Cavorting with the Burns Park Players
by Randy Milgrom
This year's Burns Park Players musical production--Anything Goes, a 1930s farce set at sea and powered by the catchiest of Cole Porter tunes--is the neighborhood theater group's thirtieth outing. The show begins its traditional two-weekend run at Tappan Middle School on February 1.
I enjoyed participating in a string of shows in the 1990s and now, after an eleven-year absence, I'm again cavorting with fellow cast members. In years past I had won a choice part or two, but at auditions this year I felt mumbly-mouthed and stiff. I began my short reading for the part of Lord Evelyn Oakleigh with a semi-passable British accent, but by the time I stumbled red-faced off the stage, it had disintegrated into a wildly exaggerated Count Chocula imitation. I landed a spot in the ensemble, with just a choice line or two--"Yes, sir! Aye aye, sir!"--as "Sailor Number 2."
I took a couple of first-ever tap classes before auditions in anticipation of getting a leg up, so to speak. But having suffered a torn meniscus just a week prior to rehearsals, I have not rehearsed and will not be able to perform in the raucous, full-ensemble dance numbers. So it's a good thing I'm finally old enough to take most of life's little indignities in stride.
It was apparent during the initial read-through that the principals were remarkably well-cast. Clinch Steward was over-the-top fey and British as Lord Evelyn, and even in read-only mode Joel Swanson couldn't completely contain the rubbery-faced hilarity he effortlessly brings to ineffectual gangster Moonface Martin. Bob Galardi, who's been showcased in all but four or five of the Players' productions, was as funny and natural as I had ever seen him as the nearly blind, buffoonish Elisha Whitney. And second-generation Burns Park Player Caroline Huntoon--whose fondest memories of her musically challenged father include his valiant attempts to sing and dance because her brother demanded it--was sassy, brassy, and already off-book.
At the first rehearsal, I was confounded to
see my fellow cast members taking notes. They had brought little notebooks and pencils with them--on the very first day!--and they were counting steps and asking questions. "Is that pause on the downbeat?" "Do we go up with the left hand or the right at the break--and should our fingers be clenched or free?" Each step every ensemble member took on that stage was already being "blocked," or choreographed. In the early years, no one paid attention to such details until at least three weeks in. But back then our volunteer directors mostly said things like, "You guys clump over here, and you other guys clump over there." No notes needed.
Sets and costumes also have become more elaborate, and the orchestra has evolved from the show's weakest link (a horn player once had to be removed during intermission) to one of its strongest. And once the troupe started to hire U-M musical theater students as directors, choreographers, and musical directors, the bar was raised again. For this production, director Quinn Strassel is most nervous about the part of the set that for logistical reasons cannot be put in place until dangerously late, probably not more than a week before opening night. This will be particularly challenging given its size--it's an entire ship, with various decks and levels and numerous doors--and the expected upheaval already has cast members murmuring.
One evening, I glumly sat next to Alan Dengiz and watched as a tap rehearsal began--without me. Dengiz, who with his wife, Lisa, organized the very first show in 1982, has been a cast member on and off since the beginning, but he's been on again for the last four years. He says he's back "because of the people." For others, the cohesive (some might say insular) group can be daunting. "I would say it's tricky to be a newcomer," first-timer John Pottow told me in an email message. "It's pretty darned tightly knit. I don't know if
it's a cult, but it's getting close! But everyone's very nice and clearly enjoys the process. (Maybe that reflects that the cult's subtle indoctrination is working!)"
Galardi tells me he "loves the whole experience. I love the people and I love the performance." He rattles off a litany of build-ups and turning points--the ratcheting process I remember so well, and always loved best, about putting on a show: "The rhythm of tryouts, early rehearsals, going off book and getting more intense. The set goes in, the tech rehearsal, the orchestra shows up. Then it's that last week when we look like shit on Monday and by Friday we transform the beast into the beauty."
The most daunting task still ahead (not that I'll be participating) is the tap dancing. Quite a few female cast members are experienced dancers, but none of the men had a clue coming in. Yet all have abandoned every inhibition and forgotten every impediment, and with more than a month left to rehearse, the hoofing is already growing more thunderous and unified.
Thirty fruitful years is long enough that the Burns Park Players have given birth to a second generation of performers even more talented and willing to carry forward its traditions. One behind-the-scenes tradition is the epic, adrenaline-fueled after-show cast party--though many insist they're far tamer than they once were. (One party in the 1990s was raided by police, and a group of frat boys once skulked into another.) I'm well positioned to judge the truth of this complaint, and I'm looking forward to a full-participation investigation--bum knee be damned.
[Originally published in February, 2013.]
On February 1, 2013, Adrienne Moira Licata wrote:
Mention must be made of Mark Tucker's fantastic set work throughout the years, and of the years of guidance and vision from former producer Susan Hurwitz. So many talented and hardworking folks go into the cultural institution that is the Players. Bravo!