Monday, April 20, 2015

Backstage with Romance/Romance

Photo by Emily McKnight
Iowa City - This weekend, the Iowa City Community Theatre will present a lesser known musical, Romance/Romance, book and lyrics by Barry Harman and music by Keith Herrmann. The show wasn't originally part of their season, but a replacement for the large cast show The Man Who Came to Dinner, which was canceled when the theatre couldn't find enough actors. By contrast, Romance/Romance has only four actors, all of which play two roles in the show. They are Colin Nies as Alfred/Sam, Stephanie Fahey as Josefine/Monica, Brett Borden as "Him"/Lenny, and Kristina Rutkowski as "Her"/Barb. We had the opportunity to ask Jaret Morlan, the director of the show, a few questions. Here's our look backstage.

Have you worked with any these actors before? What might we have seen them in?

Jaret Morlan: This is my fourth show working with Brett Borden at ICCT. He and I first met as Jurors in 12 Angry Men and one year later he was George to my Lenny in Of Mice and Men. Immediately following that production, we co-directed Man of La Mancha. This is the first time I have directed Brett and it has been a great new dynamic in our working relationship. Directing Man of La Mancha, I was fortunate to direct Colin Nies, for the first time, where he played The Duke. This show is my second time directing Colin, but he has acted, and sung, in many musicals in the Iowa City/Coralville area, such as ICCT's Brigadoon and [City Circle Acting Company's] CCAC's Guys and Dolls. I have not worked with either Stephanie Fahey or Kristina Rutkowski before now, but they have both been delightful throughout the process. I first saw Stephanie in ICCT's most recent production, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (with Brett Borden) and I thought she was terrific, which I can also say about Kristina, who I had previously seen in CCAC's A Year With Frog And Toad (also with Brett Borden). If you haven't guessed, Brett works a lot. Regardless, all four of these wonderfully talented people are experienced and a joy to work with.

From what I've read about the show, it sounds like the two acts are completely separate, with two actors playing different characters in the second act. The first act, set in the late 19th century Vienna, appears to be about seeking a new identity as the two characters pretend to be from a lower social class. Can you talk a little bit about that story?

Jaret: The first act is subtitled "The Little Comedy" and is based of a short story by Austrian author Arthur Schnitzler. Our two main characters are wealthy and unlucky in love in turn-of-the-century Vienna. Both feel that, given their particular roles in society, they are never truly loved or desired for themselves, but rather for their status. They each take on a disguise of a member of the lower class, her a seamstress and he a starving poet, in hopes to meet someone interested in more than money. Fate intervenes and they end up meeting each other and falling in love, neither aware that they are playing the same deception game. Honoring the original story, the narrative is structured around the two lovers wring to their friends, conveying their sides of the tale. Act I is certainly the more "classic musical" of the two, but the unique story structure and playful music make it an entertaining and endearing story.

And then in the second act you have two people married to different people finding themselves attracted to each other...

Jaret: The second act is subtitled "Summer Share" and is based on the Jules Renard play "Le pain de ménage." This adaptation sets the story in the Hamptons in the 1980s. The two main characters are long time friends who finally address the deeper feelings they have for each other and are forced to deal with the potential consequences. Their spouses, presented as observers and commentators, though not actually present in the scenes, are essential to the narrative...the representations of what is  at stake.

So what is it that ties the acts together?

Photo by Emily McKnight
Jaret: The two theatrical ties are that there is one song, "It's Not Too Late" that appears in both acts, and the fact that the leads are played by the same two people, rather than having them be the secondary characters in Act II. This helps tie things together because it gives the two stories a feeling of "star-crossed lovers." But even more importantly are thematic parallels between the two Acts. Both are obviously about love, but also confronting who you are, who you thought you would be, who you want to be and how sometimes its taking a monumental risk or the pursuit of a fantasy to really answer those questions.

Can you talk a little bit about the music of the show? 

Jaret: I'm not sure how much I have to say about the music, as I myself am not the most musical of people; meaning I don't really sing, read music, or play an instrument. But I will say that I find the music to be extremely charming, and also, deceptively complicated. Act I, has a very lively score that focus on more classic orchestration, where Act II's music is very indicative of the 80s; synthesizers and saxophones. Both acts rely heavily on duets and harmonies, with Act II featuring some four-part harmonies as well. The music director is Jessica Palmer, who worked with me on Man of La Mancha. She has gained a lot of experience in recent years and is extremely capable. I have enjoyed working with her again and hope to do so again soon.

How have rehearsals been going? What challenges have you faced?

Jaret: Rehearsals have been terrific. Everyone involved has pretty open schedules, and since there are only four actors, we have quite a bit of time to really focus on the finer points of the characters and performances. Its been a lot of fun, actually. If there has been any challenge at all, its been more on the production side. I very quickly recruited my production team, full of people who I trust and who's work I adore, but no one has really had time to plan. Normally, we'd have months to prepare, but everyone is sort of winging it; winging it beautifully. But there is often a feeling of being just slightly behind the curve, like, really wishing we had those two weeks we lost. But this is minor as everyone is doing such great work.

I know you've been wanting to do this show for a long time - what about the show has made this a passion project for you?

Jaret: My relationship with Romance/Romance began in 1990, when I was 10 years old. My favorite show was (and still is) Quantum Leap and being the nerdy, precocious child that I was, I simply had to know of all things that Quantum Leap star, Scott Bakula had ever been in. And thus I discovered his Tony nominated performance in the little Broadway show Romance/Romance.

My love of the show was instantaneous. I loved the concept of two one-act musicals, completely different stories tied together only by one mutual song and several mutual themes. It was unlike anything I had known before and I committed it to memory and declared to my mother (a director and President of our local community theatre) that when old enough, this would be the first show I would direct.

Time passes and I keep good on my word by pitching and be selected for my first directorial job in the winter of 2000; I was going to direct my dream show...except nobody auditioned....seriously. For weeks I made phone calls, desperately seeking my small cast of four. But it wasn't meant to be and the show was canceled.

Photo by Emily McKnight
Over the last 15 years, I have pitched this show no less than 12 times and have gained many directing credits, been trained as an actor in New York and the University of Iowa, and have done much of my best work on the ICCT stage...but this show never let me go. And here we are today, the result of well-timed opportunity seizing.

As I revisit this show now, with my wonderful actors, and I renew my love affair with the material, I discover more about myself. The subject matter, its complexities and sensitivities, ring truer now, make more sense...hit closer to home. I understand, now, the need for one's romantic notions and the absolute belief that its not too late to be who you want to be. Such themes are typically lost on a 10 year old...but 25 years later, I understand them all too well. Its a rare gift to have a piece of art so close to you that it changes and grows with you.

What sort of set will we see for this show?

Jaret: Eric Burchett is our set designer. The most important thing about this set is that the beauty is in the details. It also has to be two different time periods and easily transitioned from one to the other. I think audiences will be pleased by some "theater magic" and a few visual treats. But also, given the space, I prefer to utilize up close, detailed work that is simple and serves a purpose, rather than relying on spectacle.

Can you describe for our readers a moment during the rehearsal process that the show started to really come alive for you?

Photo by Emily McKnight
Jaret: Well, first of all, from the first read, the table work, and then the first two weeks of staging, things were clicking. The actors have good chemistry, rehearsals were always productive and efficient; we staged the thing really quickly. That being said, the moment for me that made me realize that we had something was when we staged the song "It's Not Too Late," in Act II. This was the very first song I ever heard from the show, and was performed on the Tony's. Simultaneously, I saw this thing I had been wanting for 25 years come alive, but even more importantly, it felt very fresh and exciting because of the performances my cast were giving. That was the moment the original Broadway cast was no longer what I heard in my head, they are. It's a great feeling.

Anything else you think we need to know about this show?

Jaret: I think it's probably good for people to be aware that there is adult content and themes in this show, so I'd think twice before bringing anyone too young. Other than that, I'd like to encourage people to take a chance on it. One of the reasons its not produced often is that it doesn't have the name recognition or the large casts size. In a community like ares that is saturated with theatre, to the point that we have a lot of repeat productions, challenge yourself to go see something you've never heard of, something that will entertain you and make you think a little.

Romance/Romance opens April 24. Tickets are available here.

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