Staten Island Advance AWE
November 5, 2009
ELAINE STRITCH: AT WAGNER COLLEGE
With two new shows looming, one of the nation’s
top theater programs gets schooled by a true Broadway legend
By JODI LEE REIFER, Advance Theater Writer
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — If you tune into NBC’s “30 Rock,” you know Elaine Stritch pops up periodically as the bossy mother of Jack Dongahy (Alec Baldwin). If you caught Paper Mill Playhouse’s “The Full Monty” in New Jersey last summer, you spotted her in a scene-stealing minor role.
But to the Wagner College students who crammed into a one-room studio to hear her lecture Tuesday on the Grymes Hill campus, there is nothing small or sporadic about Stritch. They recognize her as the Broadway legend best known for her commanding rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch” in the original production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.”
“She’s an amazing part of the history of theater,” said Jacob Shoesmith-Fox, 22, a Wagner grad student. “To have her here sharing her stories is really something special.”
The 84-year-old Tony winner’s “A Life in Theater” workshop was a coup even for Wagner, whose theater program was ranked the third-best in “The Best 371 Colleges,” released by the Princeton Review in July. The school opens two productions next month: Stephen Karam’s dark comedy, “Speech & Debate,” in the studio theater, and the Lerner and Loewe classic, “Brigadoon,” on the Main Stage.
“You’re in for some kind of a ride,” Stritch told the 120 students who snapped up tickets to attend her master class.
“And the good news is, when it gets good nothing gets better,” said the actress donning her signature over-sized tinted eyeglasses. “There are highs in theater that top any other profession.” Maybe a doctor delivering a baby comes close, she added.
The Detroit native’s career in Broadway began as a stand-by for Ethel Merman in “Call Me Madam.” She went on to star in “A Delicate Balance,” “Angel in the Wings,” “Pal Joey,” “On Your Toes,” “Bus Stop,” “Goldilocks” and “Sail Away.”
For nearly two hours, Stritch, sitting on a stool in tall black boots and leggings to match, told stories about her early days, explained the nuances of putting together her upcoming cabaret act at the Carlyle Hotel, and took questions. The eternal “Broadway Baby” recalled how her former classmate Marlon Brando, wore a gingham dress and Mary Janes to lip-sync a Judy Garland song when assigned to come up with a “nightclub” act. The students laughed loud and often.
“I consider myself a comedic actress,” said sophomore Samantha DeSimone, a theater major. “She’s paved the way just by being who she is.”
Jessica Pucek, a senior, said she would try to always remember Stritch’s words of encouragement. “Knowing the highs are going to come, could save your life in the theater.”
Stritch’s lecture at Wagner almost seemed pre-destined.
In 2001, associate professor Todd Price had been involved in the renovation of a shuttered Jupiter, Fla. theater founded two decades earlier by Burt Reynolds. To raise money for the restoration project, Price and a renovation crew, sold T-shirts. At some point, someone passed Stritch a T-shirt. The actress happened to be wearing it during the filming of a 2003 documentary about her acclaimed one-woman show “Elaine Stritch at Liberty.
About a year later, Price saw the HBO documentary and noticed the T-shirt. At that point, he contacted Stritch’s producer and asked if she would perform “At Liberty” in the newly refurbished Maltz Jupiter Theater. The stage veteran obliged. Ever since, she and Price have been in touch.
“She’s a brilliant performer,” said Price, who teaches arts administration. “We’re lucky that she’s an actor, but she could have done anything in her life and been successful. I can’t think of anyone who can be a better teacher for our students than her.”
‘SPEECH & DEBATE’
As is tradition on Wagner’s smaller Stage One, the school begins the month with a less commercial offering, “Speech & Debate.” The shows runs at 8 p.m. Nov. 11-14, 18-21. Tickets are $5.
The dark comedy, a surprise hit at Roundabout Theatre Company’s 65-seat Roundabout Underground from 2007 into 2008, follows three misfit high school students who form a debate club. On the surface, the play is about an attention-hungry girl, shy guy and an openly gay guy who band together to disclose the truth about a predatory teacher. But there’s a lot more, says director John Saunders. “It’s really about kids finding friends and finding their place in this world,” says Saunders, an adjunct professor in the theater department.
Typically, Stage One shows are adult-oriented and sometimes controversial, said Gary Sullivan, managing director of theater department. “Stage One needs to be a good educational counterpart to the Main Stage, so we offer a broader mix of theater opportunities,” he said. Sophomore Ashley Burger, freshman Michael Garomoni, junior Justin Scalzo and senior Lissa Bak star.
In contrast, Wagner brings the musical, “Brigadoon” to its Main Stage at 8 p.m. Nov. 18-20 and Dec. 2-4; as well as 2 p.m. Nov. 21 and Dec. 5-6. Tickets are $14 to $27.
The first big hit for Lerner and Loewe, the 1947 show revolves around two American tourists, Tommy and Jeff, who stumble upon an enchanted, misty Scottish town. Tommy soon falls in love with a townswoman named Fiona. Then he discovers Brigadoon goes to sleep and only reawakens for one day once in every hundred years. Their relationship becomes seeminly impossible.
Notable tunes include “Almost Like Being in Love,” “There but for You Go I,” and “Waitin’ for My Dearie.”
“It’s immensely well-loved,” said Sullivan, managing director of theater department. “A lot of patrons who come back year after year are very excited about it. ‘Brigadoon’ has a reputation for carrying an audience into another dimension if you will.”
Guest director Andrew Glant-Linden says the show taps into the idea of faith and miracles. “It’s all about love and love causing miracles,” he said. “You can kind of long for a Brigadoon. I think college kids really relate to that and being separated from it and finding it.”
The set is a series of three-dimensional wood and Styrofoam rocks intended to mimic the hills of Scotland. The 25-member cast is headed by junior Patrick Heffernan, senior Alison Davi, senior Tavis Doucette, senior Jillian Porter, senior Alyssa Herrara and junior Mike Dineen.