Tom Width, artistic director at Swift Creek Mill Playhouse, has become very familiar with this kind of question lately. Four of the seven shows planned for the Mill's 2002-03 season are biographical, featuring the stories and songs of some of America's most beloved singers. One of these shows will be a reprise of the Mill's biggest hit of last season, "Always Patsy Cline," with Debra Wagoner once again scheduled to play Patsy.
So Width is keenly aware of the risks of putting someone on stage who is supposed to represent someone famous. "I think if you try to duplicate a person's style or do an impersonation, you can't do anything but disappoint," says Width, who is slated to direct six of the seven upcoming Mill shows. "I think you do your best theatrical suggestion and the audience will respect that."
Audiences respected the heck out of Wagoner. "Always" opened in April, but was extended several times through the summer due to popular demand. Though Wagoner has only a passing resemblance to the real Patsy, she has the vocal firepower to deliver dazzling renditions of Cline's songs. With a singer as talented as Wagoner, overlooking physical disparities is easy. It also helps that most people are more familiar with Cline's voice than her face.
That won't be the case for the Mill's first show this season. "My Way," opening this weekend, is billed as a musical revue of Frank Sinatra's songs and his life. Sinatra is as well-known to contemporary audiences as an actor or a celebrity (or even an object of satire remember Joe Piscopo?) as he is as a singer. Many theatergoers may never have even heard his singing voice when it was in its prime.
Luckily for Width, the creators of "My Way" have finessed the issue - a Sinatra surrogate never appears in the show. According to Width, "the show's creators make a particular point about not having anyone play Sinatra." Instead, two actresses and two actors perform 56 songs in a series of medleys, interspersing anecdotes about Sinatra amidst the music. "Sinatra said the key to being a great singer is to sing great songs," says Width. "This show focuses on the songs."
Width will get a similar break with "Woody Guthrie's American Song," scheduled to open in January. This tribute to the man behind the patriotic anthem "This Land Is Your Land" does include scenes with Guthrie in them, but one actor doesn't play him. As stories are told about Guthrie's life, different actors from the ensemble step up to portray him for the specific scene. This kind of rotating depiction is a popular theatrical device that will give Width flexibility in casting the show, rather than forcing him to find one actor who can stand in for the play's subject.
"The Songs of Bessie Smith" is another story. The Mill has been developing this show about the legendary hard-living and tragically dying 1930s blues singer for more than a year. Popular local entertainer Desiree Roots is slated to portray Smith, a great idea given Roots' familiarity with Smith's songs and her knockout vocal abilities. But synchronizing Roots' schedule with the Mill's has proven a challenge. Though the show was originally set to open in September, Width said an October opening is more likely.
When planning this season, Width says he was a little concerned about the focus on biographical musical revues. "It looks like we're 'Swift Creek Mill Revue Theater,'" he quips. But a mix of audience demand and financial thriftiness drove the programming of the Mill's season. The popularity of "Always Patsy Cline" points to the drawing power of this type of show, and because they tend to have small casts and simpler sets, the theater also saves money on expenses.
"We have to go to places other than Broadway with its giant shows and giant budgets for our material," explains Width. These biographical shows feature familiar and popular music, and tell the stories of some pretty compelling people. Who says theater has to be make-believe if real people are interesting enough? S
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