Thursday, July 28, 2016

Hello, Jenn Thompson: Spreading Sunshine All Over The Place!

Ed Sullivan
Jenn Thompson
Don't let today's opportunities become tomorrow's what ifs. - Pat Flynn

Happy July 28th, 2016!
July 28 is the 210th day of the year in the Gregorian calendar. There are 156 days remaining until the end of the year. This date is slightly more likely to fall on a Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday (58 in 400 years each) than on Sunday or Monday (57), and slightly less likely to occur on a Wednesday or Friday (56).

You'd have to be living under a rock to not know about all the strife that we are facing in the world today. However, I can offer you a great escape. Travel up to the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam Connecticut to see their production of Bye, Bye Birdie running through September 8th. 
I was lucky enough to be transported back to 1961, the year I was born. From the opening strains of the overture, I knew I was in for a real treat. 
Think for a moment of July 26th, 1961.
It was a world of Ed Sullivan and Elvis Presley and an innocence we will never see the likes of again. It was a time when there were three networks and the family used to come together (multi generations) to watch a show, especially The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights on CBS.
Ode to a Sunday Night from The Film version of Bye, Bye Birdie
Luckily, Jenn Thompson has created that world at the Goodspeed.
I hurt from smiling so much! When I was asked if there was anyone from the cast that I wanted to interview, it was a tough choice.
I opted to interview the director of this production, Jenn Thompson. With all due respect to all involved, she is the true star.
Carol Channing once said, "You need a benevolent despot as a director." THAT is a good thing. See it through to the end. Jenn and I sat down to discuss Jenn Thompson and Bye, Bye, Birdie. This blog is the result of that conversation.
Jenn started out as a kid actor. She is also the
Mary Bacon and Jenn Thompson (Source:
child of actors.
She started professionally in the business at seven and did mostly theatre to begin with, including Annie.
She was in the first wave of replacement orphans in the original run.
She was in the production for two years, which is where she met Charles Strouse. She became quite friendly with him. She eventually toured with his show By Strouse with him during the run of Annie and a little bit after that.
She had a very successful career as a kid actor and went on to do film and television.
She continued into adulthood and remained as a professional actor until just under ten years ago.

She switched over to directing and tried for a short while to do both and found that it was hard to make that transition and have people take her seriously.
She eventually opted to just hang out her "shingle" as a director only.
As a director, she used to be a co-artistic director of a New York based company called The Actor's Company Theatre. She actually started there as an actor. She had a lot of interesting and good things happen for her there as a director. There were a resident theatre at the Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row.
That launched a career in regional theatres as well as New York as a director.
She did a show earlier this year at the Mint Theatre at City Center called Women Without Men. 
It got a lot of great attention. It garnered a Drama Desk nomination, a Lortel Award nomination, and an off-Broadway Alliance nomination.
And, now, she has turned her hand to musical theatre, a first for her as director. Not only did she direct Bye, Bye, Birdie, but she has Charles Strouse's full endorsement.
He was there for the very first read through which was thrilling for everybody. He really launched this production in a really great way with his endorsement. It was gratifying to everyone in the room. Jenn could tell very quickly that they had a spectacular cast.
Strouse gave them the "seal of approval" they needed.
He returned for their very first show which was terrifying for Jenn. He was very generous and very happy with it. Jenn was in touch with Strouse and Adams throughout this entire process because there were revisions happening.
Anytime she had a new thought, she would run it by both of them. Strouse's presence at Goodspeed has been great for them.
There was no opposition to any of the revisions being made. There were discussions, but no opposition. They were incredibly generous with the revisions and to any and all ideas. Some ideas stuck and some didn't. This was from the very beginning. It is Bye, Bye, Birdie. It is a tried and true show. It is a lot of people's favorite musical ever...and it should be. It would be a little audacious, according to Jenn, to come in and say, "I think this could be better."
However, right from the beginning they were both very much on board with "refreshing it." Their participation was a thrill for Jenn.
As she does with Charles Strouse, Jenn also has a history with Bye, Bye Birdie. 
Jenn Thompson and Warren Kelley revisit 'Bye Bye Birdie' with Goodspeed version (Source:
Jenn Thompson and Steven Kunken (Photo Credit: Diane Sobolewski, Source:
As mentioned earlier, Jenn's family is a theatrical family. They worked in New York and around the country for many the Ivoryton Playhouse (which is the first place in which Jenn directed), which is just twenty minutes away from Goodspeed, several times also at Goodspeed. At Jenn's second season at River Rep, Bye, Bye Birdie. Warren Kelly, who is playing Mr. McAfee in Goodspeed's current production, was Albert. Karen Ziemba was Rosie. That was decades ago according to Jenn. Charles Strouse came to see that production as well.
she played Kim in
When Jenn appeared in By Strouse, her assignment was, from his catalogue, was to essentially all of his 'kid stuff', i.e.: Annie and Bye Bye Birdie. Jenn's introduction to the show was when she was about ten.
In addition to the movie and TV version, Jenn saw the 2009 Roundabout production revival twice. She had a dear friend in it.
Jenn is really proud of these revisions in the current production, They work really well. Bye, Bye Birdie is one of those shows that for many is their introduction to theatre, either by being the first show they ever saw, or for many actors, their entree into the theatre.
It ends up piercing your heart that way. Those that had that path never forget it. As a result also, for many, the only version they may have seen would be an "amateur" one. When Jenn really started delving in, the thing that she was really blown away with was how sophisticated it truly is. A lot of people don't associate that adjective with this show.
with Charles Strouse and cast (Source: WWW.BROADWAYWORLD.COM)
They think of it as "kids jumping around" and having an appeal to younger audiences.
This production has a killer cast. Start with that. This production is the whole enchilada!
Casting is everything. It is a huge percentage that adds to the success of the show. Jenn was entirely involved with that aspect of the show. Casting was an arduous task and took a while.
For Jenn, it is always the most nerve racking aspect of her job.
There are many aspects of a production that can be "corrected": the sets, the costumes, and other
Rhett Guter stars as Conrad Birdie in Bye Bye Birdie
areas. It is hard to do that with a cast. You get that wrong, very often you are "stuck with it." You have to work with what you've got. It was/is a labor of love to get it right. Also, the other part of that is the chemistry and connections between the cast. You try to get a sense of the person you are hiring. It is a little bit of a social experiment, mixing and matching people.
It is a bit of a "crap shoot"; you don't know what you have until you're all in the room. It was fairly evident early on that there was something special about this group of people.
What I, personally, loved about this production is that it captures the time frame in which it is set head on, without any sense of editorializing. I couldn't help but thinking how much of this cast has
Warren Kelley plays frustrated dad Mr. MacAfee
any sort of a frame of reference of Ed Sullivan and/or the impact of Elvis Presley's hold on America at that time.
Part of and the fun of Jenn's job is to introduce today's audiences to that world.
That is her job regardless of whatever she is working on. She made a glossary and they watched a lot of videos of screaming girls and concerts and things of that nature. A lot of this also came up in discussion. They did a good deal of paper work on the show. In terms of Jenn's work on the show, from the very beginning, she desired the show to be authentic. She didn't want to point a finger at 1961. She wanted it to be 1961. That was the
Janet Dacal and George Merrick as Rosie and Albert
rule of thumb from every aspect: from the design to working on the scenes. She wanted to immerse herself and eventually her cast in that time frame.  The original Broadway production opened on April 14, 1960, at the Martin Beck Theatre, transferring to the 54th Street Theatre and then the Shubert Theatre, closing on October 7, 1961, after 607 performances. The original Broadway cast included Dick Van Dyke, Chita Rivera, Paul Lynde, Dick Gautier, Susan Watson, Kay Medford and Charles Nelson Reilly.

A young Ed Sullivan
Jenn wanted Kennedy to be president in this production. She felt that it was important to capture that time frame.
She doesn't even know why except that "change" was coming. That change was actually already there but no one knew where it was going. Many people think of that as an innocent time from the end of the fifties and transitioning into the sixties. Everything was about to hit the fan, but these were the kids that were going to change the world. They would be protesting the war. To see them at fifteen before that change happened. To see Birdie hit their world and have the big city come to them and all that entails, what rock music was all about.
It is a true generational gap story and Jenn desired to kind of highlight that. These are universal themes. It is also about sometimes letting go of your original dreams whether you are fifteen or thirty-five.
One of Jenn's favorite moments in the show is Talk to Me. She has loved it in previous productions and this one is no exception. Honestly Sincere is another
Photo by Diane Sobolewski
great moment. How could you not love that as done by this group of people and Rhett Guter as Conrad? He is just magnificent in it and so much fun. She loves it spilling into the house and watching the audience. It is really gratifying to be sitting in the house and watching those kids come pouring down the aisles and watching that audience, seven to seventy, having a similar reaction. It's delightful.
One of the great things I hear over and over from the artists that work at Goodspeed is how luxurious the time allotted in production is.
They have a wonderful window of time in the rehearsal process.
with Stephen Kunken
Jenn concurred. It is really important. The more time you have, the deeper you can go. You have the ability to really talk about the process. If you are just trying to get something up, the time spent on discussions gets short changed.
The building blocks are that if you have the time, you will take advantage of that time. If you are doing a job at the MUNY, you have a very short period of time. That is the case for most regional theatres. At the Goodspeed, you have several weeks and you can allow a show to marinate. There is room for experimentation. For this production, because they were doing some new material, and certainly a big re-shuffle of the order of the material, it allowed Jenn to not panic and think, "Well, that's not working yet". She had time to think if something should be added, cut, or just moved around. Sometimes, it was just a matter of something just not being "cracked yet". They had more breathing room and Jenn kept reminding everyone involved to trust the process. Some things just flew immediately and you could just tell it was a home run.
Michal Kolaczkowski
Other things took just a little bit longer to work. Jenn kept reminding herself, as well as the cast, that they needed to treat some things as if they were new. Even though it is Bye, Bye Birdie, some things may not just feel organic at first. There were two songs that had never been done in the show before. There were others that obviously had been done before, but in a very different way. They just needed the time to make it work.
She won't let it go on if she can't figure it out. Luckily, it all came together. She also had the support from Goodspeed to allow her process to unfold.
Her team took the journey with her.
Jenn had done a lot of musicals as a performer. Not so as a director.
She was curious going into this to see if she could try and find out a way that would make this genre satisfying to her.  That was the kicker for her. She loved it. "I had the best time EVER!" She couldn't wait to get to work and she was sad when it was over. That was very surprising for her.
She loved the energy, she loved the cast, she loved the material. She loved working in concert with a great team. She had a fantastic choreographer in Patricia Wilcox.
Michael O'Flaherty is an amazing musical director.
That was a joyous and collaborative relationship. She wanted to see if she could apply a "straight play aesthetic" to a musical. Everybody was incredibly receptive to that. That was a lovely discovery for her.
What's next? Will there be a life with this production beyond Goodspeed? Jenn doesn't know but she
Photo by Diane Sobolewski
hopes so. One of her goals with taking this project on, and doing a mini reboot with it, was to change people's perceptions of the show. Not to change the way that they look at this beloved show, but for people to see the craft of it. It's an important piece in our musical theatre history. She desires people to appreciate this.
She would love for more people to be able to see that and have that effect on the brand of the show. She is not involved in that part of the process.
In conclusion, when Jenn and I spoke, she was up at Barrington Stage. She has started a production of Tribes this week.

To keep up with Jenn Thompson's career, please visit her website.

Do NOT miss this production of Bye, Bye, Birdie at The Goodspeed Opera House. Please click HERE for more info.

Lee Adams and Charles Strouse

Put on a happy face! Army-bound rock star Conrad Birdie's farewell appearance in Sweet Apple, Ohio is the talk of the town. But it's a teenage crisis for new "steadies" Hugo and Kim: she just won the chance to give Birdie one last kiss before boot camp. Kids, parents and show folk collide in the Goodspeed debut of the hip-swiveling musical comedy set at the dawn of the sensational '60s. Bring the entire family to discover we've got a lot of livin' to do!

Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Book by Michael Stewart | Music by Charles Strouse | Lyrics by Lee AdamsScenic Design by Tobin Ost | Costume Design by David ToserLighting Design by Philip Rosenberg | Sound Design by Jay HiltonWig & Hair Design by Mark Adam RampmeyerMusic Direction by Michael O'Flaherty | Choreographed by Patti WilcoxDirected by Jenn Thompson

Jesse Pearson (as Conrad Birdie) and the cast of the film version of Bye, Bye Birdie
"I really admire what Jenn's doing with this play. She's really honoring the original intent and style, and the music is wonderful. But it also has this solid foundation. It's a real honest journey." 
-Rhett Guter. Read MORE

 Rare professional staging of ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ is an affectionate look at age of innocence.
Terry Teachout, The Wall Street Journal (Read MORE)


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At Fullerton’s Plummer Auditorium, 3-D Theatricals’ revival of the 1964 classic is a grandly glamorous exercise in nostalgia and a joyous theatrical experience. Skip it and risk disappointment and regret. Read MORE

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