Staging the Tangles Within Tanglin’ Hearts

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Kevin Michael Moran and Bruce Schroffel in "Tanglin' Hearts." Photo by Ed Krieger.
Kevin Michael Moran and Bruce Schroffel in “Tanglin’ Hearts.” Photo by Ed Krieger.

The challenges of mounting musicals can be considerable, simply because they have more moving parts than non-musical plays.  But I welcomed and embraced the challenge of directing and choreographing Tanglin’ Hearts, a Texas-set country-western musical adaptation of As You Like It  that Theatre 40 is reviving nearly 19 years after the company presented the show’s first production. Here’s a glimpse into the adventure.

First up: Casting. I have been involved with casting more than 40 shows, and this was one of the most arduous. Theatre 40 is a respected membership company with strong actors, but it doesn’t have many singers. Although we were able to cast one company member (Bruce Shroffel), we had to get the word out that we were open to non-members.

Allison Bibicoff
Allison Bibicoff

Anyone who had a summer trip planned was out of the running — I think I’m one of the only theater professionals in LA who didn’t go to Europe or have a friend get married out of town this summer! We held many more auditions than planned until we found fantastic folks who were right for the roles. Then, after one last hiccup which required that we throw together a casting session with less than 24 hours’ notice, we hit the casting jackpot and started rehearsals eight days later than scheduled.

On to the task of making this show come alive. I love directing established plays and musicals, but my strongest passion is with projects that aren’t well-known, published and proven. With widely familiar material, an audience expects certain things, even if the director is allowed to take liberties. Yes, you can take a huge risk and turn “Steam Heat” from The Pajama Game into a hip hop number, but my preference is to work with a cleaner slate and see how I can help tell story and reveal character in creative ways.

Tanglin’ Hearts is not brand-new, but it feels new in the sense that it is unpublished, and I was able to collaborate with the book writer, Zora Margolis, to continue to shape the script, as opposed to an established or published work that must be performed exactly as written. I had opportunities to make choices, uninfluenced by decisions of previous directors.

The songs in Tanglin’ Hearts, by Peter Spelman (music) and Zora Margolis (lyrics), are excellent, but they were intentionally written more along the lines of country pop than musical theater. The chorus often repeats without much progression. I had to find ways to move the story along during musical numbers without changing the words. Here are a few examples of how I approached making songs more active:

“Texas”: In this opening number as written, only half of the characters are designated to sing and there is no specificity regarding location or activities. As the song is really a prologue, I re-assigned lines so everyone sings something. Thus, the audience learns a bit about all the characters during their brief moments in the spotlight.

Trip Langley and Sarah Schulte
Trip Langley and Sarah Schulte

“All I Want to Do Is Sing a Country Song”: This song takes place in a rehearsal room, where Rosalind expresses her love of country music and her disillusionment with the music business. To add another level, we decided to use the last chorus to have her perform as if she has become a superstar by pursuing her own path. We change to rock-star lighting, as she imagines performing to a fan-packed house.

“Benworld”: This rap is clever and engaging, but it felt long. My multi-talented stage manager, Bill Froggatt, designed a fantastic map to illustrate what Ben is rapping about. Since I had two actresses who move very well, we thought having them dance in revealing outfits — clearly forced to be Ben’s backup dancers — would be entertaining while further illustrating Ben’s male chauvinism.

“I Gotta Run”: The stage directions specify that Jesse sings this standing in a spotlight. In order to more clearly demonstrate Jesse’s dangerous situation, Jesse now sings while sneaking into the back of a pickup truck, traveling in the truck, and eventually arriving at his destination and running for cover.

“My Heart Says Yes.” This tuneful song clearly conveys Jesse’s frustration, but it had three chorus repeats. We ultimately decided to highlight Jesse’s actual writing of the song, which helps express his frustration. We also added Celia breaking into dance to illustrate Celia’s free and fun nature, and then it helps with the storytelling to have her almost get caught dancing/eavesdropping.

“Easy to Burn”: The original stage directions read: “Rosalind is spotlighted. She has removed her wig.” Inspired by this visual, we decided it could be even more interesting to watch her shed her disguise as she bares her soul. As the song progresses, she takes off her sunglasses, fake eyelashes, wipes off her red lipstick, removes her red satin jacket, and then finally, she removes her wig. This small tweak tells us even more about what Rosalind is going through, emotionally.

“Baby, Straighten Up”: This fun, swing-sounding song is the ultimate clean slate for a director to create, as there are no stage directions. We have a strong woman, a weak male, and a lasso onstage. Let the fun begin! The woman, who is telling her man to straighten up, loops the lasso around her man, rides him like a cowgirl and generally ties him up. It concludes with them together as she dips him.

Nick Denning and Cailan Rose
Nick Denning and Cailan Rose

The final, um, challenge, occurred 11 days before our first audience. An actress withdrew to take a seven-month cruise-ship contract. As we who work in small theater know all too well, this isn’t unheard of, as Equity’s 99-Seat theater plan allows professional actors in LA County to work for only a small stipend. We found someone fantastic and hard-working, and my amazing cast and team pitched in to get her up-to-speed. Heather Barr went on as Rosalind six days after her first rehearsal!

One last, slightly unrelated-yet-interesting tidbit: My rehearsal accompanist played the guitar, not the piano. I was most concerned about this, but it worked just fine. I guess a note is a note, whether it comes from a piano or a guitar. It did, however, present issues when we needed to audition new Rosalinds — they auditioned with guitar accompaniment.

I find every show to be a learning experience in one way or another. I was surrounded by wonderful, positive, talented and hard-working people who were as dedicated to this show as I. I’m so proud of them, and of the show.

Tanglin’ Hearts, Theatre 40,  Reuben Cordova Theatre, campus of Beverly Hills High School, 241 S. Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm, through August 25. Tickets: $24-$26. 310-364-0535.

**All Tanglin’ Hearts production photos by Ed Krieger.

A director and choreographer, Allison Bibicoff has received an LA Drama Critic’s Circle nomination and a Garland award for her choreography in The Who’s Tommy, two LA Weekly Award nominations for Godspell and 1776. She was the assistant choreographer for Xanadu on Broadway and was honored to work with Kathleen Marshall on Applause at City Center Encores! in NYC, starring Christine Ebersole. This January, Allison directed the LA Times Critic’s Choice production of Around the World in 80 Days at ICT in Long Beach. In early 2014, she will be directing a musical by the same author as 80 Days, Mark Brown, China, the Whole Enchilada at Sacred Fools Theater. She also executive produced two TV movies for the Hallmark Channel, and was a featured dancer in the tour of the Tony-nominated Swing!.

Allison Bibicoff

Allison Bibicoff

Guest Writer