October 30, 2013

The Weekender – Little Theatre, big production

Posted By Joan Pelzer

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The Great White Way isn’t too far removed from Northeast Pennsylvania. In fact, it only takes about two and a half hours to travel to Broadway in Manhattan to catch some of the latest, greatest theatrical performances. However, our area currently has a jump on the big-city theater district – one of our local companies is mounting a show that has its sights set on Broadway next fall.

“National Pastime” opened last week at the Little Theatre of Wilkes-Barre and will continue with performances both this weekend and next, a comedic musical that New York-based book author Tony Sportiello and composer Al Tapper are testing out in three cities, with Phoenix, Ariz., and Austin, Texas being the others in the running with NEPA.

General manager Walter Mitchell fully realized the weight of the task from the start.

“Here we are, the granddaddy of community theater going on 91 years of performances, being asked to take a risk, frankly, because we realize that nobody knows this show – yet.”

FIRST PITCH

“National Pastime” began as Sportiello’s brainchild some 20 years ago, commissioned by the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., when the organization needed entertainment during an induction weekend.

Sportiello delivered a one-hour show that focused on a fictional baseball team and the radio station that created it after seeing a need to garner higher ratings due to the Great Depression hurting the station’s business. The fictional team becomes wildly popular, though no one has ever seen them, or could see them if they wanted the chance.

“‘We’re too good for America!’ is the answer people get when they ask the team why they don’t play in the country,” said Tapper.

The team plays the likes of the Belgian Waffles and Venice Gondoliers and they never lose, a unit made up of members who tout themselves as the greatest ballplayers that ever were, just further upping the appeal for advertisers and listeners alike. Eventually, Life Magazine pops into town with the intent to write a piece on the team, and that’s when trouble ensues.

“It is a con, but it’s not a farce,” Tapper clarified. “Back in those days, games were sent to stations by teletype and they would then use sound effects to portray the game on the radio. Though all those games were real, it’s entirely possible that someone could have made them up and no one would know. It’s a believable premise, and still funny and silly, and that’s what makes it work.”

“There’s also no bad guy,” said the director of “National Pastime,” Christa Manning. “The guy that’s pulling the con, you love his character. It’s an inner struggle as an audience member. These guys are doing wrong, but you’re hoping they don’t get caught.”

ROUNDING THE BASES

Sportiello was producing Tapper’s show “Sessions” in New York when he decided he wanted to breathe life back into “National Pastime.”

“It was only an hour show, so there was plenty of room for songs,” Sportiello said. “We went back to Cooperstown and did a reading and it was really well-received.”

They then went on to Washington to do the same and had a three-week off-Broadway run, with each show allowing the duo to learn more and more about it, calling for tweaks here and there in order to make it the best production it could be.

The show played in Austin before coming here, and will show in Phoenix in March with the intent to be on Broadway in the fall of 2014.

So, how does a show go from the workshop to the big stage?

“Someone needs to write a check,” Sportiello joked. “But seriously, there are a number of different ways. It can start somewhere like London or L.A. or Toronto and get enough of a following or a lot of money that it goes to Broadway. Sometimes it starts off-Broadway and gathers backing. But, even then, off-Broadway is not cheap. We’re talking a difference of three million as opposed to nine million and, while three million is still a lot, it’s a lot easier to raise than nine million.”

Tapper and Sportiello wanted to play the show in a variety of places and allow for changes because they want to ensure it catches on with backers immediately, having seen the show in its finest form post-trial runs.

“In Austin, we added a song for a character because we just saw the need for that character to be more human,” Tapper said. “This is what we want to do as we go along. We learn what works and what doesn’t, and that will help make it a better show for audiences, for critics, and just for the experience as a whole.”

BRINGING IT HOME

Choosing Little Theatre as one of the three sites to test “National Pastime” was a no-brainer.

“I just walked into the theater and that was it,” Sportiello said. “I’ve been in New York since 1986 doing a series of shows and, unless you’re on Broadway, this doesn’t exist. It’s a beautiful, old-time theater that’s been around for 60 years, and there’s a lot of room in here.”

In fact, the space at the Theatre is so plentiful that Manning said they had to shorten the stage for the production. In order to keep it intimate, the orchestra pit is in the back so that the cast is directly in front of the audience for the performance.

There has already been a change made to our local production that sets it apart from any other – the addition of a sound effects guy. There is a booth that the character will work from, providing all the sounds that listeners need to help capture the baseball experience, a role that Manning conjured up herself.

The opportunity to make changes and offer insight to a production is a rare one for a director, Manning noted.

“It’s a fresh slate; it’s not going to be compared to anything. I get to take someone’s vision and make it my vision, give life to something that hasn’t had life to a wide audience. There are no preconceptions. It’s exciting.”

It’s also exciting for everyone involved, to be a part of what Mitchell calls a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

“Here we have local people who have done ‘Music Man’ or ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ in this house, and those same actors and technical people get a crack at a Broadway show. It’s extraordinary.”

“There’s a different kind of excitement about this,” Manning added. “Once this gets to Broadway, our people here get to say, ‘Hey, I did that first.’”

STARTING LINEUP

CAST OF CHARACTERS

Christopher LaFrance as Barry

Deirdre Lynch as Karen

Jillian Kemmerer as Mary

Jenelle Craig as Betty Lou

Paul R. Kantor as Marty

Dane Bower as Lawrence

Tom Franko as Joe

Adam Moore as Vinnie

Sam Granteed as Roger/Sound Guy

Billy Joe Herbert as Jackson

Chelsea Lyn as Jingle Girl

Maureen Hozempa as Jingle Girl

Jesse McNatt as Jingle Girl

PRODUCTION STAFF

Director – Christa Manning

Asst. Director – Chris Laundry

Musical Director – Johanna Bryn Smith

Asst. Musical Director – Hollie Major

Choreographer – Samantha Schguardt

Technical Director – Bernard Mulcahy

Light and Sound Designer – Kevin Holbert

Costumer – Lisa Fink

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