Saturday, November 25, 2017

Memo From the RTC: Why Do They Do It?

Published Nov. 24, 2017

Memo From the RTC: Why Do They Do It?
By Norm Scott

One of the most moving parts of Café ’17 was Anthony Melendez opening Act II singing “Just the Way You Are” as photos of the children of the RTC family flashed on the screen. What we don’t see is the hardships faced by so many new parents because this is the only advanced nation that doesn’t offer paid parental leave. (Pug: see my School Scope column for more on this issue.)

The closing of a show at the Rockaway Theatre Company is like the breakup of a family. Everyone has been working for months on the show and suddenly it’s over. The cast party is the final chance to be together and many just don’t want it to end.

I’ve often said that it is too bad the public fans of the performances of the RTC  don’t get to see the performers at the cast parties after large cast musicals close. I sat in the back of the theater about an hour and a half into the cast party following last Sunday’s 10th and final performance of Rockaway Café ’17. It was about 6:30 PM. Most of the cast was still there and on stage – doing songs and dances from the show they had just spent 3 weekends performing and two additional months preparing. Then, noticing that most of the cast of the widely successful Chorus Line from last March were on the stage, they began to perform songs and dances from that show. When I left at almost 8PM guitarist and singer Nick Compagnone was surrounded by those still there who were doing a sing along.

Why do they do it? Why do so many performers from Rockaway and beyond trek to the Post theatre time and again – often paying those full priced tolls every day or schlepping with public transportation? And not only the performers but the enormous cast of behind the scenes volunteers – the ushers, the behind the counter people, the box office crew run by Peggy Page, the sound and lighting crews, the stage managers, the videographers, construction crews, the costumiers who run a massive two story wardrobe and prop shop. Ok, so I just missed naming about 50 people. I would need an entire edition of this paper to get them all in.

I haven’t yet mentioned the extraordinary talents of musical director and arranger Jeff Arzberger and his band mates. One of the unsung heroes of the RTC is the amazing Richard Louis-Pierre who does everything related to music, sound and video projections. Rich (also an RTC  Board member), was in the band of Cafe and in other shows is the musical director. He always is available when called. If you had to name 5 essential components of the RTC success story, Rich is one of them.

Last week’s “Memo” featured the twenty or so lead vocalists. Some key people were not able to make all the shows. As Producer Susan Jasper pointed out to the cast before Sunday’s show, the talent pool was so enormous, it was easy to plug in a substitute, even if they had to learn the song in one day. Talking to audience members as they left, many pointed out how each show gets better –and that is due to the expanding range of talent that has found a home at the RTC.

What made Café different this time was the equal emphasis on the dance numbers, choreographed mostly by Nicola  Nellen, Gabrielle Mangano, and Catherine Leib (who also carried major vocal roles in addition to being part of the costumier team – is there anything she can’t do?). You don’t do dance numbers in amateur theater unless you attract great dancers, one of the most noticeable advances at the RTC over the past few years – the talented and often professionally trained dancers. So let me name a few.

Naturally, Nicola, Gabrielle and Catherine lead the way and play major dance roles. Kayla Ann Healy who was a young teen member of the crew is now in college but returned to share her talents for this show. (Kayla is often the young lady in the ices booth on 129th St during the summer.) RTC was lucky to find St. Louis native Ashley Ann Jones for last spring’s Chorus Line and she returned to this show to showcase her versatility as a dancer. Rockaway’s own ballet darling Dana Mongelli showed off her professional training (La Guardia HS dance grad) in every dance she was in. Bay Ridge native Adele Wendt, she of the gorgeous red hair, is fairly new to the RTC and her moves on stage since we saw her in The Producers have been outstanding. Brian Sadowski, (an Assistant principal in real life and one of the elder statesmen at 41) continues to get better every time we see him on stage. Brian also gets to sing a solo. Other dancers also do vocals. Anthony Melendez does a few songs (Billie Jean brings down the house) and dancing wise showed his talents in La Cage and Chorus Line and hasn’t missed a beat this time. I mention Maria Schirripa and Erech Holder-Hetmeyer in every column as singers but their dancing is just as dynamic. Erech attracts the most attention for his energy and talent and is the most commented member of the cast by audiences. Seeing him is worth the price of admission. And I don’t worry about saying this and insulting any of the other cast members because they all feel the same about Erech who has become one of the most beloved members of the RTC. I have about ten other dancers to talk about but an beyond my word limit.

But before I go I must mention high school sophomores  Steven Wagner and Andrew Feldman who do so much on stage and off and may very well be part of the upcoming 3rd or 4th generation at the RTC. They are joined by their pal, sound man and high school junior, Alex Stabiner. We will probably lose them for a few years when they go off to college, just as we lost Rockaway natives Juliette Pannone and Nick Compagnone when they went off to college and to start their careers. Both returned to the RTC fold for Café.

I can’t wait for them all to do the 40th anniversary - Café 2037.

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