Friday, August 29, 2014

Coming Up: Dream Role for Actor Jeff Church as Don Quixote at Seattle Musical Theatre

Don Quixote (Jeff Church) pledges his loyalty to Aldonza (Cherisse Martinelli) (Photo: Jeff Carpenter)

Jeff Church is finally getting to perform a dream role as Cervantes/Don Quixote in Seattle Musical Theatre’s production of Man of La Mancha (September 12-28th tickets at . He’s been performing in Seattle for some years, at Village Theatre and the 5th Avenue, and started his Seattle career performing at Civic Light Opera.

Jeff says about Man of La Mancha, “I did the show years ago in Wichita (Kansas) as Pedro, one of the muleteers. (With Cervantes/Don Quixote) you’re playing two characters in a show within a show. The clarity of each character is really important: finding the comedy in Don Quixote without making fun of him. There is a lot of comedy in his madness, (but) know that it’s a serious story he’s telling. I love the language, as well.

“(I’m performing with) a bigger voice than I use most of the time. Working with John Allman, music director, a person I trust to tell me what he’s hearing, is really great. The songs are such big baritone songs, but you don’t really get a chance to perform them until you’re at the right age for the role. It’s amazing to finally get the chance to do that. I’m 52 and I’m the perfect age.

“It’s a show many people know and being true to the story is hard, because people want a fresh take or a new version. It doesn’t need to be new, it just needs to be true.”

Man of La Mancha began life as a straight play (a play that is not designed to have any sung songs). After a 1959 television airing of the play, playwright Dale Wasserman was approached to turn it into a musical. Based on Miguel de Cervantes’s novel Don Quixote, the story begins with Cervantes  thrown into an Inquisitor’s prison with his companion Sancho.

Fellow prison inmates threaten him until Cervantes begins to tell a tale of Don Quixote, the man of La Mancha, the impossible dreamer, regaling them with his adventures. During the play-within-a-play, Cervantes draws in a prostitute, Aldonza, and pronounces her the fair lady Dulcinea. As Don Quixote, his message is that within everyone is a divine spark worth fighting, and dying, for.

With book by Dale Wasserman, lyrics by Joe Darion, and music by Mitch Leigh, Man of La Mancha went on to win five Tony Awards, including Best Score and Best Musical after opening on Broadway in 1965. The show was the first of its kind – a musical within a play. The prison is not a musical and no one sings there until the end, but the Quixote story is a musical, until Cervantes “brings” music into the dull grey world of the prison.

Jeff Church grew up in Haysville Kansas outside of Wichita. He says, “At the time Boeing was really big in Wichita and my father worked at Boeing. My mother was a teacher. My mother still lives in the house I was raised in.” He starting playing piano and drums in 3rd and 4th grades and sang in the church choir. The multi-tasker also ran track and swam.

“In high school my first theater production was Fiddler on the Roof as a Jr. as Tevye. There was a very strong woman theater teacher and she was a force to be reckoned with. We didn’t have a very good football team, but we had other great sports teams, which is very Midwest. But she was able to pull from the sports teams and had football players on stage dancing.

“I got the lead playing Bobby in Company as a freshman in college. (Later) I was on an art scholarship, painting acrylics and watercolors. I sang as a singing waiter there and was a janitor in the art department to make money.

“I was accepted to a music program at New England Conservatory in Boston. I was going study opera. I had a much bigger voice at the time than now. But I didn’t have the money, so I went back to Kansas and became a bartender.

“I did a couple of summer seasons with Music Theater of Wichita and then went to Chicago for 7 ½ years. I was a singing waiter and did various productions and sang in a jazz quartet. I had a big personal upheaval and picked Seattle as a place I’d heard great things about and moved here around 1992.

“I was going to retire from performing because Chicago is a really hard city to break into, and I was going to get an education degree and be a great teacher. I wanted to be an elementary ed teacher like my mother. But I got a great job at the Dahlia Lounge. I have worked for Tom Douglas restaurants and catering for 20 years now!

“I auditioned for On the Town at Village and it was one of their first production at their newly built theater. I realized how much I love performing. I did work at CLO, now about twelve shows at Village, and a couple of shows at the 5th.”

More recently, Jeff has started directing musicals, most with choreographer Crystal Dawn Munkers. He directed Gypsy at Seattle Musical Theatre and inadvertently ended up involved in a huge controversy last year. (See the article in the August 29 issue of the Seattle Gay News for more information on that controversy.)

A few months back, Jeff had the lead in La Cage au Folles at SecondStory Repertory.  Jeff says, “It was so fun working with Ryan McCabe (the other lead). It was also a dream role. I had understudied it when Village did it. For a baritone with my range, I’m fnally the right age to play (that role too). Being able to play the straight man in a comedy is amazing. But there’s so much involved, you’re a showman and father and husband, and it showcases family so well. I loved the show business-y part of it and loved working with Eric Jensen (director). I am amazed at what Mark (Chenovick) and Jen (Klos) do at SecondStory in that small space, the variety of shows they do out there. It was a great working environment."

Come see Jeff in his dream role as Seattle Musical Theatre starts their 37th season and strives to return to the great reputation it had during the best Civic Light Opera years!

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