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.
"Yes, it's a favorite of mine. But because it has never been made into a movie, a lot of people don't know it."
The musical's strength, he stresses, comes from its central character, Rogers (played this time out by Shawn Kettering), whom Sankey calls "a very inspirational character.
"He was a humorist and a cowboy and a movie star and Wild West performer. I think, in these times, we are looking at the same thing that happened back in the Depression, and a lot of his words and sayings are pretty appropriate today."
Sankey first saw the musical on Broadway starring Keith Carradine. He liked it so much that he went to see it again when the touring production stopped into Baltimore the next year.
"I think what makes it an outstanding show is the ability of Will to relate to the audience," he says. "When that happens early on, the audience actually becomes a character in the play, because Will does a lot of talking to the audience.
"The other factor that makes it extraordinary," he continues, "is the huge number of production numbers it has. It's like the Ziegfeld Follies were back in their day, with show girls and cowboys being involved in production numbers."
That, he says, is what has enabled him to expand the show to the Howard County Summer Theatre's large-scale format. Todd Hochkeppel will play the legendary showman, Florence Ziegfeld.
"With the many, many production numbers, we've been able to include teenagers, college-age kids and adults."
The musical's plot, he adds, was designed to showcase Rogers' trademark wit.
Most observers would think that the biggest hurdle Sankey faced would be dealing with such a huge ensemble cast. But the hardest thing, he says, was figuring out a location in which to stage this year's production.
"Mt. Hebron's parking lot is going to be totally torn up," notes the director, who is also a math teacher at the school. "They just finished tarring that today. So we were unable to have access to any parking."
In past years, whenever the troupe was unable to rehearse or perform at Mt. Hebron, it moved to nearby Centennial High School. But this time around, that didn't work either.
"We found out Centennial was already booked for the summer," he recalls with a sigh. "So that's how we found ourselves at Atholton."
The Howard County Summer Theatre will present "The Will Rogers Follies" Friday-Saturday, July 8-9, and Wednesday-Saturday, July 13-16, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, July 10, at 2 p.m. at Atholton High School (6250 Freetown Road, Columbia). Admission is $15 general, $12 for senior citizens and children ages 12 and younger.
Tickets are available at Music and Arts in Center at Chatham Station and I Love Theater in Ellicott City. Tickets can also be purchased on line at http://www.ticketleap.com, or from a cast member, and will be sold at the door, if available. Proceeds from the show benefit Prepare for Success and the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center.