‘Dancing’ into Love

By Steven Libowitz   |   June 13, 2019

Saundra McClain would seem to be an inspired choice to direct Ensemble Theatre Company’s area debut of Dancing Lessons even if she hadn’t already helmed several successful prior productions for ETC, including Intimate Apparel, In The Continuum, The Fantasticks, and Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. While McClain found her earlier ETC efforts “challenging in that they were outside of my wheelhouse,” she has some direct real-life experience with the issues afflicting the New York neighbors in Mark St. Germain’s two-character piece. Science professor Ever has Asperger’s syndrome, an autism-spectrum disorder that makes routine social interaction almost impossible, while Broadway dancer Senga has withdrawn into her own world after seeing her career threatened by a devastating injury.

“I lived across the hall in New York City from a young man who had autism, and watched him grow up with all of his idiosyncrasies, marching to a different drummer,” McClain explained. “And I had a serious knee injury last year, but they couldn’t operate at first because I also have a heart condition, so I had to be with it for quite a while. I have a bit of empathy for both of them.”

The play brings the two characters together when Ever asks Senga to teach him some simple dance moves so he can survive an appearance at an awards dinner. What follows is a developing relationship on the road of recovery and self-discovery that one critic described as a “touching blend of fish-out-of-water comedy, an odd-couple romance and a compassionate, understanding-autism homily.”

It’s a combination that McClain finds both inspiring and challenging. “The author took two totally serious situations – people who would never even meet under normal circumstances – and put them into a romantic comedy. One character is out of step with reality and the other is out of sync. How can two people who can’t connect socially connect with each other?”

Casting was obviously paramount for Dancing Lessons, but none of the actors who auditioned seemed right for the roles, McClain said. So ETC reached out to two of its company alumni, Trevor Peterson and Leilani Smith. “Someone with autism and a person who is badly injured can be hard to watch through a whole show. We needed actors with whom you could empathize and enjoy watching, because it is a romantic comedy. You need personalities that pop off that stage.”

Smith, who also appeared in McClain’s Intimate Apparel at ETC, is an African-American actress, which also brought a “casting against type element” that seemed true to the story due to the melting pot flavor of New York City, McClain said. Peterson played Biff in Death of a Salesman at ETC earlier this year.

“I’m just so excited to be working with both of them,” she said, adding that much of the emphasis has been on solidifying the emotional throughlines of the characters. “The audience will be pleasantly surprised and entertained. And they’ll also learn something about life, that we are more than how we appear and what we do.”

Dancing Lessons previews June 13-14, opens on June 15, and runs through June 30, at The New Vic, 33 West Victoria Street. Tickets cost $25-$75. Call (805) 965-5400 or visit www.etcsb.org. 

Pride, Prejudice, and Pop Music

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which was nominated for 10 prizes at the 2014 Tony Awards, winning four, including Best Musical, launches the PCPA TheaterFest summer season at the Solvang Festival Theater with a June 13-30 run. The comedy finds Monty Navarro, a distant heir to a family fortune, trying to jump the line of succession by “eliminating” the eight relatives who stand in his way to becoming the Earl of Highhurst, but his macabre plotting also requires juggling the affections of his very married mistress and, a distant cousin. The play’s conceit calls for all of the victims to be played by one actor (Andy Philpot), with the audience witnessing the same person “dying” over and over again in rather hilarious ways. Brad Carroll directs the area debut of the hilarious knock-‘m-dead musical based on both the 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal, which was adapted into the 1949 film Kind Hearts and Coronets, starring Alec Guinness.

Also on tap this summer at the intimate amphitheater in downtown Solvang are fellow Tony Award winning musical Million Dollar Quartet, which features more than 20 hit songs as it brings together Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley via an extraordinary twist of fate (July 5-28); The Addams Family musical based on the famous TV characters (August 2-25); and The Importance of Being Earnest, featuring Oscar Wilde’s delectable wordplay at the forefront of his sublime “trivial comedy for serious people” (August 29-September 8).

PCPA’s SummerFest kicks off the season with a food-and-wine event offering tastes of the Santa Ynez Valley in wine, beer and food plus a live auction before the opening night performance of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder. For details and tickets to all events, call (805) 922-8313 or visit www.pcpa.org.

Re-living the First Time 

Just shy of 23 years after The Vagina Monologues broke all sorts of theatrical barriers, things are perhaps coming full circle a generation later via Cricket Daniel’s The Lost Virginity Tour. Four women “of a certain age” living at Happy Trails Senior Resort Living in Surprise, Arizona, meet weekly in the onsite baking club. But when they augment swapping desserts and recipes with exchanging stories about their “first time,” one of them cooks up the idea to take a road trip to visit the locations where each lost their virginity. The ladies’ trip share tears, laughter, memories and secrets as they travel both America’s byways and their personal memory lanes. The comedy is the perfect vehicle for DramaDogs Theater Company as casting the convention-bucking play also combats the lack of representation of women over 50 on stage in leading roles. DramaDogs’ artistic director Ken Gilbert directs the cast featuring E. Bonnie Lewis, Gunilla Hutton, Meredith McMinn, and Asa Olsson for a June 14-23 run at Carpinteria’s Alcazar Theatre. BroadwayWorld.com raved over the play’s Los Angeles production in April, calling the show “funny, profound, provocative and adventurous” and suggesting that “you will take away your own lesson learned along this imaginary tale of self-examination and friendship between friends you can trust with not only your secrets but your life.” Visit www.thealcazar.org.


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