Looking at me writing my debrief in the same calendar year. Progress!
In the summer of 2016 we decided to revisit our old friend Neil Simon (Jake's Women, The Odd Couple) and mount a production of his little-known flop, The Star-Spangled Girl. SSG tells the story of two fellas who are happily publishing a newspaper out of their apartment until an Olympic swimmer moves in next door and, through no fault of her own, leaves chaos in her wake.
I discovered it in much the same way that I discovered Allegro. I picked up a collection of Neil Simon's writing to read Barefoot in the Park and found SSG instead. Several things appealed to me about this show. First, I'm a Neil Simon fan so I find his dialogue and timing to be always entertaining. It also had shades of The Odd Couple, so I thought it might be fun to approach that relationship from another angle. The small cast, just three characters, was very appealing as well. My first instinct was to cast Mike and me in roles that would mirror the ones we had in The Odd Couple. It was tempting, but the pull to direct was stronger. Plus I kept reading Eric in the role of Norman. (I typically do this when I read shows, mentally cast actors I've worked with. It helps me visualize what a performance would look like.) With Eric as Norman and Mi
ke as Andy (the "Oscar" role), my mind jumped right to Sarah to play Sophie, the southern swimmer. This cast energized me because they are some of my favorites to work with and I'd never had any of them in a play together before. We decided to do one show in the Fire Hall and two shows in the Nancy Howe Auditorium at the library to tie in with the adult summer reading program.
The rehearsals were fun from the get-go. We had a really great readthrough, which helped to get everyone excited. Neither Mike nor Sarah had read it prior to that. Eric had, but was unimpressed with his first read. Hearing it all come together gave us an early vision of what the show would be. The final performance stayed very true to that original readthrough. Now that can be a bad thing, but in this case it's because things just clicked early on. That gave us plenty of time to play around with the jokes and rapid-paced delivery.
Memorization was a major issue with this show. Because of the small cast and tendency to rehash conversation from earlier scenes, it was difficult to lock things in to place. The script is very dependent on things being said exactly right, meaning that if one person was off then so was the whole scene. They were scared, but I wasn't. I've been in shows where the cast peaks too soon. It makes things feel stale and can effect the quality of the actual performances. On the flip-side, I've directed shows where things landed exactly right just in time for the curtain to rise. (This was never more true than it was with Guilty Conscience, one of my personal favorites.) SSG definitely landed just in the nick of time.
We opened in the Houghton Fire Hall, something that we skipped (and really missed) for Spinoff. I think we were all more excited about that performance than we were for the ones at the Howe. I like using the Fire Hall because it speaks to the indie roots of Valley Theatre. It feels more alive and urgent. The Houghton show killed. In the Fire Hall the crowd is so close to the action, that they don't miss a thing. It makes it more frenetic and engaging. SSG borders on the absurd and played much better to crowd that really felt like they were along for the ride. The show climaxes with a fist fight between Eric's Norman and Mike's Andy. In was perfection, particularly for that first show. The Houghton crowd was in tears and we were right there with them. In what would become a signature move of the show, Eric's watch actually broke during the fight.
For the next few shows we moved to the Nancy Howe Auditorium. It's a beautiful space and everything looked just right. The show didn't play nearly as well in that space though. The crowds definitely enjoyed it and were very enthusiastic at the post show meet and greets, but it lost something with the distance between cast and crowd. The cast played nicely off of each other. They adapted to the space well. Eric broke a trophy in the first show and knocked over a fireplace in the second. Classic stuff. In the end we all agreed that we liked the Houghton show best.
It's funny how that happens. We originally used the Fire Hall for Art and Telephone Roulette out of necessity. Now, even with a beautiful theater at our disposal, it has become our old-school preference.
Bottom line, I really dug directing The Star-Spangled Girl. It felt like the old days, like a return to form. Something I hadn't really felt since Wise Women three years earlier. I think the show itself was lost in the shadow of The Odd Couple, which to be fair is a better show. It failed to get the acclaim of its predecessor and never really found a footing in area productions or even with it's lukewarm film version. Still, it worked just right for us. It was nice to dust if off and breathe new life into it.