Three months ago, they had never heard the songs. Nor had they ever heard of the show’s legendary composer. Most hadn’t had any experience tap dancing. Now a cast of young Charlotte High School performers (Troupe 0922) are singing and tap dancing their hearts out and having the time of their lives rehearsing songs like “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “Let’s Misbehave,” “Friendship” and the title tune “Anything Goes,” for a production which will go live at the Charlotte Performing Arts Center at the end of the month. Their production of the Cole Porter classic, cast members hope, will prompt audiences to leave the theater joyful and singing those songs they too now love.
The upbeat musical, filled with songs by Cole Porter, takes place on an ocean liner in the 1930’s and tells the story of Billy Crocker, the employee of a Wall Street tycoon who stows away on the S.S. American to follow the girl of his dreams. He’s accompanied by characters Reno Sweeney, an evangelist turned nightclub singer; MoonFace Martin, Public Enemy Number 13; Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, an earnest, good- natured, and gullible British aristocrat; Oakleigh’s fiancé, Hope Harcourt, a beautiful heiress; and a cast of other endearing shipmates.
Weeks before the show opens, the cast is rehearsing daily from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. in the black box theater and throughout the CPAC building. Strong, stunningly beautiful voices fill the corridors. And kids are scattered about studying scripts or practicing dance routines. For many in the cast, it is the last show of their high school years. Seniors Morgan Draper, John Tietsworth, and Jacob Bergmanis took a few moments to talk about their roles.
“This character is so much different than me personally,” Morgan Draper who plays the lead, Reno Sweeney, claims. “That’s been my greatest challenge. I can’t show any reservations in attitude or behavior. I’m not so outgoing. Reno is so sassy and confident.” As Draper belts out “I Get a Kick Out of You,” the song originated by Ethel Merman in 1934, her sassiness and personality burst forth and it’s hard to convince that she isn’t very much like the charismatic Sweeney. Draper, a thespian from her first performance in fifth grade at St. Charles Borromeo, and later with Charlotte Players’ Kids on Stage, isn’t certain whether she will continue, but something in her joy while performing says she will.
John Tietsworth plays the male lead Billy Crocker. “I like my character,” he says, “he isn’t so different from me”. Tietsworth took to the stage very early. The summer before his first year in school, his mom saw an ad for a children’s production by the Charlotte Players. He got a role in the play and was soon hooked. After middle school and Kids on Stage productions, he took on main roles in many of the Troupe 0922 productions, including Javert in “Les Miserables” and Jack in “Into the Woods.” “This one is a real fun show,” Tietsworth notes, “and we’re all friends in the show and that comes through.” That friendship becomes evident when he and Draper get into character during rehearsal and playfully engage each other in “You’re the Top.”
James Bergmanis, President of Troupe 0922, loves “to get on stage” and while he gets “super nervous” at auditions when he’s on stage he feels “it’s a great atmosphere in the moment experience.” He especially likes this show. “While I have to be focused on my part, I learn a little bit more about the whole show at each rehearsal,” he says, “it’s classic Broadway.”
“I have a lesser role,” he notes. Later Bill Olson, drama director, corrected this. Bergmanis plays Lord Evelyn Oakley, a comic role, critical to the show, and a role Olson says Bergmanis is “perfect for and one no one else in the group could give justice to.”
In a huge backstage shop, Trey Hester, busily works to help transform the CPAC stage into a cross-Atlantic ship. Hester, a senior technical student, is the production’s stage manager. In addition to constructing sets, he has tracked down and will cue the show’s sound effects from water splashing, a barking dog, a tommy gun shooting, to a fog horn blasting and more to help whisk the audience away on the S.S American. Weeks out the ship is in pieces, a staircase here, a door there, the front of the ship still unpainted dominating the room. Now a senior, Hester credits Mr. Olson, the show’s Director, for teaching him how to build sets. Parents have also been a great help with the construction. Hester has other than fictional ships in his future. “I swore into the United States Navy four weeks ago, and ship out this coming August,” he said.
In the black box, Bill Olson, Drama Director and teacher, is in constant motion as he conducts the daily rehearsal. While managing all the tasks of producing a Broadway-style play, he’s also in the classroom everyday teaching kids acting, performance skills, how to build scenery, and other technical skills associated with the theater. He likens his role as “spinning plates like the circus performer who spins 35-40 sticks with plates and just as one is about to fall runs down to keep it going.” “That’s pretty much what its like being a one-person department.”
Olsen credits his support staff consisting of Trish Stephenson, choreographer for this dance heavy show, Sarah Mayper, Musical Director, and Chris Sutter, theater manager. He is also grateful for a crew of volunteer parents who help with publicity, wardrobe, costumes, sets, box office, audience and whatever they can. “Without the parent volunteers there would be no way to do this,” Olsen notes, “It is really like one person teaching a full school curriculum and running a small theater company all at once.”
In talking about the show Olsen notes “I try to look for shows that have variety from year to year, shows for which we have the right kids for the right parts.” But then, most importantly it’s about the learning experience. “When I first announced the show, the kids all asked, “Who is Cole Porter?” When I was coaching Daniel Yousif on his part as the gangster, I told him to act like James Cagney. “Who’s that”? was his reply. This is what this is about. Everything has to be educational — learning and broadening.”
From the rehearsal room, the music of Cole Porter bursts out from a new generation:
“In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking.
But now, God knows,