Bring the family.
That saying is usually directed at audiences by over-eager theater owners. But for the Howard County Summer Theatre, it's an internal memo that could be emblazoned on its dressing room doors.
Members of no less than seven families will act together in this summer's production of "The Will Rogers Follies," which opens July 8. A family-friendly atmosphere largely defines this 38-year-old troupe, which gets active just once a year for a big production showcasing local talent that runs the gamut when it comes to ages.
"Most of the shows we do feature kids," explains longtime director Tom Sankey. "So you have parents auditioning for the adult roles, while their children can go for the younger roles or be part of the chorus."
Family fun doesn't have to be predictable, though. To that end, this year Sankey brought a slightly more sophisticated musical to the mix. "The Will Rogers Follies" won multiple Tony Awards on Broadway in 1991 for its portrayal of folksy American humorist and performer Rogers, who was extremely popular in the years before the Great Depression.
The play places Rogers within the context of the old Ziegfeld Follies, which allows his character to talk directly to the audience about his life while offering side comments on politics and the world.
When Sankey first gathered together the 84 actors who will perform in the production, he found that not all of them knew who Will Rogers was.
"I took a survey at the beginning of the show and I'd say it would probably be under half the cast who had heard of him," admits Sankey. "Most of the adults had. Some of the kids got confused between Will Rogers and Roy Rogers! So I think it's a great educational piece, and it's highly entertaining.
"And you know our troupe — we like to have a family type show for nice summer entertainment."
Old and young
One of the most interesting aspects of the Howard County Summer Theatre is the way it allows family members to work together on stage and off. This time around, one area family, the Stanfords, will take the lead in that respect, since the brother and sister duo of Jeff and Becca are not only in the current production, but were also in an earlier staging of the show that the troupe did in 1997.
"Jeff would have been 7 at that time," recalls Sankey. "He played the youngest child of Will Rogers. Now he's in his senior year at Virginia Tech."
Acting along side the Stanford siblings will be their mother, Melissa Stanford.
Other family teams include the father-daughter duo of Jilli Anne and Gary Grabau, and the mother-daughter pair of Jennifer and Lauren Goodwin.
The troupe's longtime costume designer, Laural Clark, also returns to the stage along with her two daughters, Kristin and Stephanie, while the father-son team of Jay and Joseph Humm will perform together.
The father-daughter pairings also include John and Emily Nupp.
Finally, a few husband-and-wife teams will be on board this year. These include Atholton High drama teacher Nathan Rosen and his wife, Robbie Babbitt, and Scott Pfeifer and his wife, Marian Wheltle.
Down to business
As Sankey conducts rehearsals at both Mt. Hebron High School (which is undergoing renovations) and Atholton High (where the play will be performed), he finds himself spending a lot of time reading and re-reading the script and getting to know the play better.
He says he now believes it's something of a modern-day classic that deserves a wider exposure.