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Howard's Fabulous 50+ Players share musical theater passion

The Fabulous 50+ Players of the Howard County Arts Council include (front row, from left) Ann Henry of Ellicott City, Jackie Dunphy of Ellicott City, Shirley Bishop of Catonsville, music director Phyllis Stanley of Columbia, Patrycia Pickett of Pikesville, Shirley Greenwald of Columbia and Paula Rehe of Ellicott City; and 9back row, from left) Ed Kaplan of Ellicott City, Jos Askin of Pikesville, Tom Kowalski of Catonsville and Jay Fred Cohen of Columbia.
The Fabulous 50+ Players of the Howard County Arts Council include (front row, from left) Ann Henry of Ellicott City, Jackie Dunphy of Ellicott City, Shirley Bishop of Catonsville, music director Phyllis Stanley of Columbia, Patrycia Pickett of Pikesville, Shirley Greenwald of Columbia and Paula Rehe of Ellicott City; and 9back row, from left) Ed Kaplan of Ellicott City, Jos Askin of Pikesville, Tom Kowalski of Catonsville and Jay Fred Cohen of Columbia. (Nicole Munchel / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Stepping up the tempo while staking their claim on the arts scene looks like an awful lot of fun for the members of the Fabulous 50+ Players, a musical theater outreach group funded by the Howard County Arts Council.

Conceived in 1999 when then-Council Deputy Director Debbie Meyer hired Harriet Lynn as the director/choreographer and Phyllis Stanley, of Columbia, as the music director; the troupe started out performing in the Black Box Theatre at the county's Center for the Arts in Ellicott City.

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Those were the fondly remembered days of shows like "Remember When" featuring songs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries; and Broadway favorites "70, Girls, 70," "Red Hot and Cole" and "Rodgers and Hart, A Musical Review."

In spring 2003, the troupe debuted its first original show — "The Fabulous Fifty Plus Players Go To Camp" — with music written by Chuck Knauf, of Baltimore. (From that point forward, Knauf has sung, "We're the Fabulous Fifty Plus Players" from "Camp" as the prelude at performances.)

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Stanley, who plays keyboard, said she values the years she partnered with Lynn to choose and direct shows, and that Lynn "contributed a lot to developing the company," a working relationship which lasted until the Howard County Arts Council changed the program's focus.

About seven years ago, the Players stopped performing at the Center for the Arts and, Stanley said, they shortened the performances to an hour and added sing-alongs.

"This way, we could reach a larger audience of seniors; many of whom could not get to the theater on their own," she said.

Today the Fabulous 50+Players take their energy and passion on the road in outreach to fellow seniors, performing at senior centers and assisted living and nursing homes, mostly in Howard County.

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Dan Vellucci, grants and special projects coordinator at the Howard County Arts Council, said the troupe performed "Memorable Musical Moments (Songs Through the Ages)" last year at the Bain Center, North Laurel 50+ Center, Brighton Gardens, Ellicott City Senior Center, Elkridge Senior Center and Vantage House. He assists much like a producer by booking shows, designing programs and fliers and handling Stanley's contract.

Performances at the larger centers, Stanley said, are open to the public.

"We feel [the program's] been extremely effective in this format, reaching more people, and the shows have been very well received," Vellucci said.

The Arts Council outlines three Fabulous 50+ Players program goals: to foster a creative senior activity that promotes wellness and community service; to create opportunities for the Players actors and other seniors in the community to socialize; and to entertain members of the senior population who might otherwise be unable to attend theater.

Vellucci said the program's budget is about $2,500 a year.

A core group of excited thespians attended a pre-season rehearsal last week — Joe Askin, Shirley Bishop, Jay Fred Cohen, Jackie Dunphy, Shirley Greenwald, Ann Henry, Ed Kaplan, Tom Kowalski, Patrycia Pickett, Paula Rehr and Doug Williams — and shared what they enjoyed about the program, occasionally breaking into spontaneous laughter and song.

"The best part is the reaction you get from the audiences you're singing for," said Rehr. "It's joyful to see the people."

An Ellicott city resident, Rehr has been with the Fabulous 50+ Players for about three years, and also performs with Kowalski, of Catonsville, in a duet known as Two for the Show" The duet performed on the MS Explorer cruise ship six years ago and won first place in the 2011 Baltimore County Seniors Have Talent contest.

Kowalski said he first connected with the Fabulous 50+ Players almost a decade ago through Stanley, who teaches his wife piano, and brought Rehr in more recently.

Dunphy, also of Ellicott City, has her own dance group — the Golden Girls — that entertains at nursing homes, senior centers and private parties. She's performed in every Fabulous 50+ Players show since "Red, Hot and Cole" and teaches tap dance at the County's Ellicott City 50+ Center.

Another long-time Player, Columbia resident Shirley Greenwald, said she "grew up on movie musicals" and loves wearing glitzy costumes.

"We share common interests and a passion for musical theater, and we share our knowledge," Greenwald said.

Ellicott City resident Ann Henry, who said joining the Fabulous 50+ Players about 15 years ago led her to branch out to acting in community theater, caught the bug as a Fabulous 50+ Players audience member prior to auditioning for "Red, Hot and Cole."

"They were having so much fun, I thought I would love to do that," Henry said.

Newcomer Patrycia Pickett, of Pikesville, said, "They [the members] are very welcoming."

Catonsville residents Shirley Bishop and Doug Williams (a runner up in the 2009 Maryland Senior Idol contest) also perform with the Fabulous 50+ Players and with Dunphy's Golden Girls.

Williams said he loves to sing and has found new opportunities through the troupe.

"I've met some wonderful people," he said.

"I love performing and staying active, healthy and happy," Bishop said.

In "We're the Fabulous Fifty Plus Players," Knauf sings, "We are stage struck! We are star struck! And should we be down on our luck, we keep playing with zest, playing our best …."

Such love and enthusiasm has got to be good for anyone's heart.

Auditions for the 2015 season, "With Love From Broadway," will be held at the Howard County Center for the Arts, Black Box Theatre, 8510 High Ridge Road, Ellicott City, on Mondays, Sept. 14 and 21, for adults age 50 and older only. Call 410-313-2787 for information. Dress rehearsal for the performance of "With Love From Broadway" will be open to the public, Monday, Nov. 2, 7:30 p.m., at the Black Box Theatre. Admission is free.

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