There, 18 young actors and actresses in leggings and a variety of classic headwear, from bowlers to boaters, hoof it in bright-smiled unison to a studio piano’s accompaniment. A limber director, freshly flown in from L.A., encourages what’s best in everyone’s performances and gently edges the entourage to greater syncopation, and ever-more complex footwork.
“We wanted someone familiar with the original choreography and staging for ‘A Chorus Line,’” says Randy Conti, whose New York Conservatory for the Arts bought and renovated the open-air replacement for the 1930s barn theater over the past year. “We want to give our audiences the best, and what they expect.”
The seating’s raked, the ceiling high, and yet there’s a crisp intimacy to the space. There are 321 seats, all of them with small plaques indicating the various community members who had donated to this longstanding effort over the years. The orchestra pit’s designed for stage expansion, or runners, should such be needed.
Conti’s low-key about the excitement in, of, and for this room, a grand new addition to venues in town. He acknowledges contractor John Kosteczko for the help he gave on all design decisions while downplaying he and partner Doug Farrell’s roles. He agrees that something magic occurred when the walls were enclosed, and ceiling insulation added. Somehow, the place feels larger than when it was open-air, and the seating on portable bleachers.
While we speak, it’s hard to keep one’s eyes off the exuberance emanating from the stage. The director, Hector Guerrero, demonstrates some moves. Then does them in mirror fashion so everyone can get what he’s after. He notes there’s something counter-intuitive to what he’s looking for and all agree. But it also turns out beautifully once it begins to gel.
36 feet tap across the floorboards, soon to be replaced for this show with a new dance floor just for such instances. Voices rise from the piano’s rhythm and carry one of the Pulitzer Prize-winning hit show’s memorable score.
Conti notes Guerrero’s years teaching at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, and performances in touring and Disney shows. He then nods to the season’s locally-based music director, Brendon Shapiro, as well as the playhouse’s first season lighting designer Mike Gugliotti and set designer Salvatore Tagliarino, both well-respected professionals with long histories of local involvement and a keen wish to see the new enterprise succeed.
A man who’s been walking around the theater, stopping in corners and different sections and shutting his eyes as the rehearsal continues, stops by to speak with Conti. And introduces himself as sound designer David Oakes, of Pat Methany Group fame.
I soak in the scene around me, reminded of those classic movies where everything comes together two thirds of the way into the narrative and a show takes form in what had seemed like an impossible space for theater. Only this time, I’m here at the Woodstock Playhouse on its first night with a cast in its revived midst.
Conti has told me how he and Farrell spent three straight days at Pace University in the City last February auditioning over 1000 would-be company members for the three productions it will be running this summer. Everyone got 90 seconds on stage. Then call-backs. And more call-backs. The whole thing happens every winter for summer stock theaters up and down the eastern seaboard, east of the Mississippi.
The two New York Conservatory founders and directors had noted how hard it was to whittle down so many choices to a core group that would not only fill the parts of A Chorus Line, Anything Goes, and Hair, but get along together. And become a part of the Woodstock community for a summer.
The resulting cast is diverse in size, coloring, type, and bearing. Yet after only a week of intensive rehearsing, they’re also in synch, as if parts of a greater whole. And completely jazzed.
I ask the cast, panting and stretching after practicing an ensemble whip motion several times, how they’re enjoying this first time in a brand new theater.
Several talk at once about the thrill of being the first to perform in a place. And how big and welcoming they’ve found both the stage and the size of the theater.
Guerrero adds how surprised he was, as well, at the size of the Playhouse, and the elegant beauty of its design, as well as all it had to offer backstage as well as out front.
Voices chime in from actors, actresses and dancers in from Ohio and Annapolis, MD, from New Jersey, Japan, and Stone Ridge.
Everyone’s loving where they’re staying up here, just outside town. They rave simultaneously about the Stewart’s they all hit up for ice cream the night before, and how they’re looking forward to getting some time to explore Woodstock at some point.
Will they put on some good shows for their local audiences, we ask?
“This is our job, to make great theater,” several say in reply. “We know we’ll be spectacular.”
As they all collectively turn to their director for further work on this new stage, I turn to Conti…who’s grinning. Across the room I see Farrell looking similarly elated.
“You have visions, you imagine things,” Conti says when I ask him how the space we’re in matches what he and Farrell started planning last summer, and any dreams they may have had of their own theater over the years. “Of course, you never really know…We just told each other, and anyone who’d listen, that we’d do the best we could. Every step of the way we overcame the challenges.”
He mentions the difficulties of the past winter’s endless “stupid snow.” But now everyone’s feeling hopeful, with only a few details to finish out such as touch up painting, the hanging of rented lights, the setting up of a concession stand and bar, the placement of sound equipment around the room. Some extra fundraising to ensure that not only the organization’s monthly nut gets met, but there’ll be enough left over to cover the costs of lighting purchases. Some other perks.
“It’s been a huge job,” Conti says. “We got into every single nook and cranny in this building.”
With full air conditioning and heating systems, though, the venue’s season would be year-round were it not for the effects of winter on field parking. So things are booked up into the holiday season, when a musical version of A Christmas Carol is planned, resuming with a Woodstock Chamber Orchestra concert in March.
Other folks around the town and region who produce shows are making appointments to see what would fit, Conti adds. And so far, everyone seems to be liking what they see.
As if there’s anything not to like.
Onstage, the cast keeps practicing its big numbers, then breaking off into duos for more intimate rehearsal sets. There’s a palpable sense the ensemble’s been together for lifetimes. Even though Conti notes how such camaraderie is, always has been, and hopefully always will be the stuff of the theater…especially in its more showy, singing-dancing element.
“So let me tell you where you’re going with this,” Guerrero says as everyone pauses, stretches, downs water.
Conti tells me how the students at the New York Conservatory of the Arts that he and Farrell have been running for a quarter century seemed a bit put-out by all the new company members coming in at first. But then grew thrilled at all the professionalism on view, the sight of career theater people willing to help mentor them.
“Everything’s fitting into place,” he said. The cast members, between the ages of 18 and 25, were rising to the fact that they were introducing Summer Stock void of such fun for a number of years now. And gaining added inspiration from the inspirational role they were playing for a whole school of young up-and-comers.
Everyone was starting to talk about theater, in town. And what some professional work would do for the community groups around. As well as the advent of a dedicated, pitch-perfect theater in town. Or the potential inherent in the great new exhibition spaces the Playhouse’s two lobbies offered…immediately amongst the town’s biggest.
There’s been so much Conti’s been attending to, between the upcoming season, and Inaugural Gala Thursday, June 30, as well as the usual NYCA schedule, that some elements have slipped him.
Never mind, we agree…as the chorus line of new Playhouse actors and actress steps into yet another great Chorus Line number on stage. Something’s right in this revised space.
And yes, there’s magic in the air… long-awaited, but finally released in full.++
For further information on tickets for the June 30 Inaugural Gala, as well as tickets for fast-selling-out performances for A Chorus Line, June 30 through July 10, Anything Goes from July 15 through 24, and Hair from August 4 through 13, stop by the box office at the Playhouse, located in the Gateway District to Woodstock on Mill Hill Road just west of where Route 375 empties into the hamlet, Wednesdays through Fridays, 2:30 to 5:30 PM, call (845) 339-4340 or visit www.WoodstockPlayhouse.org.
Arts Board gives support, sets garden tour
Concurrent with all the on-site hoopla around the New York Conservatory For The Arts’ revival of the Woodstock Playhouse, the venue’s former owners — who took the site of the 1930s theater from burned-out relic to a functioning outdoor performance space — have officially put in their own two cents thanking NYCA for helping them cover old debts…and simultaneously announcing their annual House Tour in the coming weeks.
“Be a part of Woodstock history and come to the newly enclosed and air conditioned Playhouse! A great portion of the gala ticket price is tax deductible as a donation — plus you’re able to see a wonderfully professional New York cast in this theater icon!” notes the Woodstock Arts Board in its first e-mail blast in months.
The missive goes on to note that WAB will be hosting its 15th Annual Woodstock Arts Board Garden Tour on Saturday, July 9, with proceeds going to both offset some of the organization’s remaining financial commitments from its years of Playhouse site ownership, as well as “to benefit the premier season of the newly enclosed and re-furbished Woodstock Playhouse.”
Talk about a good followup and a truly community way of handling succession!
For more information, including House Tour tickets, visit www.woodstockgarentour.eventbrite.com. ++