News Column

Wooden acting pays off for stage novice

December 7, 2013

YellowBrix

Dec. 07--Wanted: Christmas musical seeks actor. Must maintain wooden expression and silence. Absolutely no singing or dancing talent required.

I was the man for the job.

Thanks to Richard Biever and Jill Brighton, the director and choreographer, respectively, of the local FUSE Productions' rendition of "Scrooge! The Musical," in less than a week I'm making my stage debut as the Ghost of Christmas-Yet-to-Come.

Biever and Brighton extended the surprise invitation last month. Though I love musicals, I always thought getting me to be in one would be a tall order.

Apparently, Biever and Brighton also thought so.

In my stocking feet, I stand a little over 6 feet, 3 inches -- not giant by basketball standards, but enough to cut a spooky figure looming over Ebenezer Scrooge.

Outside sports, height gets you very few gigs. Mostly, you're asked to reach objects on high shelves, screw in ceiling lightbulbs or place ornaments on top Christmas tree branches.

Now I can add looking scary to the list.

I have no illusions about my credentials. Prior to the show, my dramatic resume was limited to acting the fool with my two sons and staging a mild tantrum now and then. They wanted my body, not my mind.

Besides, the part was completely my speed.

Three nods. A mute head shake. And for my big moments, I get to point three times. They didn't need Sir Ian McKellen for this one.

Biever and Brighton had me before I finished their email.

My wife introduced me to the film "Scrooge," Albert Finney's brilliant 1970 take on the classic, and watching it has been a family holiday tradition ever since. Its lines and showstopper numbers such as "Thank You Very Much" are as familiar to me now as "Jingle Bells."

I was thrilled to join the stage version and share the experience with my boys, both real actors in the cast for the second year.

But it was a bit intimidating at first.

Because most of the cast returned from last year's production, the initial rehearsals seemed like reunions. I felt out of place, something of a fraud, a theatrical George Plimpton.

The feeling didn't last long.

My castmates couldn't have been more welcoming or friendlier. "Nice pointing," I've heard, and the compliments seemed sincere. Of course, they came from actors, but for the sake of my self-confidence, I'm choosing to believe they're only partly teasing.

Not that I've exactly been the Laurence Olivier of gesturing.

My first try at the scene where Scrooge commands his third ghost to lead the way, I pointed -- in the wrong direction. Another time, I missed a nod and earned my first stage notes.

Just great, I imagined the leadership thinking. Nod, point and move: That's all he has to do. Is it too late to get another stiff?

But now, I think, I'm doing a passable specter. It helps that the Grim Reaper is a straight-forward character: clear motivation, simple personality. Under pain of my own death, I'm also forbidden any ad libs. Christmas Yet-to-Come will not moonwalk exiting stage left.

The rest of the cast had far tougher challenges.

It has been fascinating to see them absorb their characters, bit by bit, and eventually inhabit them -- the gradual refinement that goes into staging a successful show. Lines, dance steps, songs, timing, blocking: The sheer amount of material that must be committed to memory is staggering.

Then, on Friday, it all jelled before my eyes as the cast delivered a confident, relaxed, exuberant run-through of both acts. This typically happens at the last studio rehearsal. By then, actors are comfortable with their lines and mechanics, and feel free to add small flourishes and gusto to their performances.

From my sons' acting, I knew some of this world beforehand. But the inside view gave me a deeper appreciation. Every rehearsal, myriad bugs must be ironed out, down to the tiniest details.

"We need seven glasses for the Cratchit family," Brighton said during one notes session.

"How many do we have?" Biever said.

"Five."

For the same scene, Biever had to tighten a sequence: Bob Cratchit's toast to Scrooge, Mrs. Cratchit's slamming her glass down in dismay, their children following suit. One, two, three. Several practices followed.

While the cast's work ethic has been impressive, the camaraderie on display has been inspiring.

Cast members pull each other along with compliments, low-fives and jokes. They take as much pleasure from watching scenes as performing in them, infusing the room with an infectious energy that practically glows.

I've played on soccer and basketball teams, but never before have I experienced the same sense of band-of-brothers-and-sisters esprit de corps forged from the miracle of putting together a musical in less than two months.

It truly has been a privilege to be associated with such an amazing cast that's sure to dazzle in four shows Dec. 13-15 at the State Theatre.

In a way, though my performance is straight out of the Ed Wood school of drama, I feel I've contributed a little acting.

During my scenes with the great Tom McClary, who matches Finney's Scrooge and then some, I've summoned every ounce of control to stay in my Buckingham Palace guard mode and not reveal my inner admiration.

I wanted to be as expressive and captivating as he is, just as I yearned to join the marching, spinning, kicking dancers moving around me like I'm a human utility pole.

But I understand. We all play important parts in the magic, from the stars on down.

Not everyone is cut out to snap off a nimble grapevine across the stage or deliver a riveting monologue, but it takes an entire cast to create art.

You might say I got the point of musical theater.

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620. Follow him on Twitter@CRosenblumNews.

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(c)2013 the Centre Daily Times (State College, Pa.)

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