Posts tagged with Theatre Lawrence

Strong performances by children, supporting actors highlight “The Sound of Music”

There is an old adage in theater that goes, “Never try to upstage a kid or a dog.” Director Terrance McKerrs understands this well in his new production of “The Sound of Music” at Theatre Lawrence.

The seven Von Trapp children are all delightful. Every moment they are onstage, the show transcends its humble surroundings and transports the audience to the idealized Austria of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s imagination. Indeed, the children are so talented that Erin Fox has her best moments as Maria when she is onstage with them.

Several of the performances are noteworthy. Abby Ilardi is charming as the too-eager Liesl. Her big scene with Rolf (Jacob Leet) is both funny and sweet. As the two sing and dance to “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” Ilardi pursues Leet around the stage trying to get him to kiss her. When at last he does, she goes over the moon. It’s all wonderfully uplifting.

Jordan Pine delivers a nice performance as the precocious Brigitta. She sees everything going on around her, which one wonders how she can accomplish, since she constantly has her nose in a book. Pine’s rendering of the character is honest and familiar to anyone with a bookworm child.

But five-year-old Delilah Pellow as Gretl provides many of the production’s best moments. She steals the show, runs away and hides with it. She is so adorably cute it is hard to remember to watch any of the other actors when she is onstage — a fact McKerrs recognizes and exploits perfectly. Despite her tender age, she has no trouble standing up in front of a sold-out house and delivering her lines loudly, clearly and sweetly.

When the children aren’t onstage, several of the adults in supporting roles also give strong performances. Robin Bonsall is smooth and graceful as Baroness Elsa Schrader, the woman whom Captain von Trapp (Knute Pittenger) is initially involved with when Maria comes into his life. Bonsall sings beautifully and seems completely at home onstage in her few scenes, creating more chemistry with Pittenger than Fox does as Maria. Charles Whitman is quite funny as Von Trapp’s butler, Franz, and Erica Fox provides some laughs as the fussy maid, Frau Schmidt.

The chorus of nuns and postulants, headed by Sarah Young’s Mother Abbess, is extraordinary. They sing gorgeously, provide the right amount of comic relief, and many of them double as stagehands. Young renders her signature song, “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” beautifully. It is easily one of the production's highlights.

Technically, the show is uneven. Costumer Megan Whitaker seems to think 1930’s-era Austrian postulants were allowed to wear fashion boots, and several of Pittenger’s costumes were ill-fitting, something a strict naval captain would never have tolerated. On the other hand, the children’s costumes were often clever, and, in a nice touch, Gretl’s rag doll was dressed exactly as she was in every scene they were in — including the doll wearing a bridesmaid’s gown during the wedding.

Scene changes were also a problem. McKerrs alternated between having them occur while action was happening downstage, which was distracting, and having them be done in total darkness, making one fear for the safety of the stagehands.

McKerrs also insisted spotlights be confined tightly to the face when they were used, and this caused the spot operator to miss the target when the light came on and struggle to follow actors when they moved.

The set, however, was magnificent. Jack Riegle has made a habit out of creating clever sets on Theatre Lawrence’s tiny stage, and he made sure his final major musical in the current space was a stunner. In particular, the abbey was gorgeous with wrought-iron gates and stained-glass windows that were beautifully backlit. The back wall painting of the Alps by Mary Ann Saunders was majestic and lovely.

In the end, the problems with the show could not dispel its magic. Strong performances by the children and several of the supporting actors on an impressive set served to stir the heart, lift the spirits and bring a tear to the eye. “The Sound of Music” is great holiday fare for the whole family.

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A life in theater: Hailey Gillespie helps children find themselves through drama

A funny thing happened on the way to becoming a speech pathologist. Hailey Gillespie discovered she could have a career in theater after all.

“I’d always loved theater,” she says, “I always wanted it to be part of my life. But I didn’t want to act. I never saw myself going to New York to become an actor, so I thought there wasn’t a career in it for me.”

But then she took a class in drama therapy for special populations while she was at Kansas State. Suddenly a new world opened up to her.

“I learned how drama has a huge impact on kids, especially special needs kids,” she says. “I love seeing kids with anxiety and other issues have that stress just melt away when they get involved in theater. They find themselves, and they have these memorable positive experiences. Theater becomes this thing they love that they want to go back to again and again.”

Originally, from the west Kansas town of Quinter, Gillespie earned a BA in Modern Languages and a BS in Speech Pathology at Kansas State. Once she discovered the benefits of drama therapy, she wanted more. She went on to get an MA in Drama Therapy.

Gillespie was looking to carve out a niche for herself, and that led her to Lawrence.

“There’s a really strong drama therapy community in Manhattan,” she says. “I wanted to go somewhere new and create my own program, and I’d always loved Lawrence.”

It didn’t take long to establish her roots here. She started by working with special needs kids at Deerfield Elementary School and founded programs with the Lawrence Housing Authority.

Then, as it often does in life, the right opportunity arose at the perfect time. Theatre Lawrence’s Youth Education Director position came open. Gillespie jumped at the chance to work with children of different ages in a multifaceted program. The School’s Out, Theatre’s In program provides drama camps for elementary school kids on days they’re off school. The youth acting companies enable her to put on short plays with young actors. She runs workshops for junior-high girls and assists the school district with its Third Grade Arts Day.

“I’m very process-oriented,” she says. “Developing skills is more important to me than the final product. Rather than establishing a bunch of goals ahead of time, I use the first few sessions to determine what the goals should be. Everyone has something unique to contribute, and I take the time to learn what that is, so they can feel a part of what we’re doing.”

That’s important to her. If she has goals going in, it is to find a place for each person.

“It’s a different experience for each person, and I want to find out what the experience is for them.”

Hailey Gillespie and students play with a parachute during a recent "School's Out, Theatre's In" workshop

Hailey Gillespie and students play with a parachute during a recent "School's Out, Theatre's In" workshop by John Phythyon

And her programs (she’s added some classes at the Lawrence Arts Center to her busy schedule) seem to have an impact. Her students are delighted to see her each time they return. They vie for her attention.

“I’m good at getting kids to pay attention,” she says without a hint of immodesty. “I’m good at finding out what lights a kid up.”

And that’s the key to Hailey Gillespie. Is she educating children about drama, or using drama to educate them? It’s a little of both.

But what she’s really doing is connecting with her students and helping them find themselves.

A funny thing happened on Hailey Gillespie’s path to becoming a speech pathologist – she discovered she was actually a drama therapist. That enabled her to guide Lawrence children to their own self-discoveries.

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‘Sound of Music’ auditions begin Sunday

The hills are soon to be alive with the sound of music. Theatre Lawrence is holding auditions for the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic next week.

Children’s auditions will be held Sunday, September 30, and Monday, October 1, at 6:30 p.m. Adult auditions will be Tuesday, October 2, at 7 p.m. Callbacks for both children and adults will be Wednesday, October 3. Auditions will be held at the theater (1501 N.H.).

Those participating are asked to prepare a short song. It can be anything the person is comfortable singing but those auditioning may be asked to sing something from the show as well. Participants will also perform readings from the script and a short dance audition.

Child roles are available for five girls (ages 5, 7, 9, 13 and 16) and two boys (ages 11 and 14). Ages for children’s parts are approximate.

Adult roles are available for three men and three women in principle roles and a large cast of supporting characters.

Performances are November 30, December 1, 2, 6, 7, 8, 9, 13, 14, 15, and 16. Saturday matinees will be added in addition to the Saturday night performances. For more information, call the Theatre Lawrence box office at 785-843-7469.


Strong performances highlight uneven ‘9 to 5’

A single mother constantly passed over for promotion. A sexy, big-chested secretary tired of being harassed. A divorcée on her own for the first time. A lecherous and unscrupulous executive who runs his office with an iron fist. And a cast of downtrodden, put-upon workers singing and dancing to Dolly Parton songs when they’re not trying to dodge the boss or his sycophantic office manager.

Theatre Lawrence opened its 36th season (and the last in its current building) with the working-class musical, “9 to 5” Friday night. Set in 1979, the show tells the story of Violet (Erin Fox), Doralee (Jennifer Foreman), and Judy (Melia Stockham) as they struggle under the yoke of Franklin Hart, Jr. (Charles Goolsby). Meant to capture the spirit of the women’s movement of the 1970’s and of “The Little Guy” in general, the show tries very hard to be endearing and uplifting. As talented and as hard-working as Theatre Lawrence’s cast is, a weak script keeps them from realizing their potential.

Kay Traver/Theatre Lawrence

Kay Traver/Theatre Lawrence by Alex Parker

Based on the 1980 film, the story concerns the three main characters kidnapping their boss after Violet accidentally poisons him. Forced to take matters into their own hands, they keep him locked up at his house while his wife is away on a month-long cruise, and they then turn the office upside down by making improvements in his name.

But Patricia Resnick’s script meanders aimlessly for most of the first act, which lasts for over an hour and a half and has 11 songs. When the women finally kidnap Hart and it looks like things are going to get moving, it’s time for intermission.

In the second act, a twist emerges, deus ex machina-like: Hart is cooking the books, but the women don’t have enough evidence at first to put him away. Rather than developing that story line, though, Resnick and Parton spend most of the second act having each of the women sing a song of her own personal empowerment.

None of the show’s problems is the fault of the actors. All three of the leads work very hard to try to pull it off. In particular, Stockham is both sweet and funny as the naïve and inexperienced Judy. Her personal lament in “I Just Might” is moving. Foreman shows plenty of spunk and a powerful voice as Doralee. Fox is hilarious in a Snow White costume, singing “Potion Notion” in which she fantasizes about killing Hart.

There were strong performances throughout the ensemble. Goolsby was clearly having a ball playing the despicable Hart. Every time he came on, he owned the stage, and his number, “Here for You,” in which he reveals his lust for Doralee, is one of the highlights of the show. But his character almost completely disappears in the second act, and we miss him.

Likewise, one wishes Kim Scarbrough had more stage time as the rules-loving office manager, Roz. She perfectly captures the role of petty tyrant – the person everyone who’s ever worked in an office hates. She sings “Heart to Hart” with gusto, and her lament in the second act, “5 to 9” is both sweet and funny.

Cristoph Cording gave a fine performance in another role that was too small. As Joe, the junior accountant, he created real chemistry with Fox. It’s obvious from their first interaction how much Joe wants them to be together, and Cording plays the anguish to the hilt without overdoing it. His duet with Violet, “Let Love Grow,” is easily the best moment in the show.

Kay Traver/Theatre Lawrence

Kay Traver/Theatre Lawrence by Alex Parker

In the end, you find yourself rooting for these people, but it’s because you want talented actors to succeed, not because the script is uplifting. Before the performance, director Doug Weaver told the crowd at the pre-show reception that “9 to 5” went through several rewrites while it toured. It’s a shame there wasn’t at least one more.

“9 to 5” runs September 22, 23, 27, 28, 29, 30, and October 4, 5, 6, and 7. Sunday performances are at 2:30pm. All other performances are 7:30pm.

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Theatre Lawrence’s working-class ‘9 to 5’ celebrates women and community

"Women's Lib" was all but defeated.The year was 1980, and the 27th Amendment to the Constitution, also known as the Equal Rights Amendment, was effectively dead. The Republican party had pulled support for the ERA from its official platform, only 35 of the required 38 states had ratified it, and a large coalition of varied interests had lined up against it. Despite the deadline having been extended from 1979 to 1982, there was no hope three more states would come on board before time expired.

Into this world came a spunky film headlined by three of the most successful female entertainers of the time - Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton, and Jane Fonda. Set in the workplace, the movie chronicles three put-upon women struggling under the yoke of a tyrannical boss played with over-the-top delight by Dabney Coleman. The trio kidnap their bigoted tormentor and hold him prisoner while they transform the office into a place people like working.

Driven by an uptempo, working-class theme song by Parton, "9 to 5" was a huge hit.

"It was really more a reflection of what happened pop culturally," says Doug Weaver, who's directing the Broadway musical adaptation of the show at Theatre Lawrence that opens Friday night. "It didn't change anything."

The story concerns three very different women - Violet, a career woman continually passed over for promotion because she's not a man; Doralee, personal secretary to the rotten Mr. Hart, who often sexually harasses her; and Judy, a recent divorcee, who is thrust into the work force after having depended on men to take care of her most of her life. Each is abused by Hart, and each is on a quest for personal dignity.

"All of them are on a very personal journey," Weaver notes, "but they discover they have to work together for them to get what they're after."

To put the show in the proper historical perspective, Weaver focused on creating the underdog atmosphere for the three women. They are each one of them long-suffering, and they are each likeable. They are people audiences want to root for.

"They just want a fair shot," he says. "They're not looking for anything special. They just want to be recognized for what they contribute and get the respect they feel they've earned."

"9 to 5" captures the spirit of the time it represents - a period when women were fighting for simple respect and to be treated as equals in business. More than that, though, it is a story of the triumph of the human spirit.

"I think I'm attracted to this kind of thing," Weaver says, an appreciative smile coming over his face. "Shows about coming together as a community and a family. That's what this show is. It's about three women discovering they can't do it alone, but, if they work together, they can all succeed."

That's what he hopes audiences take away - a sense of the importance of family.

"I hope they leave whistling at least one of the tunes and that they go away entertained," he says, "but if people get anything out of it, I hope it's the sense that nobody does it alone; we work better as a team."

"9 to 5" opens Friday and runs September 21, 22, 23, 27, 28, 29, 30, and October 4, 5, 6, 7. Performances begin at 7:30pm, except on Sundays, when curtain is at 2:30pm. Tickets are available by calling Theatre Lawrence at 785-843-7469 or online at