjelica McMillan Gives Us a Taste of the ‘Dream’ at Book-It

For her debut at Book-It Repertory Theatre, Anjelica McMillan plays Neni Jonga, a recent immigrant to the United States, in Behold the Dreamers.

Seattle audiences know McMillan from her work at Theater Schmeater, Annex Theatre and The Horse in Motion, among others. We talked to her about what it was like to portray both the character and the text of Imbolo Mbue’s award-winning novel.

Rosemary Jones: How would you describe Book-It’s style?

Anjelica McMillan: I’ve seen a lot of Book-It plays and always really enjoyed them. I thought they did good work and especially work that addresses controversial topics. It’s important for a theatre to open new perspectives. I saw the recited narrative as a Brechtian device*, not to take you out of the play but to remind you that you are watching a piece of theatre and that what is happening isn’t necessarily happening. That can be a comfort if something is intense.

Has acting in a Book-It show changed your perspective?

Now that I’ve been working with Myra [Platt, the director and adapter for Behold the Dreamers], I know that she thinks of the narrative as an inner monologue. That’s new for me—to be speaking my inner monologue out loud. Also having to find a specific object to give that narrative to, not necessarily talking to [the] audience and breaking the fourth wall for them.

This novel seems like it addresses issues that we’re all discussing now.

It is very timely because of the immigration issues in our country right now. I think back to Welcome to Braggsville (2017). That was the show that made me want to work with Book-It. Because that dealt with the controversy of racism in such an interesting way.

Does the characters’ race or status as immigrants matter the most in this story?

I think the piece speaks more to immigration than it does about race. The big question is whether or not Jende will achieve his green card and they will be able to stay. There are some interesting parallels to some black experience in this country—they end up working for a wealthy white family, which could happen to any black family. Beyond those parallels, you do see some micro-aggressions from the white characters.

Headshot of Anjelica McMillan
Anjelica McMillan. Courtesy of Book-It

How would you describe your character?

Neni is fearless. She is somebody who sees the world as her oyster. She sees anything is possible because she is no longer living under the burden of her family telling [her] what she can do. She’s also changed by what happens. She gets to the States with this innocence and that changes. She also gains an inner strength.

Would you describe yourself as a similar person or different from Neni?

I am kind of a shy, reserved person. I would be much more likely to see myself as not qualified for a job. I can shortchange myself. Neni never does that! She doesn’t have any sense of why couldn’t she do that. She’s exuberant and full of life and energy. In preparation for playing someone like that, I obviously re-read the book and continue to re-read and highlight certain passages. I’m learning to be more free in my body, to embody that youth and exuberance that she has. I’m having a lot of fun playing her and being able channel that energy.

What do you want the audience to understand about Neni?

That Neni is a strong woman, and that she wants to be an independent, strong, interesting African woman. To have a glimpse of what people in Cameroon are like. People assume that everyone in Africa is poor and think of Africa as one nation. There is so much more to Africa. Also to see that certain truths are universal. As they see the characters, they will find something in common with these people. It’s important to consider issues of immigration and how we treat immigrants in this country.

What’s your favorite moment as Neni?

I really enjoy playing her right after Jende gets hired. She is so excited about him starting a new job and just peppers him—she showers him with questions like confetti. It’s a fun scene to play. They’re just recently married so there’s this joy that comes from being in a new marriage and living a dream—it’s fun to play that scene with Sylvester [Foday Kamara, actor who plays Jende Jonga].

*A Brechtian device is a technique to distance the audience from emotional involvement in the play through reminders of the artificiality of the performance. Coined by German dramatist Bertolt Brecht. Also called the alienation effect or distancing effect.

You can see Anjelica McMillan in Behold the Dreamers at Book-It Repertory Theatre now through June 30.

Rosemary Jones has written about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest for the Cornish MagazineCapitol Hill Times, Encore, Examiner.com and others. Additional work can be seen at rosemaryjones.com.

Price Suddarth Creates a Signature Ballet Reflecting PNB’s Dancers

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s final show of the season, Themes & Variations, marks the return of Price Suddarth’s Signature to McCaw Hall. The PNB soloist created this piece for PNB’s mainstage repertory in 2015, and it conveys the same fabulous energy that Suddarth has brought to his dance performances in Seattle since 2010. It’s also a highly personal piece crafted from the friendships and knowledge of the company’s dancers that only a true insider could have.

Rosemary Jones: How does your career as a dancer influence your choreography for Signature?

Price Suddarth: As a choreographer my movement style is extremely physical—likely stemming from my own similar movement quality as a dancer currently. In the studio, I begin within the confines of the classical ballet vocabulary, then begin to operate beyond it by developing and “stretching” the physicality within each step. Through this extreme physicality it is possible to research notions like kinetic energy—how it flows through the body and how to demonstrate that to an audience. In the end the desired effect would give the viewer a sense that the dancer is both fighting hard to shape their movements while also being blown through the air like a leaf in the wind.

Signature gives every dancer a distinct movement—their signature style as it were—and you spoke at the time about how connected the choreography was to your work with these dancers in the past. Did you need to adjust anything in the choreography for the 2019 presentation?

Choreographer Price Suddarth. Photo by Lindsay Thomas

In the creation of Signature every section had its own specific theme, largely influenced by the original cast. Coming back to it now I’ve been adjusting and tweaking to tailor these sections to the current dancers while also preserving the original intent. I always say there are 16 members of the cast—15 dancers and myself. While some dancers are new, there are some returning as well as myself. The changes in the piece correspond with those that have happened in the dancers themselves as well as in myself as a person and choreographer over the past few years.

The music is gorgeous and references Vivaldi while actually being an original composition for Signature. How did you work with composer Barret Anspach to achieve this?

Barret Anspach and I corresponded over a two-year period brainstorming how to incorporate Vivaldi music into a new composition and also how to tailor it to dance. Barret is the brother of a former PNB company member so luckily the language of ballet was not an entirely foreign concept to him.

Why was it important for the music to sound familiar to the audience?

Because Signature was my first introduction to the larger Seattle audience as a choreographer, I wanted to make a statement of who I am.  I wanted there to be elements of the whole show that were easily recognizable, demonstrating a common starting place where I would jump from.  My movement goes beyond classical ballet vocabulary thus the music needed to start from a place of understanding and then push past.

Where do you see your career as a choreographer going?

I can’t exactly be sure what’s next. Over the last five years since the premiere I’ve been working with various companies around the country as a choreographer. I’ve been greatly influenced by many different styles and many different voices in various environments. As a result, I’ve found a strong push to develop a very specific choreographic voice to call my own.  I’d love to bring that back to Seattle again.

Which is harder: standing in the wings waiting to dance or sitting in the audience waiting for a piece that you choreographed to be performed?

I’m one hundred percent more nervous waiting for a piece of mine to be performed than preparing to dance myself. There’s something terrifying about giving up all control—even just for 30 minutes between curtains. No matter how much trust you have in your dancers there will always be that brief moment where you can’t do anything and are forced into a passive role while you watch your very personal idea be placed on display for 3,000 people to see.

Price Suddarth’s Signature can be seen as part of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s last performance of the season, Themes & Variations showing now through June 9.

Rosemary Jones has written about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest for the Cornish MagazineCapitol Hill Times, Encore, Examiner.com and others. Additional work can be seen at rosemaryjones.com.

Creating the Million Dollar Musical at Village Theatre

The return of Million Dollar Quartet marks the homecoming of one of Village Theatre’s most successful musical developments.

The return of Million Dollar Quartet marks the homecoming of one of Village Theatre’s most successful musical developments.

Workshopped in 2006 as part of Village Originals Festival of New Musicals, Million Dollar Quartet appeared on Village Theatre’s mainstage in 2007 and topped a million dollars in ticket sales for the company. 

Based on a true story of an all-day jam session between Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, the show went on to a Broadway run in 2010, a Tony Award for Levi Kreis (the Jerry Lee Lewis in the original Village Theatre run) and a host of reappearances everywhere from London’s West End to Harrah’s Las Vegas, as well as on Norwegian Cruise Lines.

As Village Theatre’s Executive Producer Robb Hunt recalls, the show was a hit with the staff as well as the audience from the first. “We did some casting in L.A. and some here, put it in Festival in 2006, and it was very exciting. It was unusual but we did [the Festival production] with a full band when typically it was just a piano.”

Executive Producer Robb Hunt.
Executive Producer Robb Hunt. Courtesy of Village Theatre

For a show to rocket out of the Festival to a full-blown production was unusual as well. “We’ve been honing our craft for many years. We did our first new musical back in the 1980s and it’s a very slow process,” Hunt said. More typically, shows workshopped in the Festival go back to the writers to rework. “When musicals start as readings at the Festival or a writers residency, we may come out with a scene or a whole act with that process. You move things around—such as songs go from act one to act two. It’s not like designing a car where all these engineers know exactly how it is going to end up and how you are going to do it.”

But Million Dollar Quartet took shape almost immediately. Creators Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux “had this concept from the get-go,” said Hunt. The only real hitch in development was trying to secure the rights for all the songs referenced in the show. “We had certain rights for [Village Theatre] but they couldn’t get some for Chicago and New York runs. They had to work really hard to adjust for that. That’s some of the things that I remember about the original run.”

For Brandon Ivie, associate artistic director at Village Theatre, Million Dollar Quartet is not just “such a feather in our cap” it’s also a musical that provides some necessary cheer. “We’re living in real tough times. It’s really easy to get beaten down by the world. This provides relief. This provides a moment for people to sit and have a great time. This is about an amazing turning point in American music,” he said.

Village Theatre’s new production features a new all-star cast and creative team that includes links to the past productions. “For this show, casting is a huge challenge,” said Director Scott Weinstein. “Not only do we need amazing actors and singers, but they also need to be virtuosic musicians. When you add on the need for them to look and sound like the iconic stars that they are embodying, the challenge only increases. Luckily, we found an absolutely incredible cast!”

The current production features Skye Scott as Carl Perkins, Brian Grey as Johnny Cash, Jason Kappus as Elvis Presley, John Countryman as Jerry Lee Lewis, Matt Wade as Sam Phillips, Cayman Ilika as Dyanne, James “Rif” Reif (who appeared in the 2007 Million Dollar Quartet at Village Theatre) as WS “Fluke” Holland and Chris Jones as Brother Jay.

2019 production of 'Million Dollar Quartet' at Village Theatre.
2019 production of ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ at Village Theatre. Photo by Mark Kitaoka

Weinstein himself served as the associate and resident director of the Broadway production of Million Dollar Quartet. He also oversaw the Equity National Tour, Chicago and Las Vegas productions, and currently directs the resident productions on Norwegian Cruise Lines and at the Lawrence Welk Theatre. Joining Weinstein is music director and country music superstar, Chuck Mead who has been with the show from Village Theatre’s first outing to Broadway and back to Village Theatre again. Rounding out the team of this all-new production is scenic designer Andrea Bryn Bush, lighting designer Geoff Korf, costume designer Esther Garcia and sound designer Brent Warwick. 

Million Dollar Quartet will play through June 23 at Village Theatre in Issaquah before moving to the theatre’s Everett performance space for a month-long run June 28 to July 28.

In the meantime, Hunt, Ivie, Artistic Director Jerry Dixon and the rest of the Village Theatre team continue to hunt for the next big musical.

“The trick is to get a variety and diversity in the subject matter, the type of music and the story lines,” said Hunt. “We try to mix it up so we have a great variety for our audience. It’s sort of an art. Lots of good material that we evaluate that belongs at some point—but we’re only doing five shows a year.”

John Countryman and Skye Scott in 2019 production of 'Million Dollar Quartet.'
John Countryman and Skye Scott in 2019 production of ‘Million Dollar Quartet.’ Photo by Mark Kitaoka

“[Our workshops and festival] are developing musicals in so many different stages of the game,” said Ivie. “Definitely we are in a moment when voices that used to not be considered commercial are now being considered. I’m seeing a shift in who is telling the stories. Women writers, trans writers, people of color have started being considered seriously. That is changing the stories that are being told and that’s very exciting.”

For next season, Village Theatre will be presenting another new musical that they are developing, Hansel & Gretl & Heidi & Günter, and hoping it will go beyond their run in spring 2020.

“That’s the challenge that we have. We love the success that Million Dollar Quartet had. We’d like more of those. We’d like more that are picked up by others and published,” said Hunt. “So, we are inviting other commercial producers to see [a reading of Hansel & Gretl & Heidi & Günter] and see if we can generate interest so that they will help us move it forward.”

Million Dollar Quartet is playing at the Francis J. Gaudette Theatre now through June 23. It will then run at Everett Performing Arts Center June 28—July 28.

Check out Village Theatre’s full 2019/20 season on our Events Calendar.

Rosemary Jones has written about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest for the Cornish Magazine, Capitol Hill Times, Encore, Examiner.com and others. Additional work can be seen at rosemaryjones.com.

Seattle Opera’s New Leader is Ready to Listen to the Community

Christina Scheppelmann, will be Seattle Opera’s fourth general director and the first woman to hold the position.

Seattle Opera’s newest general director, Christina Scheppelmann, won’t be programming the upcoming season. That was done by departing General Director Aidan Lang due to the long-range planning needed to secure top singers, arrange for rental sets and more. Still, the announcement earlier this spring hinted that her programming choices may combine the best of the Glynn Ross and Speight Jenkins years with the changes instituted by Lang.

“Scheppelmann is the leader Seattle Opera needs to move the company into a new era,” said Adam Fountain, a Seattle Opera Board vice president and search committee co-chair. “She’s committed to new work, to helping the art form evolve, and to telling contemporary stories. She unites both where Seattle Opera has been, and where it’s going.”

Scheppelmann is known in the operatic world as having a strong administrative background as well as deep love for the art form. Fluent in five languages, she is currently the artistic leader of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, a 172-year-old company with an annual budget of roughly $50 million. The historic theatre produces over 130 performances in opera, classical music, dance and more per season.

Her involvement in opera began early as a performer in the children’s choir of the Hamburg State Opera. After completing a degree in banking, she left her home country of Germany in 1988 to work in an artist management agency in Milan. From there, she’s led artistic and administrative work at opera companies around the world.

In 1994, Scheppelmann was recruited by Lotfi Mansouri at San Francisco Opera, and became one of the youngest artistic administrators at the time. She contributed to two major world premieres: Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (2000) and André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1995). A short list of her other accomplishments includes being the first director general of the Royal Opera House Muscat (Oman) and director of artistic operations at Washington National Opera.

“Seattle Opera has already established itself as one of the great American opera companies, and it can grow even further.”

Christina Scheppelmann

In Seattle, Scheppelmann will be the only woman to hold the top artistic leadership position at a performing arts organization with an annual budget of more than $10 million. She is also one of only two women to lead an opera company of this size in the United States.

The other, Francesca Zambello, artistic director of Washington National Opera, welcomed Scheppelmann to the ranks with the following statement: “I think of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s famous comment when she was asked, ‘When will there be enough women on the Supreme Court?’ Her response was, ‘When there are nine.’ Women are such an important part of the stories we tell onstage, and they are key members of our staffs, our boards, our audiences. It is high time for more women to be represented in top leadership. Christina is greatly respected across the field, and is an ideal choice to lead Seattle Opera.”

For longtime fans of Seattle Opera, it is abundantly clear that Scheppelmann has the right background and can lead. What’s not known yet is what direction she will take the company.

Christina Scheppelmann
Christina Scheppelmann. Courtesy of Seattle Opera

Seattle Opera founding General Director Glynn Ross (1963–1983) introduced Northwest audiences to Richard Wagner’s Ring, an unheard of feat for a small regional company at the time. He also encouraged greater access to opera through productions of classics sung in English. Succeeding Glynn Ross, General Director Speight Jenkins (1983–2014) not only produced two new Ring cycles but improved the company’s national and international reputation with an increased commitment to the German composer, including opening Marion Oliver McCaw Hall in 2003 with a grand and locally built production of Parsifal and creating an International Wagner Competition.

During his five-season tenure at Seattle Opera, General Director Aidan Lang (2014-2019) moved away from Wagner and commissioned smaller chamber operas to expand the company’s reach outside of McCaw Hall. He additionally partnered with other companies to bring more modern opera and interpretations to the main stage. Most notable of these was the recent successful run of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, which was co-produced with Santa Fe Opera and San Francisco Opera.

Cast of The Revolution of Steve Jobs
Cast of Santa Fe Opera production of ‘The Revolution of Steve Jobs’. Photo by Ken Howard

“Seattle Opera has already established itself as one of the great American opera companies, and it can grow even further,” Scheppelmann said upon being named the company’s general director. “It has a fantastic history, from more recent work, to historic Wagner productions (some of which I have seen). Seattle Opera also has a world-class opera house with great acoustics, and now, a civic home [at the Seattle Center] which will add fantastic value to the community. Singers love coming to Seattle Opera, because they like the company and they like the city.”

But does this mean more Wagner after Lang notably moved the company away from the composer? In an interview published in the company’s Carmen program, Scheppelmann said she’d wait to see what the audience wanted but does have a certain production of Lohengrin in mind. She also wants to look at the company’s immediate past. “I have ideas of course,” Scheppelmann said in the interview with Seattle Opera’s Gabrielle Nomura Gainor, “but I still need to obtain a list of Seattle Opera’s repertoire in the past decade to ensure I wouldn’t be repeating anything too soon. I also very much want to get to know the community in Seattle better first.”

Seattle Opera’s current production of Bizet’s Carmen plays though May 19 at McCaw Hall. The upcoming 2019/20 season includes a mix of classics and new works including Verdi’s Rigoletto, Rossini’s Cinderella, The Three Singing Sisters concert, Redler’s chamber opera The Fall & The Rising, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Schnyder’s Yardbird and Puccini’s La Bohème.

Rosemary Jones has written about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest for Cornish Magazine, Capitol Hill Times, Encore, Examiner.com and others. Additional work can be seen at rosemaryjones.com.

Meet Mystic Inscho, One of the Kids Rocking Paramount’s Stage in ‘School of Rock’

While the musical School of Rock centers on a wannabe rock star posing as a substitute teacher, the showstoppers come from the crowd of child actors playing the students.  A performer since age 4, the now nine-year-old Mystic Inscho plays the role of Zack in the tour of School of Rock.

This triple threat performer loves being able to shred on stage, dance and sing in musical theatre’s first-ever kids rock band that plays live on stage.  But he also enjoys visiting zoos and aquariums across the United States and Canada, as well as being a star. Inscho will be stopping in Seattle in May as part of Broadway at The Paramount’s series.  So, we caught up with Inscho and talked about what he liked best about the show and how he keeps up with real school while on tour.

Mystic Inscho
Performer Mystic Inscho.

Rosemary Jones: Why did you want to be in School Of Rock?

Mystic Inscho: School Of Rock is so cool! Also, it is the only musical which requires kids to have serious music instrument skills.  The show has inspired me to practice my instruments. And I have been training in dancing, singing and acting since I was five.  I was so fortunate to get this chance.

Singing, playing an instrument, dancing or acting—what’s the hardest part of your job?

All of these things are performing and I love to perform.  But the hardest thing is to do the show over and over with little time for other things.  I love drums and piano but don’t have much time to play them. We perform eight shows a week over six days and then travel on the seventh day.  We try to be energetic and make every performance the best.

You’re playing a kid going to school but how do you keep up with your lessons in real life?

We are required to have 15 hours of school a week.  I have online courses for fifth grade and there are three tutors with us.  Also just visiting all of these cities is a great learning opportunity.

School of Rock Tour
‘School of Rock’ tour. Evan Zimmerman/Murphy Made Photography

What’s your favorite moment in in School Of Rock?

That would be when I play my guitar solo and rock out on the stage in “Teacher’s Pet” (one of the last songs). That’s when my dancing and guitar solo come together and the audience responds to me.         

If you were a rock star, what position would you want to play in the band?

Definitely the lead guitarist and singer.

Your Instagram account shows a lot of traveling for this show. What’s been your favorite stop so far?

I loved Ottawa and Washington DC.  But every city has had great experiences.  The American and Canadian capitals are especially fun for visitors.  And the people have been so kind to us.

'School of Rock' tour.
‘School of Rock’ tour. Evan Zimmerman/Murphy Made Photography

Anything special that you want to do while you’re in Seattle?

Our family has friends in Seattle and I will get to meet them. The Space Needle seems very cool to visit. Also, I like zoos and aquariums.  I have been visiting different zoos and aquariums along the way.

What musical would you like to do next?

Billy Elliot would be a great musical to do. I auditioned for it in a local theatre.  But I was too young to be considered. I would love doing the singing and dancing.

Tickets are available online for School of Rock, playing May 14 to 19 at The Paramount Theatre.

Rosemary Jones has written about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest for Cornish Magazine, Capitol Hill Times, Encore, Examiner.com and others. Additional work can be seen at rosemaryjones.com.

San Francisco Ballet Orchestra Cheers on the Dancers and the Musicians

San Francisco Ballet’s 2019 season closer, Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy, is one of the heavyweights of modern ballet. As gorgeous as the dancing is, there’s multiple thrills to be found aurally as the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra performs Symphony #9 based on opus 70 from 1945; the Chamber Symphony set to an orchestration of the composer’s String Quartet No. 8 from 1960; and Piano Concerto #1 based on the neo-baroque Concerto in C minor for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra from 1933. Music Director and Principal Conductor Martin West will be discussing the history behind Ratmansky’s selections during a May 12 “Meet the Artist” event but here’s a little preview of what the musicians bring to the performances.

Rosemary Jones:  Shostakovich’s compositions are not necessarily what we think of as “ballet music.” What do you do in the orchestra to bring to life the composer’s music and the choreographer’s vision?

Martin West: There are challenges to taking a symphonic work and layering on ballet but luckily Alexei is an incredibly musical choreographer. Sometimes people think that conducting for ballet would be constricting or an extra burden on the conductor, but in Alexei’s case you can be free. It’s wonderful to play the pieces as you want. It’s a very satisfying evening musically.

Music Director and Principal Conductor Martin West. Courtesy of San Francisco Ballet
Music Director and Principal Conductor Martin West. Courtesy of San Francisco Ballet

You’ll be addressing some of this in your talk on May 12 but how do these works mark different eras in Shostakovich’s life and how does Ratmansky’s choreography reflect that?

The ninth symphony is big and quite extroverted. It came right after the end of the war and [Shostakovich] chose to do something quite humorous. The 28-minute piece is almost a joke. It was an interesting piece for him to do and caused him to be censored for a second time. In the ballet, the set has these Soviet symbols high above the dancers. Alexei’s work is always full of clever references and he does his own humorous take on the music. I really enjoy watching that one.

Chamber Symphony is an earlier work expanded into a full string orchestra and it is a massive work. Alexei took this and created a ballet dealing with Shostakovich’s relationships with women. Quite a stroke of genius, creating a remarkable ballet for a remarkable piece of music.

On May 12, I’ll talk about all three pieces, concentrating on [each] tie to Shostakovich’s life and what to listen for, the material hidden within the music. We are lucky in San Francisco to have an audience that appreciates the orchestra and wants to understand and appreciate the music.

Do you think it makes a difference to the dancers to have the live music?

Yes!  We have 60 to 70 people in the pit willing the dancers to look good. They are playing to propel them to higher and higher levels. That’s something that you can’t achieve with recorded music.  You can’t get that visceral feeling from a pair of speakers. What we try to achieve for the dancers is to enhance that symbiotic relationship. If you dance to recorded music, you know what to expect. You know exactly how high you can leap and still come down on a specific note. But when you dance to live music, you can leap higher, you can take risks. If a dancer just wants to take a little more time on a turn, or do more on the acting side, [in the orchestra] we can react to it and add to it.

San Francisco Ballet in Ratmansky's Shostakovich Trilogy. Photo by Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy. Photo by Erik Tomasson

What’s a typical rehearsal schedule like for the orchestra and for you?

[At the beginning of May] I will be going into the studio with dancers to refresh my memory of the choreography. I will start discussing the pieces with the dancers so I know the parameters when I start rehearsing the orchestra. Ballet music sometimes is criticized for changing too much for the choreography but if you set it off on the right track, you can make it so it sounds like it was always going to go that way. Typically we’ll do six to nine hours, sometimes 12, of practice. We get one stage and tech run and then one dress rehearsal, and then we are playing for performances. We’re quite lucky that we get that much rehearsal here. Some dance orchestras don’t get that tech run.  Everyone in the orchestra is a professional and they come to rehearsals knowing what they need to do.

The end of this season marks a couple of big retirements for the orchestra?

Oh yes. My timpani player is retiring after only 30 years [James Gott, principal timpani, joined in 1989]. And the last founding member of the orchestra is retiring. When Steve [Steven D’Amico, principal double bass] leaves, he will have done 45 years of service for the company. He’s been a wonderful advocate for the players. I contribute a lot of the goodwill in how management and musicians get along to Steve’s calm and wise words over the years.

So, do you have any orchestra traditions to mark the end of a season?

I expect this year’s potluck will be bigger [due to the retirements]. Also, whenever we finish a run, as soon as the audience starts to clap, we do a cheer for the orchestra.

San Francisco Ballet’s production of Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy can be seen at War Memorial Opera House May 7 through 12.

For those who want a little more of San Francisco Ballet Orchestra’s long serving musicians, D’Amico can be heard on the Orchestra’s Grammy Award-winning album Ask Your Mama and will be doing a Meet the Artist talk on May 10. Both D’Amico and Gott have performed on many of the orchestra’s other 18 albums and four DVDs.

Rosemary Jones has written about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest for Cornish Magazine, Capitol Hill Times, Encore, Examiner.com and others. Additional work can be seen at rosemaryjones.com.