Sunday, July 30, 2017

Tales from the Ville: Hello, Ratcatcher, Hello

Next month, I will have the great honor to have my melodrama, Song of the Canyon Kid-on stage at the Mantorville Theater in Mantorville, Minnesota. I have been courting them (or harassing them, whichever it states in the court documents) for four years now and I finally wore them down if, for nothing else, to shut me the hell up and leave them alone. Regardless of their reasons, the Mantorville Theatre Company is one of the most prestigious melodrama venues in the country, each summer offering up four shows from June to September. My melo finishes up their season and I couldn't be prouder. Ironically enough, the play that precedes The Canyon Kid is none other than Tim Kelly's The Ratcatcher's Daughter or Death Valley Daze, the best melodrama I appeared in back at the Ville. There is more than one reason why this became my personal favorite. Here 'tis.

I started with with a bang and damn near ended up with a whimper.

This is how I felt when my Orson Welles moment at the Ville crashed and burned like the Hindenburg of my soul. Oh, I was in bad shape. I had been given the keys to the kingdom and the first thing I do is break them in the lock. My first solo melodrama, Legend of the Rogue combined my directorial debut of the second half, Life is a Cabaret, was, in no uncertain terms, caa-caa. It had been the disastrous follow-up to the iconic game-changer known Seven Brides for Dracula/ Goodbye TV, Hello Burlesque and I damn near single-handily sent the whole place back to square one.

At least, that's how I felt. The hard truth was that I tried to do it all and couldn't. I was far too green and didn't want any help, but I needed all I could get. And when I got it, I pulled away. Reality is a bitter pill to swallow. It became a case of "I won't get mad. I'll just go away."  While I contributed some material for the next two shows, I had turned myself into a pariah, not bothering to even audition for the next year, retreating instead to the safety of the Ghost Town. There I could at least mope in peace, a lonesome cowboy out on the Morada frontier.

I'll be damned if my old sparring partner D.W. Landingham didn't come to my rescue. Dennis and I had been fairly competitive in our days out in the Ghost Town. When it became Tule Flats, he had been named Entertainment Director, namely in charge of all the gunfights. I entered the picture just before the re-opening and was relegated to bit parts and minor walk-ons whereas years before, that was MY town. I didn't resent Dennis, but I felt held back. it wasn't long before before I took a giant step and got right back where I started from. While I didn't feel we were equals at that point, we did maintain a friendly rivalry. Soon, Dennis stepped down and I was offered the ED position. I was off and running and soon, he took a powder, showing up at the town only when he basically like it and he was always welcomed with open arms because he was one talented mofo.  

Time passed and D.W. went back to the Showboat for The Chips are Down/Country on Parade. This was the show that elevated D.W.Landingham to the Pollardville Hall of Fame. Absolutely everything he touched turned to comedic gold in that show, especially his turn as the Oak Ridge Boys' "Elvira". As that show progressed, Dennis nabbed the directorial spot for the next melo and approached me of all people to be his AD. I felt like I had taken enough time off. A year had passed and I had already missed out on two shows. I graciously accepted the position after I put my big boy pants back on. What I had been wearing up to that point is beyond me. It might have been Underoos.

The first order of business  was to do some re-working of the script Dennis had chosen, The Ratcatcher's Daughter by Tim Kelly. This was our modus operandi at the Ville. We found that we had to adapt established material for our stage, molding them as we saw fit to the format we had established over time. (We had to edit it for length as well) Given that I am a playwright myself, this seems hypocritical, but I'm very flexible with the melodramas and even the murder mysteries I write. It's the nature of those types of theater. In fact, when The Great American Melodrama produced Song of the Canyon Kid, they eliminated an entire character and added some of their own music. As long as I approve of the changes, I'm not gonna get all sue-y  like Neil Simon or David Mamet.

Before we held auditions, we found out that Ray Rustigian would direct the second half of the show, a traditional olio presentation called Hello, Vaudeville, Hello with time-tested material complete with a George M. Cohan patriotic finale. Oh. This seemed to be a step backward for the theater to me at the time. That's because I hadn't learned my lesson.

Casting went absolutely swell and we ended with the best of the best: Cory Troxclair as the villainous Whiplash Snivel, Paula Stahley in the title role, Sweet Lotta Bliss and in his Palace Showboat debut, Scott Duns as the heroic Jack Sunshine. Connie Minter, who played Mimi in LaRue's Return, was Auntie Hush and K.T. Jarnigan as Lady Pilfer. The other roles was filled up by Karen Allen and Lori Ann Warren as the orphans, Ray played Feathertop, DW casts himself as Cuspidor and I took the part of Death Valley Dwayne, which Dennis and I switched genders from the original Death Valley Nell. I wore a badge that Goldie bought for me with red LED running lights that I would turn on when I announced that "I wuz the Sherf!" Stephen Merritt was our musical director and show pianist with the legendary Joel Warren on the drums and on bass guitar, the one and only Artis A.J. Joyce. Man, we were set.

Melo rehearsals moved along nicely and without incident, but I must admit that when Ray laid out the olios, I began to balk. It sure seemed like a lot of reruns. Then again, when had I ever performed them? I hadn't. I was thinking out of my ass again. Besides, Ray was willing to give me some choice material. Still, there was one sketch I didn't find so swell called "The Lasagna Brothers.", a circus act involving an acrobatic flea named Herman. I hated the ending (or the kicker as it is known) which I considered to be really tasteless and, dare I say, potentially offensive. Ray and I went around and around about it, but he let me have my way if I came up with a new ending and I did. Whether or not As a performer, I felt I had every right to object. I wasn't trying to be the arbiter of good taste for the theater. But I knew a bad thing when I saw it and I refused to be a part of it even if it had been done before on that very stage. Ray had no hard feelings about it or at least never expressed them to me.

The only other real glitch was a choreographer with a chip on her shoulder so large, it gave her scoliosis. It was difficult to fathom what this woman's problem was with us and the theater in general. After all, she worked at the Ville in the past more than once. Maybe something about us just pissed her off. On top of that 'tude of hers, she blew a whistle every time we missed a dance step, a fine device for a gym teacher, annoying as fuck for a choreographer. It became intimidating to some, annoying to others namely yours truly. Her whistle blowing became incessant, so each time she did, I feigned dribbling a basketball because I hold a doctorate in smart assiness. While she ended up doing an adequate job, we never saw her again after we opened. No brush-ups for her. She took the money and ran as we hoped the door hit the stick in her tight ass on the way out. Maybe she lost her whistle.

Despite the Dancing Queen, rehearsals went swimmingly and it became apparent that everyone in the cast
was going to get a chance to shine. Ray had given me a singing solo, the old Al Jolson number "Sonny Boy". As I sang, I was continually interrupted by Sonny Boy, a mean widdle kid played by Cory, sitting on my knee. I never would have been able to pull this off vocally with Steve Merritt's help and guidance. He gave me the necessary confidence I needed with this number and the rest of the numbers in this show, including the guys' number of "Hello Ma Baby/Baby Face" compilation, which included the band standing at one point and belting "Hello, my ragtime gal!" in perfect three part harmony.

With the melo set basically in stone, the olios were in place and then Hell Week hit us like a ton of bricks. Nothing, absolutely nothing worked. Technically it was a shambles and the cast, who had been rock solid up to this point, began to crumble like so much pumice. Final dress rehearsal was as miserable an experience as any of us had ever had on that or any other stage. We were shell-shocked. What the hell happened?

Opening night had been promoted heavily, more so than any show in recent memory, thanks to Steve Orr. He had arranged for Tim Kelly, the playwright of The Ratcatcher's Daughter, to make a special guest appearance with a press reception preceding the show. So no pressure here either.

Call it a miracle. Call it the theater gods smiling down upon us. Call it somehow pulling the whole thing out of our collective asses. But somehow, some way, it became a textbook case of "bad dress rehearsal, great opening night" as grand and glorious a performance as any I have ever experienced. It all worked beautifully, top to bottom. It set the tone from the entire run of the show.

After the curtain call and greeting the audience on the way out as we always did, I had still been so adrenalized that I was bouncing off the walls Roger Rabbit-style. I couldn't contain myself even when I went back to the dressing room. As I changed out of my costume, the man himself, Mr. Tim Kelly entered to meet the cast. And what was the first  thing I did? I enthusiastically showed him my copy of his script and pointed out all the changes we had made.

"Look, we cut these page here, this monologue there. We cut this character out altogether because we didn't even need her! Then I re-wrote some of my own lines over here and as you can see, it turned out just great!"

He was dead silent as I handed him the well-worn script to autograph. Across the title page, he signed it merely, "Kelly" and handed it back before moving along. Oops.

From there, we were off and running. There wasn't a single performance in that six month run that I didn't love doing that show.. The melodrama was flat out fun  The character of Death Valley Dwayne was an extension of some of what I learned in the Ghost Town and I ran with it. My first entrance involved a variation of the old Johnny Carson "How hot is it?" gag since it took place in the desert.
"It is so hot outside..."
Audience: "How hot is it?"
"I saw a scorpion crossing the desert.. He wuz goin' 'Ow! Ow! Ow! Hot ! Hot! Hot!'"

And that cast was solid, not a  weak link in the bunch and so enjoyable to play with and against. More than once, we couldn't help but crack ourselves up during the show. At one point, all ten of us lost it. Breaking character wasn't a cardinal sin back then. One night, Cory dropped a wad of paper. Because I am so damn cool, I wanted clear the stage of this litter, so when I crossed on my next line, I kicked it into the orchestra. At that same moment, Joel had returned to his drum set and the paper wad popped him right in the face. He cocked his head and looked so hurt and offended by this, I totally lost it. Since I was the only one who had seen Joel's reaction, nobody knew why I was laughing, which busted me up even further. It took me awhile, but I finally got myself under control. Needless to say, I didn't dare look at Joel the rest of the night otherwise I might have kick-started my funny bone all over again.

The real revelation for me was Hello, Vaudeville, Hello. I had initially been opposed to going old school Pollardville, but that's because I never attended class before. As an young upstatrt, of course I knew everything. I didn't know nuttin'. I had jumped into the deep end of the pool a  little prematurely. Was I merely treading water up to that point? No. I knew how to swim. I just didn't know how to dive, hence a belly flop from which I couldn't recover. The arrogance of youth tends to hold the past in disdain and I was guilty as charged. Not only did I learn the old style, I also discovered that they could also be done well, which this show definitely proved. This was the Pollardville lesson I needed to learn: I had to go back in order to move forward. Now I could do since I finally found the way.

For the next seven years, I was involved in every single production in one capacity or another. I wrote and directed the next three olios following Ratcatcher/Hello Vaudeville. Song of the Canyon Kid (then known as Song of the Lone Prairie) made its world premiere down the road and I had the great fortune to work alongside my mentor, Lou Nardi, when he graced our stage.

Thanks to both D.W. Landingham and Ray Rustigian, The Racatcher's Daughter/Hello, Vaudeville, Hello show gave me a chance for redemption. It served as a starting point for a prolific, productive and enormously creative period for me. It's when the Palace Showboat evolved into something more than a giant sandbox for which I could play.

It became a way of life.

The Mantorville Theatre Company production of The Ratcatcher's Daughter or Death Valley Daze by Tim Kelly is now playing on their stage in Mantorville, Minnesota until Aug. 13 followed by the debut of  Song of the Canyon Kid or Poem on the Range from Aug 18 until September 9.

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