Broadway Comes to Lewisburg, West Virginia

Article by Miranda Woody

Actors Kenneth Derby, Kassandra Haddock, and Chelsea Amoroso prepare for the debut of Pippin at The Greenbrier Valley Theatre.

Actors Kenneth Derby, Kassandra Haddock, and Chelsea Amoroso prepare for the debut of Pippin at The Greenbrier Valley Theatre.

I walk into a small room, black curtains enveloping it, the sound of a piano ringing clearly throughout the space. A company of professional actors begin a dance number, and an actress begins to sing. This is the scene I’m presented with while visiting The Greenbrier Valley Theatre in Lewisburg, West Virginia, as the company prepares for their late-May debut of Pippin.

Donald Laney leads choreography as I sit and spectate in the corner, taking in the immense amount of preparation and careful planning that goes into choreographing and blocking a scene in a musical. The floor is numbered with tape as the actors imagine the scene before them; the director tells me that the set, once it’s finished, will have multiple levels and dynamics that the actors must learn to work with here in a flat, small rehearsal space. The actors are used to this kind of thing, and they work through the issues with a fair amount of imagination and flexibility. As I gaze on, Laney suddenly tells the actors to strike three poses, completely improvisational, one after another. I watch as the myriad of performers strike flawless poses and flex their impressive, professional dance moves. Laney moves on, working with a female member of the ensemble, tweaking her pose a bit, and his sense of humor comes through; as he instructs the actress, he turns to a male performer behind him and remarks, “Not you.” Everyone laughs, and the mood is considerably light. It is clear that having fun, all the while remaining exceptionally professional, is part of the culture at The Greenbrier Valley Theatre.

Pippin Dance RehearsalAfter some discussion and preparation, the actors prepare to “take it from the top”. The pianist in the corner opposite me hits the first note, and the lead female actress, Kim Morgan Dean, rings out the melodic opening lyrics to the song. The entire ensemble moves effortlessly across the stage, remaining completely intact and looking exceptionally prepared despite only learning their moves mere moments beforehand. I imagine this is how a Broadway rehearsal would proceed; the actors before me display no less professionalism than I would expect of Broadway actors. The company is, in few words, truly fantastic. The lyrics of the opening song, “join us, (…) an hour or two,” resonate with me in this moment, as the lead actress continues to belt them out with a welcoming confidence that reminds me that I am, in this moment, a spectator like any other audience member. Although my job is generally enjoyable, I almost forget that I am “working” while taking in a performance at The Greenbrier Valley Theatre.

The company continues to rehearse yet another scene, quickly moving through the minute details, and having fun all the while. Laney makes some particularly witty comments toward the actors he is choreographing, which he tells me are “off the record”. We all burst into laughter, yet the rehearsal remains as productive as ever. This delicate balance between work and fun seems characteristic of not only The Greenbrier Valley Theatre, but also of the show Pippin, and I can only imagine how much fun the actual performance will be for the cast and audience members alike. As the scene wraps, Laney goes on to teach a few dance breaks. Kenneth Derby, the actor who plays King Charlemagne in the show, remarks, “Can the adults smoke?”

The actors take five, and I get a chance to ask the director, Cathey Sawyer, about The Greenbrier Valley Theatre and its rich history. This year is The Greenbrier Valley Theatre’s fiftieth season of performances, which is very impressive. The longevity and professionalism of this Theatre is a testament to its will to produce high-quality art for West Virginians. Sawyer tells me that they weren’t always able to perform in such a nice venue, though; in fact, the company began performing fifty years ago in a tent on the river, then moved their shows into a barn before eventually moving into their current space. The company’s current venue was renovated in the year 2000 to become a true theatre, seeing as it was a department store beforehand. I ask how the company sources their actors, and Sawyer tells me that, “We hold auditions in New York, Chicago, and Memphis. There are a few actors here who are residents of the company, but most of them are ‘jobbed in’ from those auditions. People come back frequently, though, because they just love West Virginia.” Sawyer, as well as the actors I spoke with, had very high opinions of the state, and of The Greenbrier Valley Theatre in particular. The Greenbrier Valley Theatre is able to source such professional actors through their cooperation with Actors’ Equity. Furthermore, The Greenbrier Valley Theatre is the Official (Professional) State Theatre of West Virginia.

Pippin Dance Rehearsal (2)As Sawyer and I talk amongst ourselves, I ask her about Pippin. She suggests that I speak with actor Will Nash Broyles, who plays Pippin in this production. Broyles tells me that Pippin is a show that originally debuted in the seventies on Broadway. The show is centered around Pippin, the son of King Charlemagne, who seeks to find his own purpose and place in life. Broyles says, “It’s a show about ancient history, but it plays very modern. Pippin speaks as if he could’ve just come off the street in 2017.” From what I understand, this show is very meta— the show itself features a theatre company, and part of the show’s central concept is Pippin’s introduction to acting and performing. Pippin is along for the ride with the audience in a way, as he experiences everything organically through watching the company perform, just as the audience does. The man who composed Pippin’s score, Stephen Schwartz (whose works also boast big names such as the musical “Wicked”), wrote the score when he was in his twenties, making it one of his first shows. In the show, Pippin is supposed to have just finished school. Broyles tells me, “Pippin is any young person who is searching for what to do with their life. It’s like you leave this rigid structure after school, and you think ‘what am I supposed to do now’, you know? It’s an age old story; it resonates with everyone.” Broyles and I end our discussion with a handshake and a few farewells, and I exit the theatre with the promise to come back and see the polished performance when it debuts.

Pippin will run at Greenbrier Valley Theatre from May 26th to June 10th. Tickets are $30 for adults, $20 for students, and are available for pre-order at the box office. The Theatre can be contacted at (304)645-3838. The Theatre is located at 1038 Washington Street in Lewisburg, West Virginia.

The company attends music rehearsal before their debut of Pippin.

The company attends music rehearsal before their debut of Pippin.

All photos provided by Kelsey Presnall, GBVT Administrative Associate. 

Miranda Woody

MIRANDA WOODY

Miranda Woody is a Concord University student originally from Beckley, West Virginia. She is pursuing a degree in English. She spent the summer of 2016 living in Brooklyn, New York, and has visited seven countries in her lifetime. She is twenty-one years old, and plans to graduate from Concord in December, 2017. She enjoys writing poetry, rock climbing, and traveling. Check out her other work on goodmorningmiranda.com.