Peace College Theatre director Dr. Kenny Gannon, who directed the first four Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy productions with great style and wit, steps in front of the footlights in Starting Here, Starting Now, and proves himself equally adept as an actor and song-and-dance man. Indeed, his cheeky performance helped trigger the well-deserved standing ovation at the end of last night’s performance.
Like most musical revues, Starting Here, Starting Now by Richard Maltby, Jr. (lyrics) and David Shire (music) is a highlight reel: a series of quick (mostly comic) sketches in which many very different characters are briefly glimpsed. Act I mainly explores the glorious ups and depressing downs of modern romance in the big city, and Act II is a valentine to fresh starts for those unlucky in love or in life. The Maltby-Shire songbook — performed with panache by Mary Cuchetti, Monique Argent, and especially Kenny Gannon and played with great brio by musical director Julie Flinchum (keyboards), John Simonetti (bass), and Carlton Miles (drums) — is chock-full of clever, if not particularly memorable lyrics. (These songs are similar to Stephen Sondheim’s cockeyed love songs in Follies.)
Emotion and expert phrasing by Cuchetti, Argent, and Gannon bring each song fully to life; and Wilmington, NC director/choreographer Debra Gillingham expertly orchestrates the action. No one lingers too long on the emotional landscape superbly suggested by set designer Sonya Drum and expertly lit by Curtis Jones.
Some of the show’s highlights include Monique Argent’s endearing impersonation of a highly nervous female falling in love despite herself (“A Little Bit Off”), a woman experiencing a Fall of discontent (“Autumn”), a woman shopping for her sweetie at Bloomingdale’s (“I’m Going to Make You Beautiful”), and a woman having a pity party (“Song of Me”); Mary Cuchetti, with her big Broadway voice, momentarily forgetting that she’s her absent boyfriend while working the “Crossword Puzzle” in The New York Times, taking a poignant walk down lonely street (“A Girl You Should Know”), and lamenting a life unlived while waiting for what (love, life, the Messiah?) (“What About Today?”); and Kenny Gannon sauntering through a number of numbers where his character is either cock of the walk or another victim (a stringy Sunday dinner on some former girlfriend’s table?) of love gone awry (“We Can Talk to Each Other,” “I Don’t Remember Christmas,” “Hey There Fans,” and especially “Flair”).
These sparkling solos and some delightful duets (Ardent and Cuchetti on “I Think I May Want to Remember Today” and “Today Is the First Day of the Rest of My Life”) combine with the show’s production numbers (“The Word is Love” / “Starting Here, Starting Now,” “Just Across the River,” “I Don’t Believe It,” “I Hear Bells,” “Pleased with Myself,” “Travel,” and “One Step”) to create a highly entertaining evening. Starting Here, Starting Now is a refreshing change of pace, and great antidote to the malaise that sets in in the Dog Days of Summer.
Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy presents Starting Here, Starting Now Thursday-Saturday, Aug. 4-6 and 10-13, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Aug. 7 and 14, at 2 p.m. in The Kennedy Theater in the Progress Energy (fromerly BTI) Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $35 per ticket or $50 for two tickets (except Aug. 3rd), except pay-what-you-want matinees Aug. 7 and 14. Box Office: 919/831-6060. Group Rates: 919/828-3726. Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy: http://www.hotsummernightsatthekennedy.org/ [inactive 1/06].
Romance will definitely be in the air when Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy presents Starting Here, Starting Now, a critically acclaimed Off-Broadway musical revue showcasing the songs of lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr. and composer David Shire, Aug. 3-14 in The Kennedy Theater in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Raleigh, NC. Wilmington director/choreographer Debra Gillingham will stage the Hot Summer Nights, which will star Mary Cuchetti, Monique Argent, and Dr. Kenny Gannon.
Debra Gillingham previously directed the critically acclaimed Peace College Theatre production of Tintypes. She recently directed Putting It Together for the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre in Mars Hill and A Pocketful of Rhymes for the Cape Fear Regional Theatre in Fayetteville.
Mary Cuchetti is a familiar face to North Carolina Theatre patrons. She is also a voice instructor at the NCT Conservatory for the Performing Arts. Monique Argent has performed with Burning Coal Theatre Company and Theatre in the Park in Raleigh, the North Carolina Symphony, and Temple Theatre in Sanford. And Peace College associate professor of theatre Kenny Gannon directed the first four Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy productions. As an actor, he has performed with Burning Coal, the Brevard Music Center, and the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre.
Eleven-time Tony Award® nominee Richard Maltby, Jr., who won the 1978 Tony for Best Direction of a Musical for Ain’t Misbehaving, also penned the lyrics for Big (1996), Miss Saigon (1991), and Baby (1983). Composer David Shire earned Tony nominations for his scores for Broadway musicals Baby and Big. He also wrote the scores for the award-winning motion pictures All the President’s Men (1976) and Norma Rae (1979, and won the Academy Award for Best Song for “It Goes Like It Goes” from Norma Rae.
Hot Summer Nights guest director/choreographer Debra Gillingham says, “I am a great fan of Closer Than Ever [another Maltby-Shire collaboration, which debuted Off Broadway in 1989] and also performed in Baby many years ago, so I was aware of Maltby and Shire. I had heard of Starting Here, Starting Now; but I was not familiar with the show, have never seen it performed, and didn’t know any of the music. But I have loved discovering each of these songs. They all have something important to say.
“I love the format of musical revues,” says Gillingham. “Not only does it give you a chance to enjoy an evening of one lyricist/composer’s songs, but it gives you a chance to present an evening of very short one-act plays … in that, I mean, each song is its own scene, its own story. The difficult challenge of this format is to find the thread that connects all of the music, so that you don’t just have a concert of songs. Some musical revues are better constructed than others …, but the job of the director is to find out how to make it all work together with a common message.”
Debra Gillingham adds, “There really is not a plot per se, but the show presents music that explores love (searching for, finding, losing, and going on without it), life, and self-confidence. It is really about the journeys (and the discoveries you make) that one encounters in their life and the roller-coaster ride that this usually entails.
“Life isn’t easy as we all know. Some aspects are wonderful,” Gillingham says, “some are difficult, and some are just a mystery. Some of the journey we make alone, and some we travel with others. Sometimes we learn from our mistakes; sometimes we don’t. The songs present a wide variety of emotional content about these journeys. There is humor, there is sadness, there is anger, there is joy, but mainly there is exploration.”
Debra Gillingham claims, “The greatest challenge of this format is to find the thread and the continuity; otherwise, you just have an evening of songs — not that that is a bad thing. But if you just want to hear the music, you can stay at home and listen to the CD. The theatrical presentation [provides] a chance for the actors and musicians to bring the songs to life and create relationships along the way.
“Technically,” she notes, “the show needs to have an environment that will suffice for all the numbers without the complicated set changes you encounter in a book musical.. It needs to be simple but engaging; and, in order to let the audience become a confidant of the performers, it needs to be intimate.”
Starting Here, Starting Now made its Big Apple debut Off Broadway on June 19, 1977 at the Barbarann, where it ran for 120 performances. “This music is what Broadway can’t get enough of: melodic, surprising, playable,” raved The New York Post. The Washington Star later claimed that this revue has “more lilting originality and heart-felt emotion than any big Broadway musical.”
In addition to director/choreographer Debra Gillingham, the Hot Summer Nights production team for this show includes production manager Michael Kennedy, musical director Julie Flinchum, set designer Sonya Drum, lighting designer Curtis Jones, sound designer Brian L. Hunt, and stage manager Lee Stimmel. Gillingham says she and the performers collaborated on costumes for the revue.
Gillingham says, “The set is simple and presents an urban surrounding, with suggestions of city buildings, skyline, etc. There are a variety of levels, which helps facilitate flow and transitions. Sonya has created a lovely visual atmosphere.
“The lighting is subtle and atmospheric,” she adds. “When you have lots of short stories/scenes to present, I think it is a greater challenge to the lighting designer, so that each one is different and interesting. There will also be more transitions from one song to the next rather than the standard blackouts from song to song. Curtis [Jones] and I have had discussions during rehearsals of the show and I will see his work when we move into the theatre tomorrow.”
Debra Gillingham says, “The first act is very much about day-to-day life, and we are presenting the actors in their everyday work/business attire — a simple dress, pants with matching blouse, and business suit. I wanted them to look urban, with very clean lines and patterns that suggest city-scapes. The second act is more formal, addressing the fact that our performers are in a different stage of their lives — and in a way, it is more presentational. They wear cocktail dresses and tuxedoes.”
Gillingham adds, “I have had a great time being part of this new summer series. I always love coming here to work in Raleigh. It’s been fun discovering this show and working with such a fine cast. Monique [Argent], Mary [Cuchetti], and Kenny [Gannon] work well together; and they have been very open to this collaborative adventure. I have worked with Monique and Kenny previously, but did not know Mary. Julie [Flinchum] is a gifted musician and musical director, and this is the first time we have been able to work together. I hope it won’t be the last.”
Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy presents Starting Here, Starting Now Wednesday-Saturday, Aug. 3-6 and 10-13, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Aug. 7 and 14, at 2 p.m. in The Kennedy Theater in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $35 per ticket or $50 for two tickets (except Aug. 3rd), except pay-what-you-want matinees Aug. 7 and 14. BTI Box Office: 919/831-6060. Group Rates: 919/828-3726. Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy: http://www.hotsummernightsatthekennedy.org/ [inactive 1/06].