Closing the season in style

The cast of The Addams Family. (Photo courtesy of Forest Roberts Theater)

By Amy Gawry

April is the last full month of the season for NMU’s Forest Roberts Theatre, but that doesn’t mean it’s a slow month. Besides putting on the season’s biggest musical, FRT has three other events—a dance recital, Battle of the Bands, and the Miss Upper Peninsula Pageant—filling the calendar four weekends in a row.

On Wednesday, April 5 through Sunday , April 9, FRT will put on The Addams Family. There are evening shows Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 1 p.m.

“We try to end on a fairly large note, which is why Addams Family, which is our largest musical this year, is our last show,” said FRT’s Technical Director and Production Manager David Pierce.

The Addams Family is being directed by NMU Professor Shelley Russell. In most cases, FRT lets the directing staff decide what productions to put on based on what they want to direct. Russell was excited to choose The Addams Family, and knew it was going to be big when she picked it.

“I like doing a big show, with big challenges,” Russell said.

This show is the biggest in many ways—the number of characters, the number of sets, the number of songs, and the amount of preparation time necessary to pull it all together. Saving the biggest show for last gives everyone extra time to make all those elements come together.

For the 2016-2017 theater season, auditions and casting for all the shows took place at the beginning of the fall semester, so some of the principal actors have been looking over their lines and getting into character for six months. Russell met with the actors individually in the fall, and then began official rehearsals at the very end of that semester.

The Addams Family characters present unique costuming challenges that require extra attention and planning. Some of the characters have unusual physical characteristics to recreate. Russell, as the costume director, also uses distinct costume styles to help emphasize the distinction between the quirky Addams characters, the “normal” outsiders and the chorus of ancestors.

Musicals generally require more rehearsals than plays, because the actors have to learn and practice songs and choreography besides their lines.

A professional choreographer from NMU’s dance department, Jill Grundstrom, was brought in for the production. Russell says that they’ve been spending a lot of time getting the dances right.

“There’s a lot of dance in this,” she said.

The music is, of course, a big part of this production. Hearing a Broadway recording of one of the Addams Family songs was what drew Russell to the musical originally. For Russell, it was the perfect combination of familiar characters with new comedy and music.

“I had to see the rest,” Russell said.

The play has scenes in a variety of places, which requires more work creating and executing the sets. There’s also more changes in lighting to plan out.

“When it’s a musical, you want to establish the musical numbers from the scripted part,” Pierce said.

The musical tells the story of the Addams family after the children have grown up. Wednesday has fallen in love with a boy who comes from a normal, conservative family from Ohio—a family that seems to be nothing like the Addams family. It becomes a story not just of a creepy, kooky family, but a romantic comedy depicting a situation not far-off from reality.

“It takes something that’s funny and turns it into something that also resonates with people,” Russell said.

Russell feels that resonance is one of the things that has kept the Addams characters so alive and popular through such a range of mediums and generations. She also feels that the musical has more to offer than just the characters, though.

“It shows that differences are not a bad thing,” Russell said. “It’s a reassuring message from a fun musical.”

The show is one that they anticipate will draw a lot of viewers, not just because it involves familiar characters, but because it’s a musical.

“A lot of people, when they come to the theater, want to see a big, flashy musical, and this is a big flashy musical,” Pierce said.

“It’s just so much fun,” said Russell. “It’s familiar, but so full of surprises at the same time.”

After the musical on Saturday, April 15, the Dance Minor program will have its Winter Semester Recital.  A recital is held each semester to give the dance students a chance to show off their skills and perform in front of an audience. While FRT staff is not involved with putting together the performance itself, it still keeps them busy, as they coordinate lighting and sound, and staff the theater for the event.

FRT will then host its first Battle of the Bands event on Saturday, April 22. This event was born from an idea Pierce had last year while planning for the Entertainment Technology class he teaches.

“When it comes to technical theater, the best way to learn is hands-on; so when developing the class I try to come up with hands-on projects,” Pierce said.

He decided to try a Battle of the Bands event as that project. He said the students will get to program the lighting sequences for the performing bands’ sets, putting their knowledge to work while widening their idea of what those skills can be used for down the road.

“With a theater degree, they can go out and work for a touring house, they could work for a band, they could work for a theater that brings in a lot of concerts; it’s all the same background and the same knowledge, it’s just how they use it,” Pierce said.

The event has potential to draw people to the theater who might not come to a play or musical. It also gives local bands a chance to perform on one of the largest stages in the area. There will be six to 10 pre-auditioned bands of varying genres competing.

“It gives them a little more exposure too,” Pierce said.

Local disc jockeys will have the chance to battle it out as well, as they will be providing entertainment between acts as bands are switching and re-setting. The crowd will get to vote for their favorite DJ as well as give input on the bands. Judges will award a cash prize to the band that has the best stage presence, entertainment value, and audience reaction.

FRT has partnered with Double Trouble Entertainment for the event. Double Trouble will handle the sound, while FRT does the lighting. Besides promoting the local music scene, proceeds from the event will go to the First Nighter’s Club, which financially supports the FRT and provides some theater student scholarships.

Pierce hopes that they will be able to do the event again in the future, preferably on a biannual basis.

“I think it’s good for the community and good for our students,” Pierce said.

The month wraps up with the Miss U.P. Pageant on Saturday, April 29. The pageant is a qualifying event for the Miss Michigan Pageant, and also serves as a fundraiser for the First Nighter’s Club. Like with the dance recital, the program is not put together by the theater staff, but they are still kept busy providing lighting, technical assistance and event personnel.

Pierce, Russell and the directing staff already have shows picked out for next year’s theater season. When the busy month of April is through, they’ll probably take a short break—and then spend the summer prepping for next season.

Tickets for all events are available at the FRT Box Office, or at an NMU EZ Ticket outlet. Contact the Box Office at 227-2082.

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