GIMME A BREAK II
by Nancy Rosati
Transport Group was created in January, 2001 by co-founders Jack Cummings III and Robyn Hussa with an eye towards mounting large-cast traditional American plays for today's audiences. There's nothing unusual about theater companies hosting events to raise funds, but last year Jack wanted their fund-raiser to stand out in some way. He asked his wife, actress Barbara Walsh, for advice. She told him, "Don't tell people what to sing. Don't make them learn anything and don't rehearse them because we all get asked to do a lot of these. The times that I have enjoyed it the most is when people just asked me to come and perform."
With that in mind, Jack developed the idea behind Gimme A Break. "Because it was our first year and we were trying to get our own break as a theater company with this first show, I thought a way to introduce us was to have people reminiscing or talking about their first break, which can mean different things to different people. To some performers, a first break' can be something that got them a Tony Award or a nomination, or got them their first Broadway show. Or it can be the song they sang in a show when they met the love of their lives. Or it can represent a show when they first said to themselves, I really love doing this' or I'm going to do this for a career.' It runs the gamut. It can be I got to work with this incredible person from whom I learned so much.'
The first Gimme A Break took place last October. A group of more than 25 performers, from 20 year olds to Rita Gardner (the original Luisa in The Fantasticks) took the stage, told their stories, and sang their songs. "Last year was completely happenstance," says Jack. "It was a combination of people I knew, people who knew people, etc., but it worked. What I learned from seeing people like Rita Gardner, Mary Beth Peil, Michele Pawk and Jeremy Kushnier was that we had a range of age, type and experience. Not everyone was in their 30s and not everyone was a Tony nominee. Some of the most heart-warming stories were from people like Kim Lindsay and Bob DuSold talking about their different experiences as understudies in Les Miz.
"Bob spoke of being on the road and performing Valjean in the afternoon and Javert in the evening of the same day, and then he sang the song. Then Kim Lindsay talked about her Broadway debut with Les Miz and how she went on for Eponine with almost no rehearsal as a last minute emergency. She described how the whole cast was in the wings watching her sing On My Own' and how they were so supportive.
"Mary Beth Peil talked about being the last person to play Mrs. Anna opposite Yul Brynner in The King and I. That got her a Tony Award nomination, but I think part of that for her was the break to work with Yul Brynner. Heather MacRae talked about doing Hair for her parents. Stephen Bogardus talked about singing Something's Coming' for Leonard Bernstein.
"Lynne Wintersteller had us laughing when she told about how she really didn't want to leave Nunsense to do Closer Than Ever because she was so convinced that Nunsense was the big acting break for her. Then she told the audience that she was finally the right age to sing Life Story' and how it makes so much more sense to her now.
"Some people sang songs that they did for their auditions which got them their big break. I thought Jeremy Kushnier brought down the house with Walking in Memphis' and Brad Oscar singing My Simple Christmas Wish' was wonderful. In that way, the category is flexible enough that people can be in charge of it themselves."
Jack is very excited about this year's line-up. Once again he has assembled a group of veterans and relative newcomers, with each performer able to claim some Broadway experience. "Harvey Evans is really unique because he was in the original company of West Side Story. He replaced one of the Jets. Then he went on to play a Jet in the film version. He was also a Chimney Sweep in Mary Poppins and he did Anyone Can Whistle and the original Follies. His history is really phenomenal. Sondra Lee is someone I'm also really excited about. She was very close with Jerome Robbins and she was the original Tiger Lily in Peter Pan, playing opposite Mary Martin. She was in the original cast of Hello Dolly playing Minnie Fay, and also in the original cast of High Button Shoes.
"We have Dana Moore, whose Broadway experience has mainly been through dance. We have Alison Fraser and Daisy Eagan who shared a big break in The Secret Garden, although they're going to perform separately. Faith Prince, Barbara and Alison each played Trina on stage in one of the Falsettos pieces, so they have that connection."
A silent auction for Transport Group will run throughout the evening. "My favorite item is an original composition by Cy Coleman. Here's the man who wrote all these amazing shows - Sweet Charity, Barnum, Will Rogers Follies, and City of Angels - and he will write a song for the auction winner. He said all he needs is the name of the person, what they want it to be about and he'll write a song. Pete Sampras is donating some sports equipment he has used. Nicole Kidman has donated some things."
Transport Group mounted their first production last February. Jack directed a non-traditional version of Our Town, casting actors in their 60s as George and Emily and a 12 year old girl as the Stage Manager. "Our Town was a huge success. We were virtually sold out for the run. We got a very good review in the New York Times and some fabulous reviews elsewhere. The word of mouth really got around and we had a lot of great people come to see it."
Jack is equally hopeful for next year's production. "Requiem for William is a collection of William Inge one-act plays. William Inge wrote Bus Stop, Picnic, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs and Come Back, Little Sheba. He also wrote these amazing one-acts. It's a cast of 26. There's a separate cast for each one-act. It's probably about an hour and a half long evening with no intermission. The really special thing is that we've commissioned seven songs from seven different composers. A song will be sung at the end of each one-act by the character that had the tiniest role in the play. It will be told from his point of view, like an epilogue reflecting on what he just saw. That will be in February at the Connelly Theatre. We're still waiting to hear from a few composers but the ones we have confirmed so far are Michael John LaChiusa, Jenny Giering, Tom Kochan, Ellen Weiss, and our musical director Mary-Mitchell Campbell along with Leslie Becker.
"I'm hoping to bridge audiences that love musical theatre with audiences that love classic American plays. I'm trying to see where they overlap and bring them together in the same room. I hope those people will complement each other and bring out the best in each other."
That's their plan for next year. For now, Jack and Robyn are doing everything they can to make Gimme A Break II a success.
Gimme A Break! II
Confirmed artists include host Bryan Batt, Judy Blazer, Alan Campbell, Vicki Clark, Lewis Cleale, Brian D'Arcy James, John Dossett, Daisy Eagan, Harvey Evans, Alison Fraser, Boyd Gaines, James Hindman, Lauren Kennedy, Alix Korey, Liz Larsen, Sondra Lee, Karen Mason, Debra Monk, Dana Moore, Kerry O'Malley, Faith Prince, Sara Ramirez, Anne Runolfsson, Mary Stout and Barbara Walsh.
Special ticket prices are available for Talkin' Broadway visitors for tickets purchased through October 10. For more informatino about the Transport Group, visit www.transport-group.org.
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