I’ve had some pretty intense experiences in my career. I spent the night with the homeless on the floor of the Salvation Army. I was with President Bush at Booker Elementary on the morning of 9/11. I found myself alone with Madonna in her bedroom. But all these pale in comparison to my latest challenge—dinner theater.
How hard could it be? You breeze in, you learn a couple of songs, a very patient lady teaches you a simple dance or two. After several weeks of fun rehearsals with congenial cast mates, you open to general acclaim. Right?
So when I told Bob and Roberta Turoff, owners of the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre here in Sarasota, that I wanted to be in their production of Evita a couple months ago, I made one thing clear: “Don’t give me any special treatment. Pretend I’m just another actor. Don’t coddle me.”
Let’s go back to the first rehearsal, when I was still young and naïve. It was chilly that morning, the day after Christmas, but the cast was there at 9 sharp. First the director, Kyle Turoff, introduced everybody. Then she explained that you have to move your car every two hours or you’ll get a ticket. The rehearsals at the Golden Apple, I was soon to learn, revolve around car moving. It is the only excuse accepted for not being somewhere when you’re supposed to be. “He’s moving his car,” someone would yell out when you missed an entrance.
I thought the first thing we would do is read through the play, have coffee and doughnuts, discuss the text and what we were trying to accomplish with our motivations and what themes the director wanted to stress. But instead, by 9:10 we were learning the music. I love to sing and was looking forward to this part, but it turns out that the first song in Evita is in Latin and was written in tiny, tiny print. It had four parts but I didn’t seem to be any of them. The part I liked best was soprano, but that, of course, was only for the girls. The bass and tenor parts didn’t quite suit my voice or range, and after some experimentation, John Visser, the musical director, realized that he had finally met his match. After some trial and error, we decided that the most effective thing to do would be for me to lip sync the lyrics, but since the lyrics were in Latin, even this proved to be beyond me.
By then it was maybe 9:20.
As the morning progressed we learned a couple of other songs, or rather, I watched the other cast members learn them. Everybody had brought little tape recorders so they could practice their parts at home. I tried to picture myself doing this but was getting nowhere. I decided I’d buy the CD with Patti LuPone and memorize it.
After a quick lunch break, during which everybody moved their cars, we began dancing. Once again, I got a sinking feeling that I might be in over my head. The first number was Buenos Aires, and I didn’t come on until the end. I watched the first part with growing apprehension. People leapt across the stage and boys lifted up girls and twirled them around and then everybody did complicated Latin steps, yelling out things like “hepa, hepa!” and “azucar!” The choreographer, Charlene Clark, seemed to be conducting the rehearsal in some language I was unfamiliar with. She said things like “push down,” “go up,” “open cross,” and “bucket turn.”
Then came my part. I, along with Roy Johns and Dustin Cunningham and Lisa Katt Watson and Garie Jean Williams, had to come out on stage taking mincing little steps, count eight, turn slightly, count eight more, stop, bend backward, bend forward, up on a count of three, hold for eight, then twirl completely around—twice.
You try it.
Finally, around 5 p.m., just when I was starting to get the mincing part right, rehearsal was over. I crawled out of there. Every muscle ached and my head was full of information that I couldn’t possibly remember or process properly. And I was one of the lucky ones. Most of the cast had a performance of Can-Can that night.
I got to my car and collapsed on the front seat. Tomorrow will be easier, I told myself.
That’s when I noticed the parking ticket.
The next morning, I sat to the side of the stage for much of the morning, watching the cast work on a number called Rolling Rolling and thanking God I was not in it. The choreography has a circular motif, and more than once a member of the chorus would get overly enthusiastic and go flying off the stage.
Of course, the ego of the actor being what it is, one part of me kept thinking: How come I’m not in this number?
By now I was getting a grasp of my role. There were seven of them, actually: a priest, an aristocrat, a stage manager, a poor person, a totally different poor person, the Pope, and another priest. True, the first and second priest look exactly the same, but in my mind, as an actor, they were completely different people. That way I had a bigger part.
Anyway, I was sitting there watching and at 11 a.m., I noticed that the servers had arrived and were setting the tables. I knew what this meant. The Kiwanis Club meets there for lunch every Wednesday. We worked right up until the moment there were a bunch of them in the lobby, straining to get in and eat.
I saw an older woman crawling under the tables with a black garbage bag, picking up trash. No doubt somebody from the cleaning service, poor thing. Then the woman grinned at me and waved. My God, it was Roberta MacDonald, the owner.
Roberta and her husband, Bob Turoff, founded the Golden Apple 37 years ago and turned it into the country’s longest-running Equity dinner theater. They’ve operated other theaters over the years and taken some of their shows all over the world, but the Golden Apple has always been the flagship. They discovered Morgan Fairchild and presented Betty Buckley and Molly Picon and a host of other stars. They are now contemplating an expansion to a new state-of-the-art facility in Lakewood Ranch. They have a keen understanding of the public’s taste and an open eye when it comes to opportunity, but the real secret to their success is written on Roberta’s hands and knees. If the cleaning service doesn’t arrive, they pick up the trash.
I’ve never encountered a business in Sarasota that so squeezes its assets. One show ends its run on Sunday night. As soon as the last customer leaves, the tech crew comes in and puts up the set for the next show. They stay all night, occasionally napping on cots. Monday morning the cast, which has had only eight days of rehearsals, arrives to work on the set for the very first time. By Monday afternoon they’re doing a dress rehearsal. There’s another one Tuesday afternoon, then at 6, the paying customers file in for dinner (a buffet featuring prime rib, pork loin, and baked chicken) and the first preview.
You need a dedicated staff to pull this off, and the Golden Apple is famous in this regard. Donna Des Isles and Karen Hammond, both with the waitstaff, have both been there 34 years. Victor Hammond has been there 21. Trez Cole, the technical director, has only been there eight years, but he married the Turoffs’ daughter, Kyle—who is directing Evita. One of the actors, Roy Johns, has done 50 shows there. The list goes on and on.
Bob Turoff, now well into his 70s, has a patriarchal look and a manner to match. He is the glue that holds everything together, relentlessly unflappable no matter what goes wrong. “We don’t operate a theater of crisis,” his wife says. “If something goes wrong we keep going and do the best we can.”
Bob was always around during our rehearsals, watching or (for want of a better word) lurking around the edges. But three days before we opened, he was there all day. He and Kyle went over the show’s problem spots, the moments that weren’t quite working or needed clarification. Only occasionally did one of his ideas clash with one of Kyle’s. It was not a question of who was right, but rather a system of checks and balances. He saw details she’d missed. Still, he was careful not to impose his own views—most of the time.
“Do you mind?” he asked her after inserting a piece of business for Joey Panek, who plays Che.
“No,” Kyle replied. “I don’t mind. Yet.”
We had a two-day break for New Year’s. I don’t remember much about it. I was in bed at 9:30 on New Year’s Eve with a sore throat, no hearing in my left ear, and aching muscles in my back, calves, ankles and neck. I stayed in bed New Year’s Day. Then it was back to work, harder than ever.
My fellow cast members were a varied lot. Some, like Roy Johns and Samantha Barrett and Lisa Katt Watson, have been in so many shows at the Golden Apple it’s like home. They are part of what amounts to an almost permanent company. Sometimes they play leads, sometimes featured roles; in Evita they are chorus members, but the chorus in Evita is particularly important, with 14 major numbers and countless small parts.
Other cast members demonstrated what a show-biz town Sarasota really is. Huck Walton may be only 22, but he’s a second-generation Sarasota performer, the son of actors Blake Walton and Annie Morrison. (I knew him when he was a baby.) Eric Berkel is another native; his dad, Elmer, was mayor back in the 1970s. He got his start at the Golden Apple and learned to ride a unicycle at the Sailor Circus. Later he worked with Siegfried and Roy for 10 years in Las Vegas; and, yes, he was there the night the tiger attacked.
But others, like Dustin Cunningham and Armando Acevedo, are new to Sarasota. The background of the younger performers shows how much the business has been changing lately. Their training grounds are likely to be theme parks and cruise ships. Many have worked for Disney. In fact, Orlando is now a major job center for young performers.
Reality shows are also starting to make an impact. Justin’s fiancée, Courtney Winstadt, came to visit just before heading off for Bridal Boot Camp on CMT. If she wins, they get a fantasy wedding.
The three leads blended seamlessly with the other performers, I was glad to note. No fits, no fights, no feuds and no egos. Joey Panek, who was in the chorus of Can-Can, had the plum part of Che this time. It was the perfect role for him; he grew a beard, and in his boots and beret and army fatigues, he really looked the part. Jorge Acosta played Peron. Jorge is a Tampa-based actor and director, a bit older than the other performers. His director’s experience paid off; the little details he added to Peron created a sly and maniacal military dictator.
Rachel Anton was appearing at the Golden Apple for the first time, but she wowed the Turoffs at her audition. A no-nonsense New Yorker, she made a good impression on Roberta. “She’s totally focused on her performance,” Roberta told me. “She reminds me of myself. Or Carolyn Michel.” Somewhat of a cut-up, Rachel developed the habit of always goosing me whenever she walked behind me on stage, a disconcerting experience when you’re dressed as the Pope.
After a week of rehearsal, I was starting to get a little nervous. This stuff was hard. I had been expecting to breeze right through it in a community theater kind of way, but it was more like playing baseball with the Yankees. They knew all the tricks. They had the skills. You weren’t bringing much to the table.
I had two major problems. The first was dancing. The company had a very elaborate number called Peron’s Latest Flame, which musicalizes the opposition to Eva as she begins her climb to the top. Two groups were on stage, the aristocrats and the military. I was an aristocrat, and although I looked the part, I had never known aristocrats to move so quickly. We were in a tight little group of six—with me discreetly placed in the middle where it was hard to see my feet—and we had to prance around the stage in quick little steps, turning our heads in unison, walking backwards and sideways, while the military guys marched in and out in an elaborate pattern. And we were supposed to be singing the whole time. Or, in my case, lip syncing.
I tried. I really did. I promised myself I’d practice at home, but when I got home and tried, I discovered that the choreography patterns had totally vanished from my head. I begged my fellow aristocrats, Seva and Dustin, to help me, which they were glad to do, but it’s not like they had time for the hours of drill that were necessary. Then, just when it was starting to make sense, Charlene, the choreographer, changed it. That was the last straw. All I could do was place myself in God’s hands.
The other problem was the costumes. This was a surprise. Who would worry about the costumes? I certainly didn’t.
Until I saw them.
There sure were an awful lot of them—a whole rack full and just for me. And each one had a problem. The tuxedo shirt had little tiny buttons that were impossible to manipulate into the little tiny holes. The Pope cassock was clearly meant for a skinnier Pope. My poor person’s pants ripped in the seat as I bent over to tie my shoes. And the tweed jacket I had to wear under those hot lights while Rachel sang Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina—it could easily provide enough heat for a family of four.
I kept waiting for the person who would show you how to organize all your costume changes, but apparently there wasn’t such a person. So I watched the other actors to pick up their tricks. Most of them “under dressed,” which means to wear one costume under another; but this was out of the question for me because of the heat factor. Another trick was to change in the wings. This was out of the question because of the darkness factor. At my age I need really good light and a full-length mirror.
So I opted for using the dressing room, which was up a flight of stairs. This worked if I really moved, but it meant that during each performance I climbed the equivalent of a 14-story building.
The night of the first preview arrived with astonishing speed. We had performed the entire show with costumes and lights exactly once. I listened to the crowd as they contentedly sipped their after-dinner coffee. How could we take money from these people for what they were about to see?
The Turoffs had no problem with this. They seemed perfectly content, even anticipatory. I asked Roberta if we were woefully behind compared to most of their shows. She gave me a funny look. “Oh, no. You’re a little ahead.”
“Places for the speech!” Alyssa, the stage manager, called out. Bob Turoff went out on stage and greeted the audience and announced the various birthdays and anniversaries being celebrated—a Golden Apple tradition—and then everybody sang Happy Birthday. Then, with a flourish, he presented his theater’s 292nd production—Evita.
The first scene was not a problem for me. In fact I rather liked it. I got to stand center stage in a spotlight behind Evita’s coffin and look sad. By this time I could lip sync to the Latin pretty well (in fact, later in the run I would get compliments on my singing), but to be on the stage for the first time with real people out there was a little unnerving. I tried to concentrate on everything that was ahead of me—the costume changes, the dance steps—but my mind was a blank. I was supposed to be praying, which was exactly what I was doing. Then I realized that everybody was looking at me in a funny way, probably because I had missed my cue to bless the coffin so they could get the hell off the stage. I hurriedly made the sign of the cross—backwards—and ran.
The first act was a blur. There were so many things to do, and it was a constant struggle to remember what each one was and it one order they had to be done. I changed costumes in a state bordering on hysteria. I had new Pope pants and I couldn’t get them over my thighs. My clip-on tie refused to unclip. I ran offstage and put on my stage manager outfit when I should have put on my aristocrat outfit. I sweated through two T-shirts.
Then came the part I was dreading. That damned dance. I had yet to do it right all the way through. I stood there in the wings, trying to remember which foot to start on. Then suddenly I was out on stage.
Actually, it didn’t go too badly. I was far from perfect, but the hard work had paid off. True, I did dance right into Roy, and then Dustin, and then a metal pillar, but at least I didn’t fall over, and best of all, the audience seemed to get it. They were enjoying themselves.
It wasn’t until well into the second act that I had a moment to think. I had just done my Pope bit and it had gone perfectly. Now I was dressed as the priest and waiting to go on for the very last time. The pressure was finally off.
The whole thing was starting to make sense now. It had something to do with the audience. True, you were taking their money. But they were getting their $40 worth—and then some. They were caught up in the story and the music. I could see it in their faces. What to you was all sweaty costumes and a missed pivot or two in Peron’s Latest Flame was to them both great fun and an escape into emotional magic.
True, events in the days to come weren’t always so magical, particularly the time I forgot to move in a blackout and poor Joey Panek had to kick my ankles to get me out of his spotlight. But that was yet to come. For the moment, at least, I understood what the theater is all about.
I was sitting backstage on a bench, listening to Che and Evita’s waltz. Jorge came up to me, ready to go for Evita’s big death scene.
“How are you doing?” he asked.
I tried to find the right word.
“It’s exhilarating,” I finally said.
“Isn’t it?” Jorge said. He looked around at the darkened backstage. In one corner Sarah and Andre were whispering, in another Charles was going over a dance routine with Kari and Sabrina. From the kitchen came a distant clatter as a pan was dropped. But the audience didn’t hear a thing. They were mesmerized as Rachel began her death scene.
Jorge stood up straight and took a deep breath. “It’s an amazing way to live,” he said. Then he patted my shoulder and moved stage left to make his final entrance as Juan Peron.
Senior editor Robert Plunket is the author of two novels, My Search for Warren Harding and Love Junkie, and a contributor to the New York Times, Barron’s and other national magazines.