Tuesday, June 12, 2018

2018 Interview with Director Doug Engalla

A native of San Francisco, Doug Engalla first joined The Group Rep in 1997 as an Actor; while directing projects outside of the Company. In 2007, Doug’s first full-length play as Director at the Group Rep was Arsenic and Old Lace, with Rumors being his seventh production as Director there. Other directorial projects included Harvey, A Nice Family Gathering, A Nice Family Christmas, Bless Me, Father (by late Playwright and Group Rep member, Craig Alpaugh); and four World Premieres in the Don’t Hug Me musical comedy series by Phil Olson and Paul Olson.

When did you first get interested in doing theatre or working on the stage?

I was a high school sophomore when I expressed an interest in working behind the scenes for the school’s drama department. I wasn’t even interested in being on the stage, at all. I was also a fan of George Carlin, and of his comedy album, “AM/FM.” I was such a fan, that when I was helping out on auditions for the fall show, I read a role in Carlin’s voice, and the director, Miss Jean Robinson, decided I shouldn’t be working backstage. After a couple of roles, I pretty much never worked backstage. I became a student director during my senior year in high school, of which I enjoyed the experience, but I preferred acting; knowing that there was more to learn as a fledgling director.

What was your first directing job (and where)?  What did you learn from that experience that you carry with you today and put to use?

My first directing job – my first paying job as a Director, in 1979 – was for Neil Simon’s Come Blow Your Horn, for a now-defunct theatre company up in Fremont, located in Northern California. The irony, was that many of the things I learned as a director for that show back then, became things I try not to do, today. I was much younger, and still had quite a bit to learn as a director; so, I made mistakes. The biggest lesson I learned, was not to have as tight a rein on directing actors. These days, I consider actors as assistant storytellers, and the trick is to not only have their voices heard, but to also arrange and blend their voices and ideas in accordance to how I interpret the work that I direct, something I developed when directing the plays of Phil Olson.

You’ve directed several plays written by Phil Olson, best known for the successful ‘fish out of water’ DON’T HUG ME musical comedies, written by Phil Olson with his brother Paul Olson, about some quirky characters set in a little north woods Minnesota bar.  There are other plays by Phil Olson which you’ve directed as well.  How did that partnership come about?  How does the partnership continue to work even as time has gone by?

For me, I feel as though our partnership began in earnest in 2000, when Phil asked me to help produce the World Premiere of his second full-length play, A Nice Family Gathering. Before then, I was an actor in Phil’s very first full-length play in 1997, Crappie Talk, where I figured my role was quirky yet so minor that Phil, whose comedy I truly enjoyed, wouldn’t really notice me. But, as I worked on other acting projects at The Group Rep, Phil would call on me to help on a reading, or to eventually workshop a new episode in the Don’t Hug Me series. I also developed a permanent knack for the rural Northern Minnesota accent. And, I was directing plays outside of the Group Rep, primarily in Burbank, so he may have attended a few of those.

I think what keeps our partnership ongoing, is a combination of my growing understanding of Phil’s style of comedy and storytelling structure, my willingness to work with Phil in such a way that he becomes an actual directing partner, and that we have complementing personalities; in some ways we’re like brothers, and we respect each other’s instincts. I feel as though he can trust me with his material as well, which I think is critical to our working relationship, and adds to my continuing growth as a Director. By the way, during our talkback for our recent production, Don’t Hug Me, We’re Family, Phil named Neil Simon as the one playwright that inspires him. So, there ya go!

You’ve also worked at the Walt Disney Company for many years.  What is your job there?  Is there anything you learned on or at your job that you’ve been able to use when directing?

I’ve worked at the Walt Disney Studios for just over 28 years, and specifically, with Walt Disney Animation Studios. I have the distinct honor of helping to archive and to preserve the production art that goes into the making of the Studio’s theatrical animated features and short films; for the purposes of reference at the Walt Disney Company as well as for publications, home video galleries, and museum exhibitions. It’s a truly unique position to have; yet, working around the filmmakers at the Animation Studio has taught me a great deal about collaboration, and in telling a story clearly and without clutter.

RUMORS may not be as well-known as some of Neil Simon’s other comedies. However, the play is an audience favorite and produced quite often.  Tell us a bit about the play, and what is it about RUMORS that appeals to an audience?

Rumors is a modern farce, about civilized people compelled to create a fabrication of events in order to maintain a façade over a truth; of which is not completely known at all to any of the characters. And, when the stakes are raised in maintaining that façade, the veneer of civilized behavior starts to drop.

It's not your typical Neil Simon comedy; it’s silly, and at times outrageous, but grounded in the author’s comedic writing style. We get to see polite people behaving relatively badly, and I think the audiences have gotten a kick out of not only that, but the frantic, almost slapstick opening and closing of doors as the characters try to make nonsense of what’s going on in the story. It’s not what most Neil Simon fans expect from him, which is part of the fun.

What would you like the audience to feel or take away with them having seen the play?

The testing of the bonds of friendship is that human condition that gets illuminated in this comedy, and more so than ever is that testing evident in the world of social media and societal division. Even so, I would love the audience to feel entertained by Rumors and its terrific cast, and to just let loose and to have a good laugh for the two hours that our guests spend in the Lonny Chapman Theatre. Neil Simon wanted to write a flat-out, door-slamming farce, as a catharsis for the sad things that was happening in his life at that time. I have often said, that one of my favorite sounds ever, is the often-healing sound of laughter.

What’s up next for you?

Some of my Group Rep colleagues and I are hoping to mount a production of The Dixie Swim Club in the not-too-distant future, which I would be directing, and I have a couple of directing projects for Phil Olson; both of them non-musical: one, is developing a revival of his play, Mom’s Gift, and the other, a new adaptation of one of his earlier works.

The Group Rep presents Neil Simon’s classic farce RUMORS, directed by Doug Engalla, produced by Alyson York. June 15 – July 29.  Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm. Sundays at 2:00 pm.  Talkbacks after Sunday matinees June 24 and July 8. General Admission: $25. Seniors/Students with ID: $20. Groups 10+: $15.  Buy Tickets: www.thegrouprep.com or (818) 763-5990.  Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Boulevard, North Hollywood.

Monday, June 11, 2018

2018 Interview with Actress Laura Bell Bundy

Actress Laura Bell Bundy is about to reopen Reprise. She will be playing the role of Charity in Sweet Charity, set to open at the Freud Playhouse, UCLA on June 20. In our chat, Bundy talks about the joy that Charity exudes, the reason she cannot wait to play her.

Laura, how exciting to be playing Charity and …being a part of the first show to open the new Reprise! What do you love most about the character of Charity?

I love her childlike quality.  Children are open, excitable, playful, optimistic, hopeful, delicate, resilient … they haven’t become jaded by life’s trials yet… and despite the trials Charity goes through, she still keeps going back for more with her head up, and her heart open.  

 I can follow that. Are you like her in any way?

 I am very much a child.  Just ask my husband.  …  But yes, in life, I choose to focus on the flowers that come out of the dirt… 

What are your greatest challenges as an actress to play her?

I am a perfectionist and I like my work to be nuanced.  So I think my biggest challenge will be learning the entire show and everything about her in under 2 weeks!  AH! That’s a very quick process, and when I do a role, I find I learn something new every day, every performance… Like, I’ll be sitting in the bathtub six months into a run and get a new idea of how to make a scene better, or a joke funnier…  My moments of inspiration are gonna need a prescription for adoral.

Tell us about your director and fellow cast.

Well, rehearsal hasn’t officially started yet so I cannot tell you much from experience…  But I am so looking forward to working with the brilliant Kathleen Marshall.  

Barrett (Foa) and I have been friends for years, but never gotten to work together… He’s such a thoughtful and inventive actor.  He’s going to be an incredible Oscar.  And I know that, because we cheated and already started rehearsing together on our own… : )

Why do you think audiences love Sweet Charity? What is its best facet as a musical show?

Charity falls in love like it’s the first time every time. I think most people can relate to the idea of wanting to be loved. It’s also a show about resilience… How many times do we get knocked down in our lives, and we have to pull ourselves back up again and stay looking forward?  I’d say a few times a day… we either have the choice to wallow, complain or move forward.  It’s a story about the human spirit.

Also, there are so many iconic songs in this show— “Hey Big Spender”,  “Rich Man’s Frug”, “If They Could See Me Now”….  They are imbedded in our cultural consciousness … then you come to see this show and you are reminded of what an impact it had!

What is your favorite role, one that you have played? Why this choice?

In musical theater?  “Elle” (Legally Blonde) has had my heart up to this point… but Charity take's Elle’s “under dog” to a whole new level… a grittier one.  She’s a human in a cycle that’s not working for her.  One she’s desperate to get out of and yet keeps walking into.  Isn’t that all of us?  Just naively repeating cycles until we become self aware enough to make a change?  On a very base human level, I feel quite connected to Charity… and emotionally ready to take her on.

What is your favorite musical of all time? Why this choice?

When I was 11, the all drag off-broadway show “Pageant” was my favorite, and then at 12, it was the Jack O’Brien "Damn Yankees" Revival.
But, I think “Gypsy" is the Mother of all musicals.   And, that musical is all about my mother...

What's up next for you?

 I am currently writing a show for Netflix.

Anything we left out that you wish to add? Mention something about the reopening of Reprise.

We are so lucky to have Reprise in LA— a series of classic musicals re-conceived by award winning directors and starring seasoned theater, tv and film stars.  I am so glad they have reprised Reprise and I’m honored to be asked to kick it off!

(left to right: Barrett Foa, Laura Bell Bundy and Jon Jon Briones rehearsing for Sweet Charity)(photo credit: Tom Drucker)

 _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
 UCLA’s Freud Playhouse 
Macgowan Hall245 Charles E Young Dr E , Los Angeles
Sweet Charity plays Wednesday, June 20 to Sunday, July 1.
Plays Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday evenings at 8 pm,
Saturdays at 2pm and 8 pm; Sundays at 2pm and 7 pm
To purchase tix, go to: www.Reprise2.org
or phone: 800-982-2787
Group Sales 310-281-1800

Friday, June 8, 2018

2018 Interview with Actor Jeff Skowron

3-D Theatricals is currently reviving their Ovation winning production Parade at Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts. The production will end there on Sunday June 10 and next week move on to Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center in Redondo Beach opening June 15 and playing through June 24. Ovation winner Jeff Skowron talks about reviving his lead role in Parade.

Jeff, what is it like doing this role again? I know as an actor you approach it fresh. What do you feel are the greatest challenges at this point in time?

I'm enjoying it very much. I've never revisited a role before in this way, with the same company and artistic staff. I was a little apprehensive as the start date approached, as I didn't want to just slip into recreating a portrayal that I'd left behind 5 years ago. That felt like a burden. But TJ (Dawson) is a wonderful director, and we eased into this in a way that made it all feel fresh and alive again. The script is very good, which also helps in stimulating new ideas and takes on moments. 

Talk a little about the theme and message of Parade.

Well, at the center of the story is the murder trial of Leo Frank. For me there are two predominant themes. First is this man's stagnant, if not unhappy relationship with his wife. Through fear and adversity he is forced to depend upon his wife, essentially for the first time and we get to see his appreciation and love for her blossom. Second is the focus on tribalism and its dangerous appetite for scapegoating of the ethnic or religious "other." Nothing has changed.

Tell us about additions to the cast and how this affects the overall presentation.

Well we have some really terrific additions to the cast, first and foremost is Chelle Denton as my wife Lucille. This young woman is a grounded, powerful, mature actress and she has a beautiful, soaring voice. Watching her is worth the ticket price alone. Being onstage with her is such a pleasure. TJ has also assembled a much larger ensemble this time, so there is a much bigger sound and sense of mob mentality. 

What else will you add about TJ’s direction?

TJ is a very prepared, knowledgable director. When he directs, he knows the piece inside and out, which I appreciate. At the same time he is open to discussion, new ideas and collaboration. There is no ego. I always gush about him so I may be repeating myself from another interview, but he is one of my favorite directors.

What else have you been up to and anything special coming up?

Well I just played the Emcee in Cabaret at La Mirada and I'm currently developing my second tv series with my writing partner, Matt Yeager. This one is called Max Riddle, about an awkward but well meaning man who loses his job to a robot in a dying rustbelt town. I hope to have great news about that, soon.


(photo credit: Caught in the Moment Photography)

Monday, May 7, 2018

2018 Interview with Richard Israel

Director Richard Israel is returning to Actors Co-op to helm the musical Violet. At the Co-op he has previously directed Our Town, The Baker's Wife and 110 In The Shade (LA Stage Alliance Ovation Award Winner for Outstanding Musical in an Intimate Venue), among others. Most recently, Richard was the Theatrical Coordinator for the multiple Emmy-award winning HBO series Big Little Lies, directing all of the Avenue Q sequences in the series. Regional theatre credits include West Side Story, Rent and Floyd Collins (LA Stage Alliance Ovation Awards for Direction and Outstanding Musical in a Large Venue) for McCoy-Rigby Ent.; Kiss Me Kate and Once Upon A Mattress for Cabrillo Music Theatre; the multiple Ovation award-nominated Having It All for the Laguna Playhouse; and Meet Me In St. Louis for MTW. Intimate theatre productions include Bronies The Musical, The Burnt Part Boys, The Full Monty, Avenue Q, Gypsy, Assassins, Big The Musical and the world premiere of Anita Bryant Died For Your Sins. As a resident director for the Musical Theatre Guild, he has directed Women On The Verge, Do I Hear A Waltz, Road Show, High Fidelity and many others. He is recipient of the LA Drama Critics Circle Award for Career Achievement in Directing.

Tell our readers about the musical Violet.

Set in 1964, Violet is the story of a young woman who is profoundly disfigured by a facial scar, the result of a childhood accident. She embarks on a quest to have the scar healed by a televangelist, traveling on a Greyhound bus from North Carolina to Tulsa. The show is really a journey to self-realization as Violet discovers that the search for healing starts with ourselves.

How different is Violet from most American musicals? What is special about the character and her relationships?

Violet is a very gentle musical - it's a small story that takes place over 48 hours, mostly on a Greyhound bus. It doesn't come at the audience with flash and splash - it assumes that an audience is going to sit forward, be present, and listen to the story. There is something about the tone of the musical that invites the audience to lean in.

Violet is a flawed and damaged woman, trying to find answers in the best way she knows how. As her relationships unfold, she is indelibly changed by the people she encounters - her relationships with the other characters change her view of herself, and the way she defines herself.

What challenges do you anticipate as director?

We've chosen to perform the show in 3/4 thrust, which is tricky for a show in which much of the action takes place on a bus. So ... figuring out how to keep the focus where the focus needs to be is a challenge. And because the material assumes a certain willingness on the part of the audience to engage and actively listen, clarity of storytelling becomes that much more important.

Do you have a favorite show you have directed? Why this choice?

I don't really have a favorite show that I've directed - I guess I love all of my children equally. Floyd Collins will always have a special place in my heart, because the material is so beautiful and I connect with it so strongly. It was also the musical that really launched my directing career, so I owe it a lot.

Do you prefer directing musicals to plays? If so, why?

I do prefer musicals to plays. In a musical, you are always driving forward to the next song - it's easier for me to plot the peaks and valleys of the storytelling because the songs act as a "safety valve" for the dramatic propulsion. If the song is doing what it's supposed to do, it tops out the dramatic action; then we "reset" and push forward into the next song. In a play, you need to be pushing forward all the way through to the end of the act, which feels more challenging to me.

What is your favorite musical of all time? Why?

Merrily We Roll Along is actually my go-to favorite musical of all time. It's one of the few musicals that will land on you differently at different ages, but with equal resonance. It's a complicated show that requires attention from the audience, but it's worth the effort and it's a show that, if done right, creates a change in the audience and how they conduct their lives.

Tell us about your cast of Violet.

We have a beautiful cast of 12, and each one of them brings an openness and honesty to the show that is really gratifying to watch. While the characters of Violet, Flick and Monty do a lot of the heavy lifting in the show, it's truly an ensemble piece, and watching these unbelievably talented performers bring their hearts to this story makes my job really joyful.

What's up next for you?

I am in pre-production for Victor/Victoria, which will be presented as part of Reprise 2.0's inaugural season. I am so honored to be working on this piece - it's another tricky show, but we're assembling an incredible cast and I consider myself lucky to be a part of it.

Violet opens Friday, May 11 at 8:00 pm. Runs May 11 – June 17, 2018. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sunday matinees at 2:30 pm. Additional Saturday matinees May 19 and May 26 at 2:30 pm. Tickets prices: Adults $34.00. Seniors (60+): $30.00. Students with ID: $25.00.Student Rush Tickets with ID one ticket per customer: $17 Cash Only, available at the Box Office window for select Friday performances 45 minutes prior to curtain. To buy tickets or make reservations please visit www.ActorsCo-op.org or call (323) 462-8460. For more about Student Rush Tickets or Group Rates call (323) 462-8460. Actors Co-op Crossley Theater, 1760 N. Gower St. 90028 (on the campus of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood) in Hollywood.

2018 Interview with Playwright Jane Anderson

Playwright Jane Anderson was revered for the Baby Dance and is currently represented at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura with the Baby Dance: Mixed. In our conversation she tells us about the urgency of the updated, practically new play.

Will you talk at length about the play and why the update at this time?

I wrote the original Baby Dance in 1989 and the main theme of the play was about the class divide in America – white America, that is.  The adopting couple from Los Angles were affluent, educated and liberal. The birth couple were desperately poor, uneducated and living in a trailer park in the south. Both couples were white and the conflict between them was cultural and economic.

Many years later, Jenny Sullivan, who directed the original production, came to me and asked if I’d be interested in doing a reading of the play with an African-American cast. It was to be a part of a series sponsored by Bonnie Franklin who wanted to do color-inclusive staged readings of plays that originally had all-white casts. I liked the idea but I clearly needed to make some adjustments to the text because the white, southern couple made some very choice racist remarks. I also wanted to make this more than just an exercise in plugging in actors of a different color.  So I proposed that the affluent adopting couple be mixed race – an African-American woman married to a white Jewish man. This now posed a whole other set conflicts. This now made the play about the racial divide in America.

Last year, Jenny came to me and said that the Rubicon was interested in doing a production of the play with this new concept.  So I sat down and did a complete rewrite. I think it’s a much more sophisticated play than the original. Adding race to the mix makes it more complex, more dramatically exciting. And besides that, I’m a much better writer than I was those 20-some years ago.

Expound upon how resonant the message is today.

Clearly the debate about race in America has taken a whole new turn – with everything from the Black Lives Matter movement to the film industry being called out for its lack of diversity. And of course, now that we have a president who is barely able to conceal his own racist self, the volume is turned way up.  

Tell our readers about the specific plot differences in the two plays.

In the original play, the relationship between Rachel (the adopting mother) and Wanda (the birth mother) is all about two women trying to work through their class and cultural differences so they can form a close enough bond to make this handover of Wanda’s baby as painless as possible. Rachel feels for Wanda but she’s never going to be able to relate to this lower class woman on a really deep level. But in this new version, Regina (formally Rachel)  has a much deeper connection to Wanda because she’s been living with a white husband, socializing with white people and she’s now with another black woman. Even though there’s a huge economic difference between them, there is this unsaid thing that they’re sisters, they’re on the same side of things. 
The stakes are also raised with Wanda’s husband Al.   His own despair that he’s unable to support his family is aggravated by the fact that he’s giving up his baby to a white man. And Regina’s liberal Jewish husband Richard is trying to fight his own secret discomfort with the fact that this child he’s adopting will never pass as his own.

How has it been working with cast and the company at the Rubicon?

Karyl Lynn Burns, the artistic director of the Rubicon, has been unbelievably supportive. She gave us an extra week of rehearsals so I could work on the script with Jenny and the actors. The rehearsal process was pretty profound.  I said to our cast, “Look, Jenny and I are a couple of old white broads.  Talk to us.  Correct us.  If there’s something in the script that feels offensive or false for God’s sake tell us.”  We had a lot of deep, honest talks and I did a lot of rewriting.  Bless them for their talent and for their patience with some of my very naïve white woman assumptions.  They helped me keep things true.

The Baby Dance: Mixed plays at the Rubicon Theatre at 1006 E. Main St.,Ventura through May 20. For tickets and information, call (805) 667-2900 or visit 

Monday, April 30, 2018

2018 Interview with Jackie Hoffman

Actress/stand-up Jackie Hoffman took the world by storm with her electric performance as Mamacita in Feud: Bette & Joan last year on Fox TV. She has since played in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on Broadway and is now bringing her new one-woman show Memoircita! to the LGBT Center May 11-13. Hoffman took time from her busy schedule to give us the dope on what to look for in her new show.

We all loved you as Mamacita in Feud: Bette and Joan. Was this a difficult characterization for you? If so, describe how?

It was difficult finding the tone at first; I wanted to make sure it looked like I was in the same show as everyone else.

Did you encounter any difficulties on your set similar to the ones described in the plot? Let's hear the trash!

Come to my show and all you’ll hear is trash.

Is this the best role you have played so far? If not, what is?

I’ve been lucky and played a lot of great roles on Broadway. This is the most high profile role … and it was delicious as well.

Did you play one character or more in Chocolate Factory on Broadway? How did you enjoy doing that show?

In Charlie I played one character Mrs.Teavee. I had a ball but it was work. I never left the stage for all of Act 2. And I wore one costume for the whole show! Thank goodness it was fabulous.

Do you have a favorite comedienne or comic actress you hold up as a mentor? How did you establish your brand of comedy? Does it come from your family background or from your imagination?

I was a real TV kid so if I had to pick one I’d say Carol Burnett. My comedy came from family, TV and as a school survival technique. I have no imagination.

Give us a little taste of what we will be seeing at LGBT on May 11th.

Me singing, talking about Broadway and other outrageous nuggets and Feud. Think of it as a one woman musical standup special.

What's up next for you?

It hasn’t been announced yet so I’m not at liberty to say but believe me, no one in LA will care

Do you prefer musicals to plays onstage? If so, why?

I just love being onstage no matter what. But there’s nothing like bursting into a number while being backed up by a live orchestra.

What else do you want to say about Memoircita!?

It’s inside dirt that only I can dish. It’s original songs, it’s fun, it’s funny, and ‏you can’t DVR it. Once it’s over, it’s gone. Poof!

General admission seating is $30. VIP tickets (including a post-show reception with Ms. Hoffman) are available ($60) for the Saturday, May 12 performance only. Tickets are available online at www.lalgbtcenter.org/theatre, or by calling (323) 860-7300. The Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Renberg Theatre is located at 1125 N. McCadden Place (one block east of Highland, just north of Santa Monica Boulevard), in Hollywood.    

Monday, April 16, 2018

2018 Interview with Will North

Artistic director of 5-Star Theatricals Will North is doing double duty as he is playing Quasimodo in the next production The Hunchback of Notre Dame The Musical, set to open in Thousand Oaks Friday April 20. North sat down and talked about how much the role and musical mean to him.

How does it feel playing this glorious role of Quasimodo?

He is a role that is very close to my heart. I was the first person to perform as Quasi on the Cinderella Castle stage (Disney World) back in 1996 when the animated movie was released…though it was just a few of the songs, since the entire musical was yet to be created. And another fun fact is my full name is Will North Cleckler (Cleckler from the German “Gloeckler” which means “bell ringer”). As far as crafting this role and playing him each night…physically, by far the biggest challenge I’ve ever undertaken. I’m in a full squat the entire show and my legs are bowed inward in that squat, then add to that running, jumping, climbing, swinging on ropes, and carrying other cast members multiple times per show, and I have no need to go to the gym. Emotionally, I use a lot of Strasberg technique in my work. I rely on a lot of sense memory and emotional recall to allow myself to become the character. So I pull on those times of loneliness, heartbreak, times of being an outcast for whatever the reason may be, and then with Frollo the book says that Quasi loved him as “never a dog, never a horse, never an elephant loved his master”, so I pull on my emotional recall with my own dad and those needs to please and gain adoration, etc.

What about the use of your voice?
The director, Misti B. Wills, and I worked well before rehearsals began at what we thought the voice should be. He isn’t born deaf, and in fact can “still hear a little” so we didn’t want to go the route of the speech tendencies of a deaf person. Yet we wanted him to not sound completely normal. And then there is the challenge of creating a means of so doing that doesn’t harm the singing voice. So I started from the place of his malformed face and with trying to speak out of the side of my mouth while it being drooped downward.This naturally created a sound that was distorted in a way that allowed me to still focus and support properly. I just tap into the given circumstance of having a deformed mouth and it works. Another challenge not previously mentioned is I do the entire show with one eye open.That makes for interesting peripheral vision challenges, but also gives us at least one or two good comedic moments in the show.  And that was another challenge—finding the comedy in such a tragic tale. It isn’t really written in very much. However, it was a journey of discovery that by playing Quasi’s intentions of loving Frollo, never having left the belltower, having voices of these gargoyles in his head, etc…just by honestly playing the intentions, the comedy naturally came—it was quite fascinating to discover. 

Tell us about your director, creative team and fellow cast members
Misti B. Wills and I go way back to NYC in 2005. She is a dear friend, and there is not a harder working director I have ever met. Her research is exhaustive—and it informs so much of the entire process for the entire team and cast. For example…she researched each individual gargoyle in Notre Dame (and the history thereof ) and then set about having a gargoyle claiming day at rehearsal where each of the gargoyles explored the various real life ones until they each settled on a specific character each with specific traits of that saint or creature. I can’t tell you how much this helped fill out the characters of the gargoyles. But she did this with everything. Architecture, history, heck even each individual bell in the cathedral—again exhaustive. And I call her both a director’s director (because of her vision and research) but also an actor’s director because she begins each scene work session with a table read and an open conversation among actors about the scene.The actors have great input in her process. She is an absolute rare jewel of a director. 

But the rest of the creative team are equally adept at their respective jobs. Dan Redfeld our Music Director and Conductor is a total junky—nay aficionado of all things scores. He found all of these specific aspects in the score relative to each character that really informed us as to Menken’s (Alan) original intent when creating the music for each character. He also went to great lengths to add an upright bass player to the pit…something that is not standard in the orchestrations and something that has not been part of the show since Tokyo, many versions ago—but we just had our sitzprobe last night, and the bass adds a great deal. When it comes to getting the fullness from an orchestration, and getting as close as possible to the composer’s intent, there is no one better than Dan. Michelle Elkin our choreographer is a total perfectionist. She too, does a lot of research and spends countless hours in pre-production in the studio coming up with spectacular dance routines. We also are incorporating a fire dancer and fire eater into this production to capitalize on that medieval carnival feel, and that was all Michelle’s doing. She is a creator—and I love working with those who want to create—rather than those who want to recreate someone else’s work.  And that is true of this entire team, and that is true of my entire vision as managing director.  I don’t want our productions to be something that has been seen before…to me, that, at least a little bit, diminishes the artistic aspect of what we are all doing here. We want to produce shows that are from our individual artistic minds and perspectives, that will add a
new voice and vision to the shows that are seen at 5-Star.  

I haven’t even gotten to the cast yet…ha.  Cassandra Marie Murphy as Esmeralda is as focused and driven a performer as you will ever find.  While others are taking breaks, she is working on choreography or drilling fight choreo, always looking to get that one degree closer to perfection—all the while not realizing she already IS perfection…Gregory North as Frollo (no, no relation believe it or not as North is neither of our given last names) is very thorough in his process as an actor, those table reads with him and subsequent discussions were always gratifying….and his voice—so powerful and effortless. Justin Michael Wilcox as Clopin, has more energy than any human being I have ever met. He never stops. While you are laughing at a joke he just told, he has already told two more—and this kind of energy and enthusiasm is exactly what Clopin needs. Adam Hollick as Phoebus is one of the up and coming stars of this theatre world. His voice is enormous, his presence enormous, and we will all be seeing MUCH more of him in the years to come—such a talent. But all of these leads, and all of the ensemble are a huge family—our crew as well led by Talia Krispel as PSM and Tawni Eccles as ASM—everyone is supportive of each other, everyone kind and helpful, dare I say we just all love each other. And in a show like this that is such an important aspect. 

Is this production the one based on the animated Disney film?
It is based on it yes, with the same lyricist (Stephen Schwartz) and composer (Alan Menken) but the story and score has been added to by at least double the animated film I would say. Twice as much music. With original  songs for the musical version. But also, the story does harken back more to the Victor Hugo novel. It definitely has a darker twist on it than the animated version, though as mentioned, we have tried to bring in as much comedy and moments of lightheartedness as possible. Nevertheless, the serious messages of this show have never been more relevant….for instance, I was floored, absolutely floored to hear Trump speak of Assad as a monster. Why was I floored? Because again it made it clear how relevant our show is when perhaps the most meaningful line in the production is “What makes a monster and what makes a man?” But also the messages of acceptance and love for each other have never been more needed. 

Anything to add that you haven't discussed?
It is the Ventura county premiere. And again, this artistic team has added many elements, and made choices that we believe will make this version of HUNCHBACK unlike any other. And we hope and believe the choices we have made will cause others to love this show as much as we do. Of all of the Disney staged musicals it is my favorite. Dan Redfeld now says the same. So many of our cast agree.To the audience member out there that may not know what to expect—just come.Trust us to give you a night of theatre moments that will touch your heart and give you lasting memories that will effect you for the better. I know it is cliche’, but you truly do not want to miss this show. 

 As artistic director, what changes are happening  for 5-Star Theatricals? Be very specific.
Specifically, we are branching out into other types of shows (not just large scale musicals). For instance, Patrick Cassidy will be presenting his one man show the weekend of June 21-22nd in the Scherr forum (the smaller venue at the Civic Arts Plaza). And we will be doing more plays, even possibly Shakespeare, and immersive theatre in the future. We will also be performing at some additional venues in the future as well. We also want to bring in more Broadway names to our productions…for instance we are over the moon excited that Susan Egan will be reprising her role as Belle in BEAUTY and the BEAST for us this summer! Look for more of these exciting announcements in the near future. 

The Hunchback of Notre Dame will open on Friday, April 20, 2018 and run through Sunday, April 29, 2018. Performances are Thursday at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm, and Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00pm. A signed performance for the deaf and hard-of-hearing will take place on Saturday, April 21 at 2:00pm, followed by a post-show discussion with cast, staff and audience.   

Tickets are on sale now and may be purchased at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza Box Office located at 2100 Thousand Oaks Boulevard in Thousand Oaks,  or through www.5startheatricals.com, or by phone at (800) 745-3000.  For groups of 10 or more, please call Group Sales, 5-STAR THEATRICALS at (805) 497-8613 x 6.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

2018 Interview with Jules Aaron

Jules Aaron has directed shows at GRT including The Paris Letter (a major critical success) and That Lovin’ Feelin' (the Righteous Brothers musical that was extended and broke all house records).  Aaron is the winner of over 40 awards for direction around the country (including LA Drama Critics Award, Garland Award, Bay Area Critics Award, Philadelphia Critics Award, Utah Theatre Critics Award, etc.  He is bi-coastal, working frequently in fifteen California theatres including South Coast Repertory,  ICT, McCoy/Rigby, Pasadena Playhouse, Odyssey Theatre (most recently directed the acclaimed Two Fisted Love), TheatreWorks, Colony Theatre, Falcon Theatre and Theatre 40; In New York at The Public Theatre (personally developed plays with Joe Papp), Soho Rep, the Unit Theatre; regionally at the Humana Festival (Actors Theatre of Louisville), Philadelphia Theatre Co., Utah Shakespearean Theatre among many others. Aaron is currently in rehearsal for Deathtrap expected to open at Group rep Friday April 6.

When did you have your foray into directing, and was it easy for you to take the leap from acting?
I was a Ph.D. student at NYU (in theatre, theatre history and dramaturgy) in the latter 60s/early 70s. Richard Schechner was my mentor. His company, The Performance Group, was doing groundbreaking environmental theatre.   Also, The Living Theater, The Wooster Group were also evolving.  (The great Jerzy Grotowski brought productions). And playwrights like Sam Shepard John Guare, Lansford Wilson, and Leonard Melfi were writing amazing one-act plays.  I was very stimulated to create my own work.  My wife and I had a large loft on Tompkins Square.  Influenced by all this brilliant material, I began my own voice in theatre.   My first New York production, Genet's “Deathwatch,” was reviewed favorably by the Village Voice. And my work grew from those homemade beginnings.
I moved to Los Angeles to head the MFA Directing Program at CalArt, and continued my work with small theaters.  My first Equity jobs were at South Coast Repertory, and Pasadena Playhouse, and from there I went on to work in New York and major regional theaters.

Talk about a recent directorial experience that turned out more gratifying than expected.
I took over the direction of Two Fisted Love at the Odyssey two months ago. Then I left the play to do a reading in N.Y., as well as because of having creative differences with the producers. 10 days before opening, they needed someone to pull the show together. It was a new play I loved with a great cast, and I gave it my best shot. I think very successfully!

Tell us about Deathtrap.
Deathtrap is one of the three or four great thrillers.  Ira Levin's writing is a beautifully constructed journey with laughs as well as scares.  It has great humor, thrills and keeps the audience on their toes.  It deals with a famous playwright who has not had a hit play and agrees to help a former student with his brilliant new play.  Deception and murder result.

What would you like the audience to take away with them, having seen the play?
I would like the audience to take away from their two hours at GRT a trip analogous to a thrilling roller coaster ride, having observed the results of obsessive love and the dangers of acting on your thoughts.

What are you currently working on, or preparing to direct?

My next projects are, another wonderful thriller, Wait Until Dark at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and the charming whimsical play Mr. Pim Passes By at Theatre 40.  We are also having yet another workshop of the Broadway bound musical, I Will, I Can, the story of Sammy Davis, Jr. in New York in June.

Deathtrap runs April 6 – May 20.  Fridays and Saturdays 8 pm; Sunday matinees 2 pm. Talk-back Sundays April 15 and April 28. General Admission:  $25.00. Seniors & Students with ID: $20.00. Groups 10+:  $15.00.  Buy tickets/Info:  www.thegrouprep.com or (818) 763-5990. Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd. North Hollywood.