The hit Off-Broadway musical The Last Session will be opening in Laguna, CA, on September 17th. The musical garnered rave reviews from the New York press last season, but was forced to close at the height of its popularity as the result of a booking problem with the theater. The entire cast received great notices, but the role of Buddy, played brilliantly by Stephen Bienskie, was a standout. In the Laguna production, most of the cast, including Bob Stillman, returns, but, alas, Bienskie is booked at Goodspeed.
The role of Buddy is a difficult one, as it requires not only good acting, but a voice that can hit some very high notes. Steve Schalchlin and Jim Brochu, the writers of this musical, knew they would have major problems on their hands in casting this pivotal role. Buddy, the Southern Baptist preacher boy, is a good ol' Southern boy who can quote scripture. He meets his hero, Gideon, in a recording studio, but learning that the singer is gay and has AIDS becomes too much for Buddy, and he spouts his religious beliefs against homosexuality. Thus, the conflict and premise for this stirring musical.
Joel Thomas Traywick is from Tunnel Hill, Georgia, population 897, and he was running twenty minutes late. His good southern Christian upbringing was the reason his agent sent him to audition for the role of Buddy. But it was his 1972 Volkswagen without air that was causing his delay. Joel was having a bad hair day. If his mama knew of his predicament, surely she would have prayed to Jesus like they always did back home.
Schalchlin and Brochu were down to the last week of auditions and still hadn't found their new "Buddy". They had auditioned some fine actors but Brochu kep t saying NO. We have to find someone who IS Buddy, not just someone who can PLAY Buddy."
Casting agent Anthony Barnao was told by a friend about Traywick, and he recommended him for this audition. Traywick's agent told Joel, "You ARE this kid." Still, Traywick was a bit nervous auditioning so soon after being rejected for the revival of Charlie Brown. All sweaty, wearing jeans, a polo shirt and a baseball cap, he rang the bell and was admitted to the audition space.
Brochu had the same reaction that he had when he first laid eyes on Stephen Bienskie -- "No way". Traywick just seemed too young and, well, a bit discombobulated and goofy. His singing was okay but Schalchlin wasn't sure. He wanted more of a rock voice, and this kid's voice was more childlike, even immature. Joel was given his headshots back (bad) and was told by Brochu that if he never sees him again he hopes they work together sometime soon (real bad). Jim told him he would make a decision by the end of the day.
Traywick waited by the phone for hours. Nothing. While driving to class his pager went off. "They want to see you again. They are going to get you the CD so you can practice a song from the show."
Traywick was given the CD and was told to learn "Going It Alone" over the weekend. He had a callback for Monday. This song displays the range of voice required for the role, and it's very difficult to sing, to say the least. Joel learned the song, called his mama in Georgia, and sang it for her on the phone. He sang it to anyone who would listen. His feeling was, "This song is me."
Traywick got showered and dressed for his callback. He had played the CD in his car and in his apartment and was learning the song. At the previous audition, he knew there was something to this song as it gave him goosebumps. He had tried to sight read it, but his real thoughts were getting out of that first audition alive. This day he wore jeans and a white button down collar shirt. At the last minute, he decided to put on a silk tie.
Schalchlin and Brochu sat in the Lex theater. Joel was only a few minutes late this time. Schalchlin stared at him. The tie! Just like Buddy. Joel was offered the sheet music to "Going It Alone", but he didn't need it. He walked to the edge of the stage and proceeded to sing, ripping Brochu and Schalchlin's hearts out. He sounded like a choirboy. Innocent. Pure. Totally different from Bienskie, yet completely appropriate.
They asked him to read a scene from Act Two. It's a scene where Buddy overhears his hero Gideon singing the song Buddy has brought to the session. They engage in a conversation in which Buddy confesses how much he had always admired Gideon -- but how he now feared for Gideon's soul.
Joel, voice trembling, eyes red with held-back tears, displayed heartbreak, pain, broken dreams and helplessness. Brochu and Schalchlin sat stunned. They could barely move. Schalchlin was crying. The kid wasn't acting. He was living this.
They had found their "Buddy", and beginning Sept. 17th at Laguna Playhouse you can bring your kleenexes to the West Coast production of this brilliant musical, The Last Session. Another miracle is about to happen.
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