This piece was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Our Jackson Home: The Magazine.
Some of my favorite things about Jackson’s many weekend entertainment options are the gambling, exotic dancers, and running from the cops. Of course, I am a sucker for the more romantic selections as well, including salsa dancing and island-inspired drinks, all of which can cause a woman’s inhibitions to wave bye-bye at the door. All of these are what make Jackson what it is—a lively city teeming with less-than-honest citizens looking for even less honest entertainment.
The best part of a night of over-the-top excitement such as this, however, is surely going home—leaving the theatre and coming back to reality. Of course, I am referring to leaving the real Jackson for a few hours and entering the world of local theatre, namely the Jackson Theatre Guild’s (JTG) 2016 production of Guys and Dolls.
The musical, set in mid-century New York City, is the story of gambler Nathan Detroit, who, having few options for the location of his “floating” crap game, must pay $1,000 to a garage owner to host it. Nathan bets Sky Masterson, the highest player of them all, that Sky cannot take virtuous Sarah Brown to Havana on a date. Despite some resistance, Sky negotiates a date with her in exchange for bringing people into her Save-a-Soul Mission. Meanwhile, Nathan's fiancé of fourteen years, Adelaide, wants him to go legit and marry her.
Guys and Dolls has been called the most perfect musical ever written due to its memorable ballads, lively dance numbers, enthralling storyline, and colorful characters. It is surely one of my favorite stories, in no small part due to Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando playing the leading men in the 1955 film.
My affinity for theatre, musical theatre in particular, began with my music teacher mother, followed closely by watching live shows performed by the unattainably cool and popular University School of Jackson theatre department. My grade school mind was opened to the possibility that I could take up acting and not lose any cool points with my guy friends while picking up a few from the ladies. Several years and productions later, I caught wind of the JTG 2016 schedule which included a Neil Simon comedy, Barefoot in the Park, and the summer musical, Guys and Dolls.
There are three very general facets in preparation for a musical theatre production: auditions, rehearsals, and performances. The first of which, the auditions, are perhaps the most unusual of the lot. Auditions are held in the JTG offices, located directly across from the downtown Greyhound bus station, next door to the Ned McWherter Cultural Arts Center, the location of the final product. Upon arrival, prospective cast members must negotiate a ridiculously heavy glass swinging door and go up two flights of stairs to enter a white block room devoid of anything but a few folding chairs, two tables, and a keyboard. Upon entering the room, the awkwardness begins.
Much like a waiting room at a doctor’s office where everyone suddenly becomes a judgmental Sherlock Holmes (I wonder what that guy has? Surely she is here for that rash on her neck. I hope she doesn’t sit next to me, etc.), the survey of the room begins. Thankfully, as with all JTG productions, there are friendly, well-known faces in the room. There is Billy Worboys, the president and mainstay of JTG. Also making an appearance are high school classmates of mine, Kyle Williams and Erica (Jacobs) Davidson. Along with your author, Kyle and Erica were in the 1999 performance of Guys and Dolls at Jackson Central-Merry High School and are back vying for a repeat performance in the roles of Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Adelaide, respectively.
After checking the room for competition and making ridiculous snap judgments based on nothing but appearance (don’t lie; you would, too), the auditions begin. Being a musical, each potential cast member is required to prepare a song to display singing ability (or lack thereof). Most folks choose a number from the show, with others choosing more offbeat choices. Clay Elliot, playing Big Jule (pronounced “joo-lee”), sang “Nothing I Do” by Jamie Callum after a ten-minute introduction and set-up. Ten minutes of set-up and one minute of singing. He got the part, though, so who am I to judge?
Who is to judge, however, is Becky Fly, our director and local legend. Becky was my high school theatre teacher and is credited with several film and television roles, including The Help and Boulevard, where she worked with the late icon Robin Williams. Auditioning in front of a room full of strangers can make anyone anxious, but showcasing your chops in front of a seasoned actor with the caliber of Becky Fly is another story. Becky, however, has immense patience and seems to be enveloped by each person auditioning. She, along with Renée Brooks, show choreographer, and music directors Christina and Benjamin Duffey, observe each person, making notes for the private conversations about roles that come the few days following auditions.
After the music, lines are run and each potential cast member is allowed to read for any role they are seeking. Auditions are concluded with dancing. Oh, the dancing. Men and women are separated and taught a short dance routine. Fortunately for me, the role I am seeking is light on dancing, as I only excel dancing to hip-hop at prom or “interpretive movement” to any Prince classic.
A few days after auditions, the leadership team posts the cast list online. Then the real work begins. For principal roles, this is a three-nights-a-week commitment from the beginning. Each Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday night from 6:30 to 8:30, the cast rehearses. They run lines, learn blocking, and work on choreography and musical numbers.
Before the end of rehearsals, most of the cast have put in over seventy hours (at the very least) of practice for a two-hour show. This is in addition to non-rehearsal activities including press, photo sessions, set construction, costume creation, and public appearances. This is truly a “make-your-own” production. The only thing you will see on stage that was not created by a member of the cast or crew is a few of the costumes, which are rentals to stay true to the traditional look of the characters. JTG makes magic out of hard work, focus, and talent.
After weeks of rehearsals, choreography practices, vocal training, and dress rehearsals, the production opens on a Wednesday night. This opening night is really the final dress rehearsal where sponsors and other special guests are treated to complimentary wine and beer and heavy hors d’oeuvres, with dessert and coffee at intermission. This is a fun night for the cast, as most of the audience is loose enough from the partaking of spirits to make jokes extra funny, musical numbers that much more beautiful, and dance performances epic. Thank you, liquid courage. The weekend of the production is a whirlwind for the cast. Shows on Thursday and Friday, two on Saturday, and a Sunday matinee make for one busy weekend. The reward for the countless hours of sacrifice, time away from family, and focus unmatched in everyday life is in the audience’s enjoyment of the show. Much like a new mother forgets the pain of childbirth, the laughs and applause of friends and neighbors completes the journey and makes the cast forget the busyness and stress of preparation. Most of them even come back for more, sometimes just a few days later, when auditions are held for the next show.
JTG exists to promote, encourage, and support quality theatrical productions, the arts, and the educational aspect of theatre in Jackson, Tennessee, and its surrounding areas. “Quality” is the key word there. The plays are quality. The facilities are quality. The location is quality. Most of all, the people involved are quality. Local theatre in Jackson is all about quality, and we invite you to come see for yourself. I’ll bet you ten to one you will enjoy it!