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Tasty Tidings Part 1: An Interview with Fuzz Roark and Michael Tan on Spotlighters’ ‘Five Course Love’

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L TO R: Fuzz Roark and Michael Tan. Photo by Ken Stanek Photography.

L TO R: Fuzz Roark and Michael Tan. Photo by Ken Stanek Photography.

There’s trouble in the kitchen! Five courses of fabulousness are being served up at The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre in Baltimore as they bring the regional premier of the new comical and delightful musical Five Course Love. This fancy free new musical embarks on the quest of looking for love…in all the wrong places! Follow along as a series of crackpot characters facedown romantic entanglements that span across a plethora of hilarious situations. For this Regional Premier it was too good an opportunity to pass up a one-on-one sit down series— naturally over the course of five interviews— with the cast and creative team to find out just what exactly is being served to the audience in this zany production.

Let’s kick off the Hors d’oeuvres course of this 5-course menu with Artistic and Managing Director of Spotlighters, Fuzz Roark who is Directing the show, and Musical Director Michael Tan.

Thank you both so much for taking the time to sit down and share with us what this new and exciting experience in musical theatre. Give is a tasty brush up of what you were working on before Five Course Love?

Fuzz Roark: As you said, I’m the Artistic and Managing Director for Spotlighters, and before directing this I directed Into the Woods back before the holidays. Before that I directed Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance. And this time last year I directed The Last Five Years, all of these shows have been at Spotlighters.

Michael Tan: Let’s see, I did Musical Direction for the Spotlighters’ production of Into the Woods, and in the fall of 2013 I was musically directing The 1940’s Radio Hour at Silhouette Stages. Last summer I did Musical Direction for Fiddler on the Roof at Spotlighters, before that was Musical Direction for The Full Monty and this time last year it was Musical Direction for The Producers, both of those productions were at Silhouette Stages. I jump back and forth between the two theatres.

This is an area premier for this musical, can you tell us a little bit about it?

Michael: It’s approximately 90 minutes, a one-act musical of pure fun. It’s five vignettes, five short stories, almost completely sung, that take place in five very different restaurants. We start out at “Dean’s Old-Fashioned All-American Bar-B-Que Texas Eats.” There’s a word I missed in there…

Fuzz: It’s “Dean’s Old-Fashioned All-American Down Home Bar-B-Que Texas Eats.”

(l to r) Heimlich (Brett Rohrer), Gretchen (Lauren Schein), and Klauss (Tim Grieb), at the Der Schlupfwinkel Speiseplatz. Photo by Chris Aldridge, CMAldridgePhotography.

(l to r) Heimlich (Brett Rohrer), Gretchen (Lauren Schein), and Klauss (Tim Grieb), at the Der Schlupfwinkel Speiseplatz. Photo by Chris Aldridge, CMAldridgePhotography.

Michael: Yes, thank you. Each vignette is three actors playing roles; two men and one woman. We have four actors playing fifteen parts so we split the roles three and two for the women, but the men play consistent roles in each scene throughout the play. So we start at Dean’s with basically a blind date that was set up through a dating service. It seems to be going well and then it goes awry.

Then we segue over to La Trattoria Pericolo, with Pericolo meaning ‘danger’ in Italian. This is an Italian restaurant where a love-triangle with a mobster, his wife, and one of the mobster’s minions. There’s another minion who spends most of his time running around panic-stricken that Nicky, the mobster is going to find out.

From there we go to Der Schlupfwinkel Speiseplatz, German, and this is a different sort of love triangle. Then there’s a third love triangle for the fourth scene with two men fighting over the fair Rosalinda in a Mexican Restaurant, Ernesto’s Cantina. And we end up in the Star Lite Diner with Kitty and Clutch, who is the clueless Elvis-type character who doesn’t realize that Kitty is in love with him. The show ends by circling back around with the entrance of a character from the first restaurant. Is there true love to be found?

Fuzz: You’ll have to come see it to find out.

What makes this musical appropriate for Spotlighters Theatre?

Fuzz: It’s different. It is set up as a Vaudeville; it’s designed to be pure comedy. There are no redeeming social values, no life-changing lessons to be learned. Spots has a reputation for doing a wide range of theatre. The last thing on our stage was a 3-hour and 45 minute Romeo and Juliet. Now we’re transitioning to a 90-minute comedy that’s high-farce. Part of our menu every season is to have a wide variety.

Michael: It’s also a newer work. It originated Off-Broadway in 2005 and has not been done anywhere in the area, making it a Regional Premier. That is something that Spotlighters tries to do; bring new works that haven’t been seen before to the stage.

What is it that drew your attention to the musical, how did you find it or how did it make its way into your season?

Fuzz: Local actor Roy Hammond gave me the soundtrack and the libretto two and a half years ago and said, “You’ve got to do this.” This was the earliest we could work it into our season. The music is catchy. It’s fun and it also has nice harmonies; they are fun harmonies. I think one of the things that really drew me to it is that the show doesn’t take itself seriously. It is there to make fun of itself, make fun of each other, so you go into it with that fun-loving mindset. Yes, you take it seriously as you work on it, as you prepare the music, as you build your set, as you create your costumes and work out your choreography, but it’s very tongue in cheek and you allow yourself to laugh and be silly. I knew that there were actors in Baltimore City who would literally eat these roles up. It was fun.

You’ve changed the casting line-up just slightly to make this show work for Spotlighters. Can you tell us how you’ve adjusted this production for its Regional Premier?

Fuzz: The original show was one woman, two men, and two off-stage voices in the pit. They had the advantage of working on proscenium stage with quick changes in the wings. Unfortunately for Spots that doesn’t happen. We don’t have wing space. To get to a ‘quick change’ you have to go about 30 feet before you are in a place where you can actually change. We originally had planned on doubling the cast, doing four men and two women. We found the women, but with the men it was a little more difficult to find ones that could sing the roles. We had cast three men, unfortunately one of them passed away just before we began rehearsals.

Michael: I think part of the problem with the men was that we were being very selective. Not only did they have to be able to sing the roles but they also had to have excellent comedic timing and they had to have a sense of being able to take these characters above and beyond because all the characters really are stereotypes that need to be played out in that heightened sense. From the crazy Mexican Bandit to the German Dominatrix, you have to be able to really play up those characters beyond what a regular role might require. So that made picking the right people for this a real challenge, but in the end the four we selected really delivered and they’ve made it a great process and a whole lot of fun.

What are the challenges with bringing this proscenium-style show not only into the round but into your very specific round space with side jetting entrances and the sight-obstruction support poles?

Fuzz: After working on that stage for the past 14 years, it is harder for me to direct on proscenium now. The one thing I love about working in the round, especially when you have a unified or semi-unified set, is that you create a viable environment and you can just turn your actors loose. You ground the rules: you always work diagonals, that if you’re ever facing an audience section you’re facing the wrong way, etc. But you do create this environment that the audience is part of. Yes, there were some issues with the fact that we had to have a bar or counter space so that we could place Pops/Dean/Heimlich always in one location with his back to one of the seating areas. But the actors have learned the trick of the three-quarter turn, so they are always sharing with part of the audience, either left or right, a little bit of face time.

It was a challenge to figure out how we were going to very quickly transition between five restaurants. How were we going to change the look to show the audience we’d moved on to a new location? One of the reviews from when the show was done in Minneapolis back in January had the reviewer, who loved the show and the costumes, was lamenting for three paragraphs in their review about the three to four minute scene changes. They were in a proscenium so they trotted out a new bar for every restaurant. They brought in new backdrops, they flipped out the kitchen door and front door, and they put out a new window and changed tables. We can’t do all that on this stage. So one of the things that we did during tech week was rehearsed the transitions. They are choreographed and incredibly smooth. There is no way you cannot ‘not see’ my stage crew, so we made them waiters. They are Wanda Sue and Patsy Sue and they shift the little bit of scenery around and keep things moving.

I couldn’t help but notice there’s a mouse on the set…and that each scene has a lot of “trouble in the kitchen,” might that be because of the mouse?

Fuzz: Alan (Resident Set Designer Alan Zemla) always adds a varmint to every set.

Michael: That’s actually one of the really neat things we get to do at Spotlighters. Because it is such a small venue, the very little details get to be noticed. That whole mouse hole, mouse included, is probably two inches tall and two inches wide and it’s over in a corner but you can see it from anywhere in the theatre. You get to do subtle little things like that at Spots and the audience is going to notice it. You can’t do that in a large house with a proscenium stage because anyone past the third row isn’t going to be able to pick it up.

Fuzz: It was a nice way to hint at the fact that the trouble in the kitchen— with all the off stage clattering and banging, might be because of a mouse.

What was the musical number or portion of a scene that was the most challenging to get on its feet to where it is now?

Fuzz: Hmm. Of all the five scenes, each of them have a challenge in it, both blocking and choreography-wise. You have songs that are two to four minutes, you’ve got two or three actors on the stage during those moments and these songs are not songs with music or lyrics that easily transfers into detailed choreography. The music tends to offer an homage to various musical theatre genres and icons. You’ve got Man of La Mancha, Grease, and a whole bunch of others in there. The hardest thing, which was the last thing we actually choreographed, was “Der Bumsen-Kratzentanz” which translated literally means “The Sexy Itchy Dance.” Or Scratchy dance.

Michael: And let’s be clear— not itchy in the case of a rash, but in the case of scratching a sexual itch.

Fuzz: It’s itchy-scratchy, and sexy.

Michael: Now that you mention it, thinking back, I think the cast struggled the most with singing in the German accent for that scene. They sort of fell easily into the Mexican accent and the Jersey-Mobster sound, but it was the German as far as the accents went that really tripped them up.

Fuzz: German is not easy because it’s a very different working of certain vowels and certain consonants. It’s very hard to maintain and keep consistent. So we had accents to contend with in that number and then the physicality for that number was challenging. Trying to find the actors’ comfort level because the script says that since “Der Bumsen-Kratzentanz” is about sex that it should be a compilation of as many sexual positions as possible. Trying to do that on a proscenium is one thing; it can easily be staged behind the bar or semi-offstage. Unfortunately my folks are up close and personal in that tiny little space. So we had to play with it to really get it working.

Is there a moment somewhere in the show that just really tickles your funny bone?

Fuzz: The moment that we never thought would get a laugh, that is now getting a good solid minute of laughter, before the man even speaks, is Heimlich’s entrance. That laugh showed up opening night and we were just shocked that the audience finds it so funny.

Michael: The script actually says that every time someone says the word “Heimlich” someone is supposed to cough. So we have that added hilarity happening. Of course that is really hard to do from the pit while you’re playing music and you’re not coughing in rhythm to the music. You cough on the word, so I’m in the middle of playing music, while trying to listen for the word to come up and then immediately respond to it. But for me, I’d have to say the funniest thing is Guillermo’s accent, especially after Ernesto starts singing his ballad and he sings it wrong. Guillermo finally tells Ernesto “You sit over there and think about what you have done.” That accent is just so funny.

Kitty (Lauren Schein) and Clutch (Tim Grieb) at the Star Lite Diner. Photo by Chris Aldridge, CMAldridgePhotography.

Kitty (Lauren Schein) and Clutch (Tim Grieb) at the Star Lite Diner. Photo by Chris Aldridge, CMAldridgePhotography.

Do you have a favorite number in the piece?

Michael: Actually I have two and for different reasons. First and foremost it’s “Pick Me” from the Mexican scene. It includes a three-sided tango, and the duet has both of the men doing such a good job vocally with blending and all of that. The lyrics are hysterical. How often do you have a guy singing about him being super-sized? The lyrics are very tongue-in-cheek and the music is a lot of fun to play. It has a very Latin feel and it’s one of the most fun numbers I have at the keyboard. That’s absolutely my favorite.

But vocally, my favorite is the trio at the end of “If Nicky Knew.” The three of them are singing three completely different melodic lines, but they blend so well, and the rise and fall of it is just absolutely gorgeous. I love music so this very exciting and fascinating for me.

Fuzz:  I like “If Nicky Knew” but for different reasons than Michael. One, I love the fact that all three of them are singing a different set of lyrics. But on stage we’re able to block them so that they are all moving independently of one another, in and out of the light in their own personal worlds. It gives them a chance to really move around the stage, let each section of the audience hear and see them in a showcase moment. That is my favorite one.

I also really love Barbie’s “I Loved You When I Thought Your Name Was Ken.” To me, Shani (Shani Hadjian) just nailed that character to the floor and she just wails in her best country western Dolly Parton Barbie sound and just really rocks that number. In the same vein, I also love Kitty at the end after she realizes that her romance novels are not the end of the world and she makes her transition. It’s really cool because it’s a nice moment for her; it’s a great song for her that is followed with that beautiful duet with her and Matt singing in their isolation.

You found an interesting way of involving some interesting dance numbers into this show. Fuzz, you did the choreography, so what was your inspiration for getting some dancing into this fun musical?

Fuzz: Well it’s not a show that would lead you to big dance numbers. Originally I had choreographed the Italian scene in a very dramatic, high-ballroom dance numbers. I wanted that very dramatic effect with very dramatic dance positioning. But it just didn’t work. It was the right movement for the music but not right for what they were doing on stage. We ended up re-choreographed it a week before opening to give Sofia more dramatic positioning and to keep the energy of that type of dancing in there without actually needing the dancing. I had her draping herself all over Nicky as she’s telling him goodbye, and it plays with that “come here, now go away” and the “go away, come back.” And it just really worked better than the elaborate dancing in that case.

Michael: Especially since Tim’s (Tim Grieb) face is somewhere in Shani’s bosom for most of that number because she’s so much taller than him. That adds some humor to it and you would have lost that if we’d kept the original dancing bit.

Fuzz: Shani is actually 5’11 and we put her in heels with big hair.

Michael: Fuzz said it already, this show is like Vaudeville, so we really wanted to work the angles and play up the comedy.

Fuzz: There’s no way to have guys be taller than she is— even with platform shoes— the guys are only 5’10. Having the guys just being the same height as her would have been awkward so if you have a situation that isn’t what you want, you don’t hide it. I’m from the south, we put crazy out on the front porch.

Why do you want the audience to come see the show at Spotlighters?

Michael: Number one because it’s a new work. You’re going to see something you’ve never seen before which means it’s all a surprise. The music and the acting are fun. The audience comes out with a smile on their face. People who have had a bad week at work come out having cathartically laughed themselves silly for 90 minutes and there’s a nice balance of the up and down in there as well. You have high comedy in there mixed with things that are just a little more serious or melodramatic.

There has to be a number two reason to follow that because you said number one…

Michael: Right. Well, number two is because not only do you get to see a new work but you get to see it up close and personal at Spotlighters. That’s one of the things that we offer that a lot of theatres don’t. You’re part of it, the audience is basically part of the action. At times the actors are breaking the wall and they’re having a lot of fun. See it more than once because the ad-libs chance from night to night. The actors are always finding little fun, new things to do with their characters.

Fuzz: It is one of those shows that is just pure entertainment. It’s fun. It’s a show that makes you laugh. We’ve had folks in the audience who have been in their mid-20’s and we’ve had folks in the audience who are well into their early 70’s. And a couple who have been older than that. And every single one of them are laughing. The humor is very Vaudeville, very sixth grade little boy humor.

Michael: There are elements of a Monty Python-esque take on some of the jokes as well as South Park style humor blended in there. If you think about the shows that are out there right now, Book of Mormon, Spamalot, this show really does fall in line with the humor of those musical comedies.

Fuzz: This is not a show that people are going to be doing up and down the coast. It’s not going to be like when Spelling Bee first came out and everybody including God’s third child decided to put that show on all in the same season. It was literally running somewhere in Maryland constantly for a year and a half.

Michael: That said, I wouldn’t be surprised that after some of the other local theatre people from neighboring theatres come and see this show if it starts popping up here and there in the area next season. People should pick up and do it, it’s excellent.

Fuzz: The most fun part of this musical— certainly something you’re not getting in any other musical right now— is that they do break all the walls. Barbie starts out when she walks in to her seat, she starts asking men in the front row “Are you Ken?” making people very uncomfortable. Gretchen is constantly working the audience, including her poor husband at one of the performances.

Michael: All her in-laws too.

Fuzz: Oh yes. Lauren decided to have a little fun with them. She delivered the tweezers line to her father-in-law and delivered the “Men find it hard to resist,” to her husband. That got some laughs. Between that and her gravity-defying double D’s in that corset; the audience is getting a good eyeful.

Michael: That’s a good reason for dirty old men to come and see the show. Both the women are extremely buxom. Actually, we decided as a cast and crew that it doesn’t matter if you’re a gay man or a straight man, every man loves boobs. Or is at least transfixed by boobs. There’s just something about them, and there’s lots of boobs going on in this show.

Fuzz: Come see the show for the boobs. And all the other great things we mentioned.

Is there anything else we forgot to cover?

Fuzz: One thing that definitely needs to be said is that this show really is an ensemble show. Not just because it’s four actors, but the four of them, the pit, the larger crew than we have cast they all bring it together. I have a stage manager and an ASM, Steph and Beck, which sounds like a disease, or a band, or maybe a law firm. But those two girls literally do not stop once the show begins. They are either laying out clothes and getting ready for a quick change, or hanging up clothes that have just come off a quick change. They’re setting up mustaches, and changing table clothes, it’s a huge backstage process and I couldn’t do it without them. I have two other interns as well, running crew and tech backstage. I have a young student intern in the booth running 160 light cues.

Michael: There are no more than two sentences between any musical number in the show and usually there is less than that. So the pit is going the whole time at full speed.

Fuzz: Between the underscore and the songs, the pit is really moving.

Michael: It’s surprising how quickly the show goes, though. I mean for 90 minutes I still get surprised every time I realize ‘holy crap, we’re already in the German scene.’

Fuzz: I had planned to have the pit changing hats from Western to Mexican, a different hat for each restaurant scene but there just isn’t time. I had thought about giving each of the pit players, there are three of them, a different hat, but eventually that idea just got scrapped.

Michael: Yeah, Laura, our costume designer, is a little upset by that, actually. But you know, to quote Tim Gunn, “Edit, edit, edit.” Less is more.

I can’t believe you both let me get all the way through this interview without asking about Laura Nicholson and Alan Zemla and their work with the project as the resident costume and set designer respectively!

Michael: We did talk about Alan a little bit. With the mouse.

Fuzz: It has actually been really wonderful getting to watch Alan grow with the company for the last few years. The first show he worked on was The Holdup three years ago. And then he came in for every show thereafter, well almost every show thereafter. His first major project was Bus Stop, that was all his own. He’s a mechanical and architectural engineer. He takes all these art classes in his own time to make himself a better set designer. It’s incredible and we’re very lucky to have him. He really puts vision into his designs and he’s made this show really easy to work with.

Michael: He’s great to work with. And so is Laura. Costuming this show was…well, we’re grateful to have Laura.

Fuzz: Costuming this show was not as bad as we thought it was going to be. Partly because we had four body shapes to work with for 15 characters. And they were very “costume-y.” Like with Gretchen’s outfit, we just ordered it online because no one is going to make latex and leather leggings and bustier. Now Laura modified it and made it fit Lauren, but that was less challenging than some of the other costumes. Barbie’s costume. That was a challenge to not make it too country or too crazy. Sofia has three costumes backstage because we had three different ideas of what we’re working with. One of them is a leopard-print Lycra dress. It fits very much like the red dress she actually wears, but we stuck with the solid red because her leopard print heels are a nice accent. The other one was leopard print with red panels. They’re all available at Forever21.

Michael: Keep in mind she’s supposed to be a mob wife…though there is something to be said for a classy mob wife verses a Jersey-licious tacky mob wife…

Fuzz: Laura helped us cross that bridge. But finding the right combination for Matt, finding the right look for Dean, Laura really handles these challenges exceptionally well. She finds these almost caricature-like looks for Brett (Brett Rohrer) and they really help streamline his character. Now some things were as simple as finding the costume piece and ordering it online. But then Laura had the challenge of realizing that those things we’d ordered were $30 costumes designed for Halloween that you wear once, and how was she going to make it last for a 5 week run of 16 shows so that it wasn’t falling apart the first time our actors put it on? She took the lederhosen completely apart and rebuilt it so that it is durable enough for 16 shows with quick costume changes. There are a lot of bases that we’ve ordered and Laura has remade them from those bases.

Michael: Alan and Laura really do deserve a lot of credit for making the show work. It’s also fun working with them because they have so many great ideas.

Any closing comments for us?

Michael: Actually, yes. Thank you for doing this with us. I know your time is very restricted. We do really appreciate the fact that you and DCMetroTheaterArts are promoting local theatre. Knowing what your schedule is and how many shows you see, to then take time to help promote our new work is really helpful to the local theatre scene, and we can’t thank you enough for that.

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Five Course Love plays through April 6, 2014 at The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre— 817 N. Saint Paul Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 752-1225, or purchase them online.

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Click here to read the review on DCMetroTheaterArts  for Five Course Love.

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