News Column

Center stage

September 8, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 08--ELON -- It's 8:30 p.m. the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, and the directors of "Ragtime," Elon University's fall musical, are buried in a swirl of paper and tough decisions inside McCrary Theatre.

Catherine McNeela, Rick Church and Lynne Kurdziel Formato have been in the Center for Performing Arts since before 9 a.m. At this point, they've auditioned more than 120 people in three days -- with callbacks running nearly 12 hours this day -- in an attempt to winnow that group to a cast of 45.

None of their choices is easy.

All music theater majors were required to audition for the musical, a department policy. Some of them had been practicing for the roles they wanted since May. That work showed. McNeela calls their work "extraordinary" and describes the callbacks as "the sing-off to end all sing-offs."

Sitting in the otherwise empty theater, McNeela, the show's director, Church, its musical director, and Formato, the choreographer, are nearly bowled over.

"All those boys are the best," McNeela says, throwing up her hands at a group of equally matched actors vying for a supporting role.

"I love the choices he made," Church says, singling an actor out. "When you do that, it makes the performance human."

"She's the kind of actor who knows where to improve and which questions to ask. She's been working constantly and it shows," Formato says, describing an actress in the running for a lead role.

"Ragtime" tells the story of America's tumultuous early 20th century through the eyes of three groups of New Yorkers: Eastern European immigrants, the African-American residents of Harlem and the Anglo-Saxon, upper-middle class of New Rochelle. The music is rooted in the trends of the time: jazz, gospel and folk songs. The musical debuted in 1996, based on E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel of the same name. It won four Tony Awards and five Drama Desk awards, including Outstanding Musical.

Elon's production will run for six performances between Oct. 24 and Nov. 2 in McCrary Theatre on campus. All shows begin at 7:30 p.m.

When they chose "Ragtime" for the fall production, the directors decided to leave department politics out of the casting process as much as possible, Church says. Sometimes college departments make concessions when casting for plays, considering not just the right fit for the part but also the students who need stage experience to round out their education.

"We decided not to go that way. We wanted to make it about who's the best for the part. That's the way it's done in New York and that's what we're preparing them for," Church says.

"IT'S BAD JUJU to say which part you want," junior Gaby Gomez said Aug. 27.

You quickly learn the dos and don'ts of auditioning while mingling with the music theater majors outside Yeager Recital Hall. Questions about the show or the roles they like or hope to get are taboo. Most other subjects are greeted warmly.

"Distracting us is good," Gomez said. "I've been working on this all summer. Months of preparation are all coming down to this one moment."

Inside the recital hall, the students audition by singing a prepared song. Those directors think might fit particular roles are asked to sing sections of "Ragtime's" key songs. Most are only onstage for a few minutes.

"Once you get through the first song, it's a lot easier," senior Ryan Burch said after his audition.

"Now we just have to wait and hope we get a callback," Patrick Dinnsen, a junior, said.

Dinnsen, Gomez and Burch each did get called back for Saturday's marathon singing, acting and dancing showdown. Dinnsen landed the role of "Younger Brother," who falls in love with a showgirl and becomes involved in anarchist politics.

The 90-or-so music theater majors are keenly aware they're competing against each other for these roles. They try not to let that get in the way of friendships. It's a small department, and students spend most of their waking hours together in some way or another.

Seniors Chris McNiff and Alex Stevenson are close friends off-stage. They vied for the role of "Father," with Stevenson just edging McNiff out.

"We don't go into the process thinking it's going to change our friendship," Stevenson said before the casting was announced. "This is college. It's where you're finding people you'll be friends with for the rest of your life."

"You learn that you're not competing with other people," McNiff said. "You're competing with yourself to be what a casting director wants."

The faculty works hard to nurture students and keep the program competitive -- but not cutthroat.

"It's a program built on love, kindness, being grateful and hard work," McNeela, a professor of performing arts, said. "That's how we've been so successful. That's the recipe to make a great theater program."

"HERE COMES FEELINGS!" a freshman seated in the back of McCrary Theatre shouts as three actresses make their way to the stage for an epic sing-off Aug. 31. The comment brings laughs from students watching the auditions, but the women taking the stage are deadly serious.

Jordan Frazier, Aliyana Stewart and Nasia Thomas spend more than an hour onstage. They are dueling for the role of "Sarah," the love interest of protagonist "Coalhouse Walker" and a driver of "Ragtime's" plot.

They sing and re-sing "Your Daddy's Son," a ballad about being abandoned by "Coalhouse." Each actress uses the heartache in the song differently. All their interpretations are intense, but the differences in their approaches are intriguing. Stewart's version is emotionally deliberate and rises steadily to a crescendo. Frazier's "Sarah" is restless and full of grief, her body twisted with emotion. Thomas ends the song breathless and in tears, kneeling center stage.

Several times, Formato wipes away tears during their performances.

McNeela isn't sure yet. She sends the actresses offstage with Patrick Clanton and Fergino Philippe-Auguste, who are in the running for "Coalhouse," to learn a duet and perform it together. They return, pair off and sparks fly when they sing "Wheels of a Dream" -- about their hopes for their child.

It makes for a doozy of a casting decision later.

"Incredible! This really is just extraordinary work you've all done. Extraordinary," McNeela tells the last of the students shuffling out of the auditorium at about 8 p.m.

Later, daunted by the casting process, McNeela proposes a solution.

"Let's countdown from three. Let's say our "Sarah" out loud," she tells Church and Formato.

With a little more hashing out, Thomas wins the part.

One down, another 44 roles to go.

THE DIRECTORS CONTINUED to hash out their casting until about 10:30 p.m. that night. Stage manager Robyn Dalina posted the cast list about an hour later.

"We had so many choices for every part. It got down to little, tiny, minute details of what they presented to us," McNeela said. "Everyone was so good."

Rehearsals began Monday and will run four hours a day, five days a week until the show opens Oct. 24. In her off-time, McNeela plays with a model of the set at home. Cheerios represent the 45 cast members.

"I move all my people, all my Cheerios, around, trying to figure out where everyone will go in this huge cast," she said, laughing.

She and Formato spent the summer doing research on the period and historical figures featured in the show. They'll present that to the cast and crew this weekend.

McNeela believes everyone's hard work will pay off with great theater.

"To be doing 'Ragtime' is a dream that I had. We finally have the diversity to do it. It's a dream come true," McNeela said Tuesday. "We had our first rehearsal last night and already, they sound stunning. It's going to be the most amazing show."

Performances of Elon University's production of "Ragtime" are at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 24-26 and Oct. 31 to Nov. 2 in McCrary Theatre on campus. Tickets, available beginning Oct. 3, are $12 or free with a student ID. Call (336) 278-5610 for more details.

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(c)2013 Times-News (Burlington, N.C.)

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