It's opening night for CUTC's "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" at the Virginia Theatre, and I find myself in the unfamiliar role of participant rather than observer.
I'm onstage 12 minutes into the first act, along with News-Gazette colleagues Mary Schenk and Jim Rossow, plus so many cast members I can hardly tell what's going on.
Co-producer Janet LeRoy had roped us into being guest Ishmaelites for the night. Her husband, Michael, is the lead Ishmaelite and our rehearsal director. The rehearsal is brief and takes place just a half hour before curtain time.
Already in costume – a head wrap and robe – Michael gathers the three of us and two other Ishmaelites and leads us up the narrow steps from the basement to stage left.
He gives us our instructions. Basically, he's to pull a wooden goat on wheels onto the stage. We are to follow.
"Our part is simple. We're wandering Ishmaelites, so when we come out, we look up and around," he tells us. "You're supposed to look lost."
Easy, I think.
He tells us to always face or at least angle our body toward the audience. Never turn our backs on it. We're to come in on the scene in which Joseph's 11 brothers are beating Joseph.
"They go, 'Would you like to buy Joseph?'" Michael tells us. "We all have long beards on. We're going to be stroking them. We all high-five because we got a cheap slave. Plotwise, we're to deliver him to Egypt. I'll drag him offstage. You don't have to do anything but follow the action.
"There's going to be a lot of action. There'll be 10 or 12 actors coming toward us, and there'll be 15 seconds when you have to kill time. Just ad lib. Ham it up.
"We can do chest bumps," Rossow says.
"No, fist bumps," I say.
We return to the basement, where the 71 cast members spill into and out of the six dressing rooms. A dozen or more kids are sitting at two long tables, playing Sorry and an electronic version of Guesstures and coloring with crayons.
We head to "sewing central," where costume assistant Kathleen Carroll quickly sorts through robes and undergarments for us. I put over my clothes a long brown cloth with a hole in the middle, step back and surreptitiously pull off my pants.
Later, I slip into one of the two bathrooms in the basement, take off the robe and then my blouse. I don a tattered T-shirt with red stains. I then pull the robe on over that and change from my red sandals to brown ones, feeling they would be more authentic.
Once I'm back in the packed hallway, Michael rips open a plastic bag holding a dark brown, ZZ Top-like beard. I'm pleased; it matches my hair. A blonde, Rossow has been given a grayish beard that he finds unflattering.
It's already warm in the basement, with all the body heat and no air-conditioning. The beard doesn't help. Some of its strands come loose in my hands as I pull it over my ears and then lips.
"Nice beard," someone says.
The three of us News-Gazette neophytes observe all the action. There's a show going on in the basement even before "Joseph" starts upstairs. It's sort of organized chaos; I'm surprised that cast members don't seem nervous or flustered. Rather, they are having fun, with a capital F.
Everyone's talking, half in costume and half out, applying makeup in the dressing rooms or in the hallways. I take in snatches of conversation:
"You guys are fabulous."
"Heather, I love you."
"OK, I'll get out of your dressing room."
"This is tres exciting."
At sewing central, in front of a mirror, Jeff Chandler combs and sprays gray paint on David Heckman's hair. A woman at the other end of the room takes photographs of all the kids.
"Ladies and gentlemen, the house is open," director Jeff Goetz tells everyone. "Only go upstairs if you absolutely need to and don't walk across the stage."
Music director David Zych appears with a small keyboard. He leads the entire cast, crammed together in the small space, in vocal exercises. Rossow listens while Schenk and I join in even though we won't utter or sing one line onstage. We voice different consonants, hum and sing silly lyrics with alliteration that lead into choruses of "Glory hallelujah." When we all finish, everyone claps.
"I am so excited," Zych says. "You guys are amazing. I want to tell you all this is the first musical show I've ever done for CUTC. I did 12 shows in Boston, and you are the coolest cast I've ever worked with. I'm not the slightest bit nervous, and I hope you all feel the same." (I am actually slightly nervous.)
Janet LeRoy gives a similar pep talk.
"Not one of you has sent me home with a headache. Not one of you has given me a worry. You're going to have a great show. Last night at the dress rehearsal, your energy was amazing. I'm very excited. You guys are good."
Props mistress Cindy Havice praises the cast, too, and then Goetz speaks again, telling everyone his work is done, and he will be able to sit in the audience and watch. He predicts the show will be one that people will talk about for a long time. He goes on to say this would be the time he would give stage manager Neill Wilkins keys to a new car to thank him for his work. Instead Goetz gives him a toy car, still packaged.
Crew member Todd Salen, wearing a head set, enters the basement at 7:25 p.m., 5 minutes before curtain time. "The line is so long around the block that we got a 15-minute hold," he says.
"Sweet mama," someone says.
"Thank you, Jesus," says another cast member.
Goetz tells the cast that all of the people have come because they love the show or know CUTC does great productions. "So go out there and knock their socks off." He then has us do the "Hokey Pokey" a few times to raise the energy level even further and then has everyone join their hands in a cheer.
"Five minutes," Salen yells.
"Break a leg," Zych says.
Soon Schenk, Rossow and I are at stage left, waiting for our cue. Michael runs onto the stage, and I follow, lagging behind the other Ishmaelites. I look up and around. I feel disoriented. I feel self-conscious. This is the first time for Rossow and me to be on this side of the footlights.
I kick the wooden goat.
Suddenly I find myself on the edge of a melee. The 11 actors playing Joseph's brothers are beating up Joseph, played by Jaise Allen. I can barely see Jaise on the floor. The next thing I know I'm high-fiving Schenk and Rossow. and they're chest-bumping. I've completely forgotten to fist-bump. Schenk later says the whole thing was blur.
We exit stage right. I watch the rest of the show from stage left. Just like movie scenes of backstage theater, the actors rush on and off stage, going to dark corners to quickly change their costumes, often with help from an assistant, or downstairs for more elaborate changes. At one point, co-narrator Miranda Fessler hurries off stage, slaps my shoulder and says, "Yes!"
Even though I'm watching from an odd perspective, the show and the 20-minute intermission go by quickly. Soon we are to take our curtain call. Michael LeRoy tells us what to do. Run out, pull down your beard, look up and out, bow and then raise your hands.
As we do that, I feel I'm a beat behind but figure nobody notices. After the bow, Michael leads us up three or four steps on the set, from which I clap, holding my notebook and pen in my right hand, as cast members take their bows.
The applause from the nearly full house is enthusiastic. People begin to stand as Fessler and co-narrator Jamie Prosser bow. I, too, think they are terrific. Jaise comes out, and after that the cast members in eight minutes quickly reprise each song in the musical.
Michael tells us we can go to the stage door and greet our fans. I figure everyone will want to see Jaise or the other actors. But still in costume, I head out anyway with Schenk and Rossow. Waiting there on Randolph Street is a crowd that includes The News-Gazette's Tom Kacich and his wife, Helene. Tom gives the three of us high-fives. "Great show!" he exclaims.
I go back to the basement, change into my street clothes and walk to the office, feeling a contact high from all of the enthusiasm and excitement. And because I've just made my stage debut.