'Me and My Girl': Musical dances in out of the past

July 14, 1995|By Rona Hirsch | Rona Hirsch,Contributing Writer

Better bring your dancing shoes when heading out to see the Howard County Summer Theatre production of "Me and My Girl," opening tonight at Centennial High School in Ellicott City.

Other musicals tempt audiences into dancing in the aisles; cast members here will run up the aisles and invite theatergoers to join them in dancing the show's hit song, "The Lambeth Walk."

The fact that many audiences probably have never heard of "The Lambeth Walk," a popular 1930s English dance, or even of "Me and My Girl" has made the production that much more appealing to the company.

"It isn't 'A Chorus Line'; no movie was made of it," said Tom Sankey, 42, of Ellicott City, who has directed the company's last 12 shows.

"It's a risk when we're doing something new, unlike 'The Sound of Music' or 'Oklahoma.' And if you ever have financial problems, do 'Annie' and you'll be fine.

"But we wanted to expose the community to something new that's fun and family entertainment. 'Me and My Girl' is good for community theater. It has a large cast, a wide variety of ages, plus a lot for the chorus to do. There's a lot of singing and dancing and nice character parts."

Although the show was first produced in 1938, U.S. audiences are unfamiliar with the British production because it didn't play in this country until 10 years ago. After a successful revival in England in the 1980s, the show ran for three years on Broadway, winning the 1986 Tony for best musical.

"In terms of shows, this is not overdone," said Fred Neil, a company board member who plays Sir John. "Although it doesn't fall into the blockbuster legacy of 'Hello Dolly' or 'Fiddler on the Roof,' we fell in love with it. There are some terrific numbers, and it's a whole lot of fun."

The company, which was formed in 1975 to offer theater opportunities for youngsters during the summer, always features children in casts that range in age from 6 to 65. "We attempt to continue the education of a lot of people interested in doing theater," said Mr. Neil, 61, of Columbia. "Though there aren't kid roles in this production per se, kids who performed with us in the past can be in it."

Gary Best, who plays the lead, will perform with his 13-year-old daughter, Jessica, a chorus member. Mr. Best's late mother, Elise, was one of the three parents who started the company when he played the lead in "Guys and Dolls."

An agile performer with great comedic timing, Mr. Best has performed in dinner theater, including at Toby's in Columbia from 1980 to 1985. But he didn't return to the Howard County Summer Theatre until two years ago, when he played Bert Healy in its production of "Annie" opposite Jessica, who had the title role.

He, too, was unfamiliar with "Me and My Girl" when he was asked to join this year.

"I knew nothing about it," said the 40-year-old systems analyst from Mount Airy. "But I think it's wonderfully written. The name recognition isn't there like it was for 'The Music Man,' but I hope people will give it a chance."

Last year's 20th anniversary production drew almost 3,000 people to "The Music Man." Organizers this year are counting on word of mouth to build audiences.

"Me and My Girl" hails from the grand tradition of 1930s musical comedies: sappy love story, witty dialogue, hummable songs, elaborate dance numbers and huge cast.

The humorous plot revolves around the likable but uneducated Bill Snibson, who turns out to be a member of a wealthy family of nobility. The family requires him to improve himself. That includes dumping his low-class but warmhearted girlfriend, Sally.

The production features a 23-member band and 72 cast members. That's a lot of feet to teach the difficult, 10-minute-long "Lambeth Walk," during which dancers flap their knees, clap their hands and scream, "Oi!" (as in "oy vey").

"Several adults didn't think they could do it," said Amanda Tschirgi, who has choreographed 11 of the company's shows. "They thought it was too hard and too much. Sometimes it took two hours to do just two verses."

Ms. Tschirgi had to be creative to avoid crowding when staging the show's 15 dance numbers.

"They dance on the ramps, the stairs, sides of the stage or couches," said the 30-year-old Columbia resident.

For "The Lambeth Walk," she divided the cast into six groups. Once the number begins, 40 cast members will run into the aisles and pull audience members out of their seats.

For the other toe-tapping numbers, audiences are reminded to

stay seated.

Howard County Summer Theatre will present "Me and My Girl" at p.m. today through Sunday and Thursday through July 22 at Centennial High School in Ellicott City. Matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Sunday and July 22.

General admission is $7; admission is $5 for those 60 or older, children under 12 and groups of 20 or more. Proceeds will benefit the Howard County Sexual Assault Center. Information: 418-8940.

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