Wes "Angel" Hansen's has always wanted to both choreograph and direct a show, and now he has realized that dream with Clackamas Repertory Theatre's "Irving Berlin's The Melody Lingers On," opening Aug. 4.
The musical is "a chronological journey through Irving Berlin's life. Every number has some special significance in Berlin's history," said David Smith-English, CRT's artistic director, who originally was set to direct the musical with Hansen choreographing.
After a few rehearsals however, Smith-English realized that the piece was really about dance and movement, Hansen's forte.
"He said he was impressed with what I was doing, and since there's only a little bit of [dialogue] he was ready to step back and let me take over," Hansen said.
Loving the music
"The Melody Lingers On" doesn't have a plot, but audiences will connect with the music right away and learn a lot about Berlin's life through the songs, Hansen said.
The composer was born in 1888 in Russia, but his family moved to New York when he was five to escape anti-Jewish pogroms in his homeland. Berlin's career, took off with "Alexander's Ragtime Band" in 1911, eventually encompassing two world wars and beyond; he died in 1988.
"The music was the story of his life; what he was going through and what the nation was going through," Hansen said.
Ten cast members and three guest performers sing nearly 50 numbers in the show, including such familiar hits as "Puttin on the Ritz" and "White Christmas." Berlin is perhaps best known for writing "God Bless America," which debuted in 1938.
The choreography also spans the ages, with styles ranging from "ragtime to charleston, jitterbug, a little bit of swing and partner dancing. There is tap dancing all the way through it," Hansen said.
Audiences will "love the dancing and love the chemistry between all the actors. All these actors are well known in Portland, but this is the first time they have come together" on the CRT stage, Hansen said. "This is a magical cast."
Merideth Kaye Clark
One of the 10 performers in the musical is Merideth Kaye Clark who is well known to CRT audiences for playing the female lead in "Kiss Me Kate" in 2013.
She has a special connection to "What'll I Do," one of her solos in the show, which she said she first heard when she was in high school.
"It was a formative time in my life, when I first started having a crush ... and all these years later it reminds me of that young girl," she said.
What Clark likes best about "The Melody Lingers On" is the fact that it is an ensemble show and all 10 performers have a chance to shine.
Audiences will hear "10 people's interpretations" of songs by the same composer, she said, adding that audiences will be surprised to learn so much about Berlin.
After her first costume fitting, she said that she also realized that [Alva Bradford's] costumes "will be a history lesson in fashion in those eras."
Mont Chris Hubbard
CRT audiences also are familiar with cast member Mont Chris Hubbard, but usually have seen him playing piano onstage, accompanying a singer in concert.
"I don't do much acting, so this is a fun change of pace," he said.
Hubbard plays a character named Mark, who portrays Berlin in the show, and so the director needed a "Mark who could play and sing," Hubbard said. "There is wonderful harmony singing in this show and you can track time through the show.
"This is a real ensemble; everyone has multiple solos and everyone has their moment. It's a concert and a dramatized history lesson."
Audience members should "recognize a handful of songs, and it is a great chance to get to know the person behind these songs," Hubbard added.
Susannah Mars is making her Clackamas Repertory Theatre debut, although she performed in CRT's Cabaret Concert Series in 2016.
She is a resident artist at Artists Repertory Theatre, where she has appeared in 12 productions.
"The Melody Lingers On" is "light-hearted and pure, unadulterated fun," Mars said.
One of her favorite solos in the show is "You'd Be Surprised," which she described as being just "on the edge of propriety" at the time Berlin wrote it.
The song is a bit "eyebrow raising," Mars said, noting that one lyric goes, "He's not so good in a crowd but when you get him alone, you'd be surprised."
Mars said that a show-stopping moment in "The Melody Lingers On" comes when an African-American woman sings "Suppertime."
It is the story of a woman whose husband has just been lynched, and the song pulls heart-breaking beauty from the tragedy, she said.
Mars added that guest performers LaRhonda and Lauren Steele share the role and "bring an incredible presence to it."
Don Kenneth Mason
Don Kenneth Mason's favorite part of his character's storyline is that he gets to pretend he's Fred Astaire, but he also has an opportunity to relive the very first musical he ever saw when he sings "The Girl That I Marry," from "Annie Get Your Gun."
For Mason, though, a most poignant moment occurs when the entire cast sings "God Bless America."
"Irving Berlin lived through two world wars and he felt proud to be an American," he said.
"In our current social climate, it is important for people to recognize that 'God Bless America' was written by a Jewish immigrant," Mason added.
"The Melody Lingers On" is a "nod to the golden age of musicals, and our audience will relate to that," he said.
Mason added, "There is a reason these songs are so enduring; they speak to our soul."
'No Business Like Show Business!'
What: Clackamas Repertory Theatre presents "Irving Berlin's The Melody Lingers On"
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; and 2:30 p.m. Sundays, Aug. 4-27 (Aug. 4 performance is sold out)
Where: The Osterman Theatre in the Niemeyer Center at Clackamas Community College's Oregon City campus
Details: Tickets are $20-$36 and are available online at clackamasrep.org or by calling 503-594-6047.
Cast: The cast includes Mont Chris Hubbard, Merideth Kaye Clark, James Dixon, Susannah Mars, Kevin Minkoff, Don Kenneth Mason, Caitlin Brooke, Matthew Brown, Natalie Mallak and Allesondra Helwig. Guest performers include Lauren Steele, who will sub for Susanna Mars on Aug. 4, 5 and 6, LaRhonda Steele and Karen Maria Capo.