31 Days of Arkansas Rep: 2017’s SISTER ACT

Based on the 1990s film of the same name, Sister Act marked Cliff Fannin Baker’s final directing assignment at Arkansas Rep.

No one knew it at the time, which is just as well. It was a joyous uplifting experience which was what Cliff would have wanted people to have for his final Rep show.

The show was selected by Bob Hupp to be part of the transition season after his departure. Baker had previously indicated interest in directing the show if Hupp ever programmed it for the Rep.

So from January 24, 2017 through March 5, 2017, Baker’s production filled the Rep.  It had originally been set to end on February 26 but was extended a week.

The cast was led by Soara-Joye Ross with Tracy Bidleman, Erica Lutstig, Susan J. Jacks, Jennie Boone, Patrick Clanton, Monte J. Howell, Cornelius Davis, Ton Castellanos, and Darryl Winslow. Little Rock favorites in the cast included Vivian Norman, Kathryn Pryor, Jay Clark, Monica Robinson, Kelley Ponder, Erica Martinez Warner, Zachary Meyers, and Taylor Quick. KATV’s Alyson Courtney made a cameo as a 1970s TV reporter.

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31 Days of Arkansas Rep: 1995’s THE RAINMAKER

N. Richard Nash’s romantic drama with comedy, The Rainmaker took over the Arkansas Rep stage in January and February 1995. Following the run in Little Rock, it toured the US through April of that year.

The production was directed by Rep founder and Artistic Director Cliff Fannin Baker. It reunited him with several long-time Rep actors Vivian Morrison, Ronald J. Aulgur, Steve Wilkerson, Richard Glover, and Mark Johnson.

Baker had previously directed Robert Standley in a production of the show, and brought him in to reprise his role as the title character.  Rounding out the cast was Rep newcomer John Stiritz.

The creative team included Mike Nichols (sets), Don Bolinger (costumes), David Neville (lighting) and Chip Salerno (sound).  Salerno also wrote and recorded the music which underscored the production.

31 Days of Arkansas Rep: 1989’s NOISES OFF

Michael Frayn’s three act satirical farce NOISES OFF pokes fun at the theatrical world.  This Tony nominated play within a play about the production of a British farce NOTHING ON took to the Arkansas Rep stage in June 1989.

Directed by Terry Sneed, the cast featured James Harbour as Nothing On’s director, and Theresa Quick as the leading lady.  Others in the cast were Vivian Morrison, Don Bolinger, Peter Bradshaw, Alan Hanson, Jane McNeill, Carolyn Pugh and Jon Meyer.

The first and third acts take place on the set of Nothing On in a house that was once a 16th century posset mill. The second act shows the backstage happenings during a performance.  The set (which rotated between acts) was designed by Nels Anderson.

The production ran from June 8 to 24, 1989.

31 Days of Arkansas Rep: OVATION! in 1999

Upon his retirement (the first time) from Arkansas Rep, founder and artistic director Cliff Fannin Baker was feted with a special performance celebrating his career with the Rep.  The entire evening was called “Ovation!” and included a pre-performance reception, a special revue celebrating Cliff’s career, and a performance of As Bees in Honey Drown, which Cliff directed.

Ruth Shepherd and Helen Buchanan co-chaired the evening, which took place on September 21, 1999.  Jana Beard was involved in the conception and direction of the performance.

The program started with a welcome from Mimi Dortch, the first Rep Board chair; Bill Rector, a former Rep Board chair who had been instrumental in the move to the Rep’s Main Street location; and Carol Corley, who was the 1999-2000 Rep Board chair.

The performers included Michael Davis, Don Bolinger, Shannon Farmer, Vivian Morrison Norman, Candyce Hinkle, Debbie Rawn, Jana Beard, Debbie Weber, Mary Twedt Cantrell, Mark Johnson, Judy Blue., Jean Lind, and Phyllis Blumenfeld.

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton sent a videotaped message that was played and followed by a video which highlighted Cliff’s career.  Lt. Governor Winthrop Rockefeller presented Cliff with the 1999 Governor’s Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement.  Also that evening, longtime Rep staffers Lynn Frazier and Guy Couch were presented with Cliff Fanning Baker Awards for extraordinary service to the Rep.

After a brief intermission, the evening continued with As Bees in Honey Drown. The show was directed by Cliff and was the final show of the Cliff Fannin Baker era (Part I).

31 Days of Arkansas Rep: THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD opens new theatre in 1988

While audience members were tasked with solving THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD at Arkansas Rep in October 1988, they also had the chance to explore the new home for the Rep. This Tony winning musical marked the opening of the new Main Street location after twelve years in the converted church adjacent to MacArthur Park.

The move to Main Street had been in the works for over three years. It was announced around the same time The Mystery of Edwin Drood was being rehearsed for its original Off Broadway production. In the interim, this musical whodunnit written and composed by Rupert Holmes had transferred to Broadway and won the 1986 Tony Award for Best Musical.

Terry Sneed and Theresa Quick led the cast, which was directed by Cliff Fannin Baker. Others in the cast of 29 included Art Arney, Don Bolinger, Richard Glover, Julianne Griffin, Vivian Morrison, and Debbie Weber.

Sharon Douglas was the pianist and music director. Others on the creative team included Keith Belli (set), Kathy Gray (lighting), and Mark Hughes (costumes).

Audience members actually had three mysteries to solve each night: who killed Drood, who was disguising themself as Dick Datchery, and which lovers would be united at the end.  This meant the actors had to learn a variety of options and endings, and be prepared to perform them at a moment’s notice.

31 Days of Arkansas Rep: 1988’s PAGEANT

While originally envisioned as a potential first show in the new Main Street home for Arkansas Rep, the world premiere of the musical PAGEANT took place instead at the Rep’s original home at 11th and McAlmont Streets.  (The new theatre space would not open until October 1988.)

Conceived by Cliff Fannin Baker (who would direct as well), this show featured a series of vignettes exploring a variety of aspects of beauty pageants – competing in them, watching them, having daughters in them, etc. The songs were all written by Michael Rice (who had previously composed The Good Woman of Setzuan at Arkansas Rep). The various scenarios in the libretto were authored by Baker, Jack Heifner, Romulus Linney, Kent R. Brown, Hank Bates, and Mary Rhode.

The seven women in the cast (who were on stage the entire time) were played by Kimberly Ann Cunningham, Brenda Kaye Westbrook, Mimmye Goode, Julianne Griffin, Karen Heck, Vivian Morrison, and Margaret Wyatt-Kinney.  Cunningham and Westbrook had both previously competed in beauty pageants. The creative team included Mike Nichols (sets), Mark Hughes (costumes), and Kathy Gray (lighting).

The production ran from January 21, 1988 through February 21, 1988.

It has since been retitled American Beauty and is available for licensing.

31 Days of Arkansas Rep: 1985 World Premiere of THE GOOD WOMAN OF SETZUAN

The Arkansas Repertory Theatre set the American regional theatre world abuzz with its world premiere of a musical version of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan.

Director Cliff Fannin Baker received many telephone calls from his colleagues who were surprised that the Brecht estate had given its authorization for a musicalization to a small professional theatre in Little Rock.

The songs were written by Arkansas native Michael Rice using as a libretto the Eric Bentley translation of the original Brecht work. Rice also served as music director, leading a seven member orchestra as it played the nineteen songs he wrote.

As director, Baker used many Brechtian techniques to stay true to the story. These included music, neon signs, and non-traditional costuming for some of the characters.  Speaking of costumes, Little Rock fashion designer Connie Fails designed the clothing for the production.

Others on the creative team included Michael R. Smith (a set that was described as “dazzling, trashily opulent”) and Kathy Gray.

The title character was played by Vivian Morrison (now Vivian Norman). Other leading roles were played by Mark Johnson, Terry Sneed, Dianne Tack, and Mychael McMillan (in drag).  Playing a trio of gods were Ronald J. Aulgur, Scott Edmonds, and Candyce Hinkle. Others in the cast included Jean Lind, Ruth Shepherd, Kathryn Pryor, Judy Trice, Carol Ann Connor (now McAdams), Ginny Pace, and Jeff Bailey.

The production took place at the Arkansas Arts Center Theatre instead of the Rep’s facility on 11th Street.  With a cast of twenty and extensive set changes, the production needed more space than the Rep’s home could accommodate.

The Good Woman of Setzuan opened on June 13 and ran through June 22.