On the stage: Forest Roberts Theatre news, James A. Panowski, Ph.D.

Blockbuster season promises greatness
The Forest Roberts Theatre at Northern Michigan University has announced its 2006-2007 Blockbuster theatre season. Four audience-pleasing shows along with a new musical version of Scrooge make for what director of theatre James A. Panowski calls “the most spectacular season we have ever presented.”
• Epic Proportions a screwball farce by David Crane (co-creator of “Friends”) and Larry Coen opens the season with performance form October 4 through 7. Set in the 1930s, Epic Proportions tells the story of two brothers, Benny and Phil, who go to the Arizona desert to be extras in D.W. De Witt’s huge Biblical epic, Exeunt Omnes.
Before you know it, Phil is directing the movie and Benny is starring in it. To complicate matters further they both fall in love with Louise, the assistant director in charge of extras. Along the way there are gladiator battles, the Ten Plagues and a cast of thousands, portrayed by four other actors.
• Rebecca Gorman from Denver penned the 2006 Mildred and Albert Panowski Playwriting Award-winner, Tell-Tale. This thrilling drama deals with the passion, madness and genius of Edgar Allen Poe. Tell-Tale takes the facts of Poe’s life and explores the possibilities.
He was a troubled, intelligent, paranoid, manipulative man, who suffered from illnesses which were undiagnosable in his time. Tell-Tale is, in essence, Poe’s last confession. It takes place in the Baltimore hospital where he lay in delirium for four days before his death. Poe is forced to look at his life, his mistakes, his outrageous behaviors, and in the end, he must try to find peace. Tell-Tale runs November 15 through 18.
• “Marley was dead to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. Old Marley was dead as a door-nail.” So begins Dickens’ classic story, continuously in print since it was published in 1843.
The tradition continues at FRT as Scrooge the annual holiday present to the Upper Peninsula runs from December 7 through 10. This is a brand-new musical adaptation by Denise M. Clark and Jeff Bruning that is certain to delight the entire family.
• Batten down the hatches…Dolly’s back where she belongs: on the Forest Roberts Theatre stage. America’s favorite musical and winner of ten Tony Awards, Hello, Dolly! takes the stage from February 21 through 24 and February 27 through March 2.
Michael Stewart’s fast-moving script follows the antics of professional meddler and matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi. Early on she decides she’s going to marry the miserly, rich hay and feed dealer Horace Vandergelder. At first, Horace engages Dolly to find him a second wife. Although she has arranged for him to meet milliner Mrs. Irene Molloy, she has no intention of letting that match be completed. Dolly wants Horace for herself.
Jerry Herman’s cornucopia of memorable songs includes: Elegance, Before the Parade Passes By, Put on Your Sunday Clothes and perhaps the greatest showstopper ever written—Hello, Dolly!, a perfect show for the entire family.
• Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof wraps up the Blockbuster theatre season from April 18 through 21. Brought to brilliant life on the stage by Barbara Bel Geddes, Burl Ives and Ben Gazzara, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof enjoyed equal success on the screen thanks to the talents of Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman.
In a plantation house, a family celebrates the sixty-fifth birthday of “Big Daddy,” as they sentimentally dub him. The mood is somber, despite the festivities, because a number of evils poison the gaiety. “Maggie the Cat” and “Big Daddy” come to life, as greed, sins of the past and desperate clawing hopes for the future collide in this scorching, brilliant drama.
Season tickets are available at a savings of up to twenty-seven percent of the price of single tickets. Season ticket holders also enjoy special privileges, including a special discount for Scrooge. For ticket information, stop by the Superior Dome, the Forest Roberts Theatre box office or call 227-2082 weekdays between 1:00 and 4:30 p.m. First Nighters Club members and 2005-06 season ticket holders have been sent their renewal subscriptions.

Board recognizes student achievements
The First Nighters Club, the Northern Michigan University theatre booster organization, recognized a number of student artists in the annual senior performances and theatre awards ceremony held recently in the Forest Roberts Theatre. Four students were cited for “Outstanding Achievement” to the theatre program.
According to James A. Panowski, Forest Roberts Theatre director, the criteria for the achievement awards included “academic proficiency, significant onstage and/or offstage contributions during the Incredible Journeys theatre season, and representation of the FRT and NMU in an exemplary manner.”
The recipients will have their names engraved on a permanent plaque to be displayed in the lobby of the theatre. Each received a check in the amount of $200 from the First Nighters Club.
Nicole De Young (Skandia) and Travis Moscinski (Junction City, Wisconsin) shared the “Outstanding Achievement by a Freshman” award. De Young was busy backstage working as a carpenter and electrician on all five main-stage productions. She was assistant stage manager for As Is, follow spot operator for Closer Than Ever and assistant technical director for Pendragon: the Legend of King Arthur. She also was the sound board operator for Lab III (student-directed one-act plays).
Moscinski appeared as Chet and in the Ensemble in As Is, Fred in Ebenezer! and Lancelot in Pendragon: the Legend of King Arthur. His Lab Show roles included Jack in The Importance of Being Earnest and Alan in Find Your Way Home. Moscinski also worked as a stage carpenter for all five main-stage shows.
While there was no sophomore award, Jessica Luiz (Grand Rapids) was cited for “Outstanding Contributions by a Junior.” Her onstage appearances included Standby for All My Sons, Angela in The Baddest of Boys, Mrs. Dilber in Ebenezer!, Ensemble in Closer Than Ever and Running the Courses and Morgause/Mordrid in Pendragon: the Legend of King Arthur.
Luiz contributed silks choreography for Closer Than Ever and Running the Courses, served as assistant stage manager for Ebenezer! and scenic painter for Pendragon: the Legend of King Arthur.
The “Outstanding Achievement by a Senior” award went to Elizabeth Bruer (St. Clair). A backstage stalwart, she served as production stage manager for As Is, Follies and Pendragon: the Legend of King Arthur. Bruer was scenic artist for All My Sons, Closer Than Ever and Pendragon: the Legend of King Arthur. She did double-duty as scenic artist and co-designer for As Is.
The awards were presented by Jacqueline Love, president of the First Nighters Club advisory board.

FRT alums shine on Broadway
Leah Hocking (Marquette) and Bryan S. Johnson (Saginaw), two stalwarts from the 1980s on the Forest Roberts Theatre stage, are appearing together at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway in the mega-hit, Mamma Mia! Johnson, making his Broadway debut, stepped into the show in the spring of 2005 while Hocking just joined the long-running musical.
Hocking is starring as Donna Sheridan, the “Mamma” in Mamma Mia! She has been featured in seven Broadway shows, including: All Shook Up (Miss Sandra), Dance of the Vampires (Magda), and Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe’s The Wild Party (Mae).
This spring, Hocking made her New York City Opera debut as Cleo in The Most Happy Fella, starring Paul Sorvino. What makes this debut so special is that she also was playing Velma Von Tussle in Hairspray at the same time, literally “commuting” between the Neil Simon Theatre and Lincoln Center.
Her Off-Broadway credits include Lucy in The Thing About Men, Dena in Inside Out and multiple roles in The Best of Forbidden Broadway. Hocking has appeared regionally at the Goodspeed Opera House, the Milwaukee Rep Theatre, Paper Mill Playhouse and the Sacramento Music Circus.
While at Northern, Hocking was seen as Passionella in The Apple Tree, Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew and in the title role of Mother Courage. She was featured as Hannah in Tennessee Williams’ Night of the Iguana and as the spiteful Edna Summey in Dark of the Moon.
Hocking originally auditioned for Mamma Mia! in May of 2001 when she was pregnant with her daughter Mabel. At the time, the producers were looking at her for the role of Tanya, the fashion maven and one of Donna’s girlfriends, who shows up for the wedding. She was told to check back after she gave birth.
Flash forward to April 7, 2006: daughter Mabel, three Broadway shows and one opera later. She was given one scene and the song “Winner Takes All” to learn overnight. The next day, she read the scene once and sang the song with no feedback other than, “Very nice. We’ll get in touch.”
“I was very depressed,” she said. “I thought I didn’t get it. I mean they didn’t even work with me on the scene or the song.”
On April 10, her husband Jim L’Ecuyer took a message.
“You got the job, honey!” he exclaimed.
“Holy wah! Are you kidding me?” was her subtle response.
A few days later, she began work with the music director and stage manager and with the matinee performance on June 7, she made her debut as Donna Sheridan, the “Mamma” in Mamma Mia!
Although she has gone though an exhausting spring, she found learning the role of Donna to be “…exhilarating and demanding, but great fun.” This is not the first time Hocking has appeared in a lead on Broadway. She spent six weeks as Lucy in Jekyll and Hyde and over a month as Sister Sarah in the 1992 hit revival of Guys and Dolls with Nathan Lane.
“I find it exciting to ‘drive’ a show,” she said. “But it is also exhausting doing eight performances a week.”
Hocking has learned two things doing Mamma Mia!
“Because the stage floor is sharply raked, just doing the movement and choreography in the two and one-half hour show is tremendously taxing on my back and feet,” she said. “Bryan warned me about this and showed me some stretch exercises which I need to do after every performance.”
She finds herself seeking out a chiropractor regularly, and a massage therapist and an acupuncturist as needed.
Her voice is something Hocking is very careful with.
“On days of performances, I try to do as little talking as possible and, because I do a lot of belting in the show, I need to ‘warm down’ after every performance,” she said. “I can’t just walk out of the theatre and forget about it. When I was learning the role and being ‘put in,’ everybody in the entire company from the stage doormen to the production stage manager were really nice. The best part was they made no judgments, just did their best to help me ease into the role.”
As far as her career is concerned, Hocking is modest.
“My career has been a steady process,” she said. “All has fallen into place and it just seems natural. With a terrific husband and daughter and now Mamma Mia!, both life and art are good!”
Johnson is playing the Australian “father” Bill Austin. He has performed at theatres throughout the country including the Adirondack Theatre Festival, Denver Center, Michigan Shakespeare Festival, Milwaukee Rep Theatre and Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.
New York theatre credits include Philemon (twenty-fifth anniversary production), Mimi LeDuck and his solo show, I Want My Token Back!, for which he received a coveted Backstage Bistro Award.
His television credits range from “All My Children” and “As the World Turns” to “Ed” and “Law and Order.” He currently is filming a new series for The N, set to premiere in January, 2007.
Johnson was an actor, writer and director during his time at Northern. He was featured as Frederick in A Little Night Music, Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, Preacher Haggler in Dark of the Moon and Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest.
He wrote a delightful children’s play based on Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince, Sex and Violence (not a children’s play), directed Landscape and wrote and directed The Excitable Gift.
He is ecstatic about being in one of the longest running shows on Broadway.
“I’m having a great time in Mamma Mia!” he said. “It has given me so much and it’s a joy to do the show every night. It’s a blast from start to finish.”
Johnson watches Hocking from the wings when he is not onstage.
“Leah is fantastic in the show,” he said. “She’s just amazing—but then, she always was. It’s terrific having the chance to work with her again.”
The last line of his “Who’s Who” in the Playbill, Johnson reads “Proud NMU alum and AEA member.”
“Looking back, some of the happiest times of my life were when I was at NMU,” he said. “It’s where I found myself. I had the opportunity and freedom to grow and express myself in so many ways in the Forest Roberts Theatre training program. I will always be grateful for that.”
—James A. Panowski, Ph.D.
director, Forest Roberts Theatre

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