Curtain Up! A behind-the-scenes look at how live theater returned to LI
When Northport's John W. Engeman Theater opened on June 28, 2007, the curtain went up on its first production, "Smokey Joe’s Cafe," a musical pastiche featuring hits like "Hound Dog," "On Broadway" and 37 others from the Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller songbook.
As the theater reopens this weekend with its first main stage musical since being shut down by the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, it’s only fitting that "Smokey Joe’s Cafe" is getting an encore.
It’s a perfect choice because of Engeman's history with this show and because of how this show makes people feel, and we need some joyDirector-choreographer Deidre Goodwin
"There’s catharsis in this show, which I think we also need, and the cast is smaller. Its music may be from a different time period, but it's timeless," said Goodwin.
From the set's flashing lights to the even flashier numbers, Goodwin promises this production won't be the same old song and dance as the Engeman's first version. Still, nothing could have prepared anyone for the challenges COVID would bring to the production process.
But in the spirit of the old show-biz adage, "the show must go on." Here's a scene-by-scene rundown of what it took to put on "Smokey Joe's Cafe" as live theater returns to Long Island.
For Goodwin, a seasoned director and performer who has appeared on Broadway in "Chicago," "A Chorus Line" and more shows, finding the right actors for "Smokey Joe’s Cafe" came from an audition process that was, to be sure, virtually unlike any she has experienced.
As a professional theater company, Engeman follows Actors Equity guidelines which means all cast and crew members must be fully vaccinated. In adherence with social-distancing and other safety protocols, the first round of auditions were all done by video submissions. "Auditioners were given the material they were to prepare and then they filmed it and we were able to view them," Goodwin said.
A select number were then invited for phase 2, which was done in person at a Manhattan rehearsal studio. "They sang a song from the show or from their own book and then we did dance," she said.
Though Goodwin couldn’t hazard a guess as to how many tried out, the live process took place on four separate days throughout a three-week period in August.
For Brian Kinnard, 36, a Chattanooga, Tennessee, native who landed the role of bass singer Fred, that live tryout brought back feelings that had been dormant since March 2020.
"Once the pandemic hit, I kind of shut down," he said. "I stopped singing for about six months. My partner was like, ‘You stopped singing?’ and I said ‘Yeah, what’s the point.' Then I started getting back because I missed it, I love it. At the audition, it felt warm and friendly being back in a room with people who were passionate about performing. Then when I got to sing, I felt like, hey, look what I can do?"
As the cast and crew gather together for the first time on Aug. 31 at NextGen Studios in Manhattan, the atmosphere bears a striking resemblance to a classroom on the opening day of the school year. Goodwin could just as well be a teacher welcoming her class of fresh faces — what she can see of them behind their masks — with an endearing blend of energy and enthusiasm in her pep talk about her plans for the show.
After the tedious task of filling out necessary paperwork, the cast introduces themselves, something they haven't really had a chance to do. "Normally everyone’s hugged everyone. Today it’s more like, 'Is it OK if I hug you?' " Kinnard said.
After about a half-hour, it's time to get down to business. Cast members are pulled individually to another room down the hall for costume fittings while everyone else starts to harmonize with musical director Jaret Landon on the opening number "Neighborhood." With only 11 in the cast, everyone can be spaced carefully apart, though singing with a mask on is not something anyone is used to unless they're doing "The Phantom of the Opera."
Being masked is an even bigger challenge for learning the dance routines, Goodwin said. "When I'm just teaching, it's fine; when I’m just dancing, it's fine; when I’m just talking, it's fine," she said, "but putting it all together is a challenge. Also when I’m teaching the choreography to people, I have to literally make sure they have enough time to catch their breath."
Not that she or anyone else is complaining. "It’s a family we’re creating now and we’re taking care of each other. We would rather be uncomfortable and have this on than throw caution to the wind," she said.
For Medford's Ramsey Pack, who plays the tenor Adrian, being part of the "Smokey Joe's" family has a deeper meaning. As a youngster participating in Broadway Dreams, a nonprofit organization that mentors and teaches performing skills to kids, he had the opportunity to work with Otis Sallid, who choreographed "Smokey Joe's Cafe" on Broadway. "That was an incredible experience and he was a beautiful person," Pack said.
The purpose of a set is to help tell the story of a show, said Tim Moran, Engeman’s technical director who has been constructing the theater’s sets since 2014.
"There’s going to be a bunch of bells and whistles that are going to pop," Moran said of the "Smokey Joe’s Cafe" set. Loudest of those bells and whistles are sure to be the hundreds of colored lights that illuminate windows on the stage, a dual-layered staircase on which dancers will go through their paces and a firefighter’s pole in the middle of the stage that someone slides down (think of an iconic ‘50s rocker’s movie theme about "a warden who threw a party in the county jail").
Like all Engeman sets, construction on this one starts at a warehouse in Ronkonkoma where the theater’s previous set pieces and Moran’s equipment are housed. "When we open a show on Saturday, that Monday we start building the next show and it usually takes about six weeks," Moran said. That phase usually comes about a month after speaking with the set designer about his or her vision for the show.
Once the set is complete, it is dismantled then transported to the theater in Northport and reconstructed, usually about 10 days before opening night. "The lighting guy is going to help me install all this stuff, while this week I’m helping him install all the lights," Moran said.
Shining all that light on the Engeman stage is Brian Kurtz, the lighting supervisor. Most of this particular day has been spent wiring all of those LEDs on the stage windows to create a rainbow of flashing colors. Once everything is fully wired, Moran’s biggest concern is maintenance.
"Things break, things are plugged in the wrong spot thing and you end up fixing them," he said.
And once the set is built, the designer then offers his input on lighting. "What’s most interesting usually is that you put the lights up and then you start to put the set up and you find, oh, these don’t quite fit together. So you have to make adjustments. Once it’s all together, it works pretty well," Kurtz said.
While the "Smokey Joe’s" set is less complicated than those of most other Engeman shows, the biggest challenge for both the designer and builder has been working strictly with materials already in the warehouse.
"Without having an income for the past year and a half, we’re trying to do this with found materials," Moran said. "The designer really had to stretch his creativity to come up with a way to work with what we have, so we didn’t have to spend a ton of money on materials. I think he’s been pretty darn creative."
After about three days, everyone seemed to be finding their groove during rehearsals in Manhattan. Spirits were high, the cast was bonding and then there was an unexpected sour note: Everyone was alerted that two cast members had tested positive for COVID-19.
The two actors were put in isolation, rehearsals were temporarily put on hold and all cast and crew were required to have a COVID test. There was also understandable anxiety by some of the performers.
"It made me feel afraid for sure," said Francesca Ferrari, who hails from San Jose, California, and shows off a little of her rocker girl side as Pattie. "When the vaccinations rolled out, there was just an attitude of ‘we’re not going to get it.’ Then I remembered, no that’s not what they said."
In addition to anxiety, there was also concern for their fellow actors. "First, we were just worried for our castmates that had to leave and be quarantined. We were just worried for their health," said DevinRé Adams, 26, of Washington, D.C., who handles some of the ballads as the soulful Ken. "And then we were worried that the show could continue."
So was Engeman, which took extra precautions to ensure that the remaining players stayed healthy. Everyone on site has had regular testing three times a week, masks have been worn all throughout rehearsal and understudies have gone on during rehearsals for the two who tested positive. If both performers test negative at the end of the isolation period and are given a doctor’s OK, they will be allowed to continue with the show, said Richard Dolce, producing artistic director of the Engeman.
Masking has continued to be a part of everyone’s wardrobe at all times in the theater. "Up until now in tech we have been masked and that is 100% great and fine," said Ferrari. "Fortunately, there are a lot of solos in this show, so there’s only a few times when we’re all on stage together. And whenever we’re offstage, we have our masks on."
On Sept. 11, the cast arrived on the Engeman stage for the first time and experienced that moment when all of the show’s elements start to mesh together. Working on the actual set and having technicians apply the proper lighting effects adds a whole new dimension for the actors.
"It’s like reading pages on a line versus a pop-up book," said Jeff Sullivan, 28, of Newfoundland, Canada, who calls his character, Michael, a quintessential rocker. "We had taped outlines of the set in the rehearsal hall and then we come here and we’ve actually got two layers of something. We’re actually getting to walk down stairs."
He seemed unfazed that the cast might have been a few steps behind walking down those stairs.
"Normally, when you get to tech, you pretty much know the show," Sullivan said. "But because we lost a little rehearsal time, the first two days of rehearsal here in the theater were spent learning the remainder of the show. So that layered on an extra layer of ambitious. Now I feel like we’re ready, we’re really ready to do this."
That feeling comes through even more on Sept. 14, the day the cast performs with the musicians for the first time. "Getting to feel that presence on stage. Having the band be just as important a piece of the show as we are is really powerful," Ferrari said. "For one of my songs, ‘Pearl’s a Singer,’ I really get to interact with the band a little bit more. I get to spend time with the piano and then the guitar player. That’s exciting."
For Pack, it "feels surreal" to have the chance to be in the show and perform it on Long Island for his family and friends. "That's something that’s so fulfilling spiritually, to know that my family can come and support me on a stage again," he said.
At long last, the "Smokey Joe's Cafe" cast is all dressed and ready to go. Most of them, that is. Only nine of the 11 will be on stage tonight because the two actors who tested positive will have to sit out this performance, as well as the three previews and the opening weekend.
"It was just going to be too much for them to get up to speed in time for the opening," Dolce said. "But they should be back next week."
As the rehearsal unfolds, it becomes clear that Goodwin was able to seamlessly make any adjustments for the missing performers. The cast members were ready to go out there and give it their all. Alysha Morgan appears to have mastered the art of shimmying on the sexy "Teach Me How to Shimmy." The male quartet soaked up the bright lights performing the Drifters hit "On Broadway." And the entire cast took everyone to church on the gospel number "Saved."
After the last number, the Ben E. King classic "Stand by Me," the cast delivered a surprise number — not from the Leiber-Stoller catalog — for Goodwin: "Happy birthday."
For Goodwin, the show may have been the best birthday present ever. Asked earlier, if the show was everything she expected, she replied "Yes. And more."
It’s an usually warm night for September, as some ticketholders wait outside the theater around 30 minutes before showtime. Also standing outside is one of the Engeman’s staffers whose job is to make sure everyone presents their proof of COVID vaccination as well as a photo ID before entering.
The lobby and piano lounge are also filled with people, many of them Engeman regulars who are happy to finally be seeing a show there. "It’s one of our favorite things to do," said Kelly Garone of Kings Park who was waiting for her husband to join her in the lounge. "It’s local and the productions are great."
And with hand sanitizer stations installed and the theater’s proof of vaccination requirement, she felt safe. "Everybody’s vaccinated, so I feel comfortable," she said.
Because wearing a mask isn’t required but suggested, the majority of the crowd chose not to wear one, which displeased Merrick subscriber Fani Gellman. "I think it’s great that the theater is open again, but I wish people would wear their masks. They’re foolish not to," she said.
Though the theater accommodates 400 people, attendance was only a little more than 50% capacity. "It’s not surprising given the times we’re in," Dolce said.
Even though it was a smaller crowd, it was clear they were excited to experience live theater again judging by the cheers and applause that greeted Dolce and the theater’s other owner, Kevin O’Neill, as they welcomed everyone back and thanked the community for its support during the 18-month hiatus.
And the applause kept building throughout the night with each number. Christopher Brasfield’s falsetto wowed the crowd on "I Who Have Nothing." Sullivan slid into high gear sliding down that pole on "Jailhouse Rock." Pack’s rendition of "Love Potion No. 9" was a formula for success. And all four leading ladies were invincible on that ode to female empowerment "I’m a Woman."
And the finale, "Stand by Me," was followed by a standing O.
WHAT "Smokey Joe's Cafe"
WHEN | WHERE Through Oct. 31, John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport
INFO $75-$80; 631-261-2900, engemantheater.com