Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Was I sitting next to a star of the future at CPCC?

I moderated an onstage talkback last week after a CPCC Summer Theatre performance of "Damn Yankees," and a thought went through my head: It's not inconceivable that one of these people will be a Tony nominee in another 15 years.

That's happened twice before: Montego Glover and Christopher Fitzgerald, both of whom performed with Summer Theatre in 1994, ended up as musical Tony nominees in 2010: She as best actress in "Memphis," he as best featured actor in "Finian's Rainbow." (I checked our electronic archives for 1994. The word on Glover here was "multi-talented" and "sings beautifully." Fitzgerald, then going by Chris, "entertains us with a series of comic characters." Well, nobody can predict the future.)

CPCC casts its summer net wide, hiring young performers after national auditions and integrating them into casts with locals. In "Damn Yankees," young leads Michael Lawrence and Jordan Frazier came from out of town, while Charlotte's Dennis Delamar played the devilish Applegate.

These young folks don't come in with big reputations or extensive credits, so director Tom Hollis must take a gamble on them. And sometimes that gamble launches a career that will take them to Broadway or out on national tours.

Merwin Foard, who performed at CPCC more than three decades ago, is now playing FDR in the Broadway revival of "Annie." Sandy Binion did "Jane Eyre" on Broadway and national tours of "Sunset Boulevard" and "Anything Goes." Big-voiced Dave Clemmons understudied Jean Valjean in "Les Miz" and eventually turned to casting and producing, taking a hand in the Broadway likes of "Once" and the revival of "Driving Miss Daisy."

Many, like Alex Ellis ("Catch Me If You Can") or Daniel J. Watts (the current "Motown: The Musical") have fruitful careers working in ensembles, until their ankles or desire give out. Some become music directors: Bill Congdon went on to run the pit for national tours of "Mamma Mia!" and "Billy Elliott," Aaron Gandy for the New York productions of "The Lion King" and "Urinetown." Mary Setrakian was the singing narrator of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" 20 years ago at CPCC; now she's best known as the vocal coach who prepared Nicole Kidman for "Moulin Rouge!" and Kate Winslet and James Gandolfini for "Romance & Cigarettes."

There's no real way to gauge talent, of course. I saw Betty Buckley almost 40 years ago in "Pippin," taking over an ingenue role Jill Clayburgh had created. I thought, "Not bad. Nothing extraordinary, but pleasant." Then she won a Tony for "Cats" and took off. Conversely, I saw Anne Marie Bobby in the 1985 Marvin Hamlisch-Howard Ashman flop "Smile" and thought, "She's really going somewhere!" The "somewhere" turned out mostly to be video game voiceovers and guest spots on TV crime dramas.

So you pays your money, and you takes your chance, as the saying goes. You're paying about one-sixth as much at CPCC as you would on Broadway, so it can be a bargain. And you just might catch a new meteor before it blazes a trail through the heavens.