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July 24, 2014
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Oregon Musical Theatre Festival sets feet dancing, voices soaring

It’s been rather laid back this week around Umpqua Community College’s Swanson Amphitheatre. Certainly as compared to the scene inside Jacoby Auditorium, where director Troy Pennington deftly passed from crisis to crisis. Or when contrasted with Centerstage Theatre, where director Angie Wright nailed down dozens of sound and lighting cues.

But for director Christina Allabeck, it’s been effortless putting together “Gutenberg! The Musical!” The entire cast and crew is Allabeck, a stage manager, an accompanist and two actors. They have potlucks at rehearsal, and seem to joke around nonstop.

“I should be pulling my hair out right now,” she said.

A big summer musical has been staged at Umpqua Community College for the past 15 years. Seven years ago, music instructor Jason Heald added two shows and the name “Oregon Musical Theatre Festival,” and the event has kept growing.

This weekend and the next, three musicals will be performed around Umpqua Community College. Centerstage Theatre will feature the juke-box musical “Always ... Patsy Cline.” The outdoor Swanson Amphitheatre will stage the absurd musical comedy “Gutenberg! The Musical!” Jacoby Auditorium will present this year’s “big” musical, “Oliver!”

“OMTF started because we were doing these big musicals, and people were coming from out of town to watch,” Heald said. “We thought it would be neat for someone to land in Roseburg and get to check out a whole lineup of top-rate performances. Since we have the venues and the talent to do it.”

At rehearsal Monday, kids dressed as English street urchins ate sour candy and roamed Jacoby.

Lionel Bart’s “Oliver!” recalls the golden age of Broadway — big, show-stopping numbers, an all-ages cast, an exploration of the idea of home. The dialogue is short. The songs are massive.

“It’s very old-school,” director Pennington said.

The orphan Oliver (here gamely portrayed by Eden Heinrichsen) is less a fully fleshed-out person than an entry point for the audience to the world of 1850s London.

Twenty-two of Pennington’s 56 actors are children, many of them first-timers and younger than 14. He’s had them play games where they learn “upstage” and “downstage.”

It’s all a little new to him, too.

“I’ve never worked with children before,” he said, and gave a knowing look. “I find them to be an interesting challenge.”

Pennington, a music and theater instructor, said opportunities like OMTF are important for children, given that funding for the arts on the decline. The summer musical has been a first step for many local kids, including some who’ve made a career in theater, such as Brittany Egan and Zoe Wilson.

“It’s important to give them a voice,” Pennington said.

Wright, director of “Always ... Patsy Cline,” got her start acting at UCC. The wigmaker (or wigmistress, to use the proper term) and Glide native most recently did wigs and hair for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for four years.

Wright said when Heald asked if she’d direct, she gave him one condition. For a show with 18 songs she needed a band, and a good one. When he told her she could have Party of 5, she agreed.

The Roseburg jazz band is more “Party of 4” in this incarnation, with saxophonist David Morrison sitting this one out. They’ve been asked to wear Western shirts and lose their jazz swing, in favor of a more straight-ahead Nashville sound. They now ably back Wilson on Cline hits like “Crazy” and “I Fall to Pieces.”

Aside from the band, “Cline” is a two-woman show. The Grand Ole Opry singer is played, convincingly, by Jenna Gillespie, a member of the UCC vocal group Umpqua Singers. Tonnie Bernhardson plays Louise, a housewife who befriends an up-and-coming Cline at a seedy bar.

For this musical, Party of 5 guitarist Bryant Edwards has even picked up the pedal steel guitar, not an easy instrument to learn. But it goes a long way in making you believe this is real country band, backing a real country singer.

As important as it is in musical theater, having a believable premise might be more important in comedy. “Gutenberg” will be a bit of a swan song for — and showcase of — local talent Taylor Mead (who graduated from UCC and is transferring to Western Washington University after the summer). It’s partly Mead’s talent as a performer that make “Gutenberg” seem sly and silly, and not broad and madcap.

It’s in the split-second Mead pauses before stepping over a hat that reads “Dead Baby,” or the conviction with which he sings even the goofiest lines. In the scene-setting opening number, Mead sings that Johannes Gutenberg’s home town of Schlimmer is alive, but “not alive like a monster — alive like a town.”

You might also laugh out loud at Moore, as a little German girl, earnestly intoning about putting a man in the ground.

Mead and Moore both acted in “Forever Plaid,” which played outdoor during last year’s OMTF. “Plaid” is about a squeaky-clean vocal quartet from the 1950s. “Forever Plaid” this is not.

“Gutenberg” by Anthony King and Scott Brown was developed by comedy troupe the Upright Citizens Brigade. It spoofs a backer’s audition by a pair of well-meaning dimbulbs. Mead and Moore play Bud and Doug, who have what they think is a sure recipe for Broadway success: a big splashy musical about the life of printing press inventor Johannes Gutenberg, a towering historical figure about whom they know nothing.

The Oregon Musical Theatre Festival kicks off tonight with an “Oliver!” dinner at 5:30 p.m. at the Compass Campus Center. Cost for the dinner and tonight’s show is $30 for adults and $20 for children 9 and younger.

In conjunction with the festival, a special performance of the 35-minute opera for children “Stop, Bully!” will be held Aug. 2 in Centerstage.

• You can reach reporter Garrett Andrews at 541-957-4218 or by email at gandrews@nrtoday.com.

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The News-Review Updated Jul 24, 2014 10:56AM Published Aug 11, 2014 09:59AM Copyright 2014 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.