Seniors making sure the show still goes on

Theater: Senior Star Showcase offers older adults a creative outlet and a place to bond.

April 26, 2004|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

The set designers always make sure to include plenty of furniture on stage for the actors to rest. The "sweetener track" -- a studio recording of chorus members' own voices -- helps them remember their musical cues. Rehearsal schedules take into account vacation cruises, doctors' appointments and cast members who no longer drive after dark.

Nevertheless, soloists with the Senior Star Showcase, a theater group for the over-55 set in the Baltimore area, still wow audiences when they hit their high notes. The comedy routines still produce hearty laughter.

And the dancers -- skittering across the stage in fishnet stockings -- still wear the skimpiest skirts their costume designers will allow.

"We love it. We fight to show our legs," said Nettie Frisch, 71, of Perry Hall, one of eight Showcase dancers who devote up to 10 hours a week to tap and jazz lessons and rehearsals. "We don't do little old lady dancing."

Quite the contrary, the Senior Star Showcase has developed a national reputation for putting on polished musical revues and theater productions with a cast of 65 performers who also just happen to be seniors.

Based at the Community College of Baltimore County in Essex, the troupe annually stages two major campus productions -- the next has its debut May 21 -- and about three dozen smaller "road shows" at area churches and colleges, senior centers and civic groups. They also performed in January as the headliner act at the USA Senior Theatre Festival at Harrah's Casino in Las Vegas and, a month later, at the open house for Baltimore's newly refurbished Hippodrome Theatre.

Leading the production is Arne Lindquist, 61, director of the college's senior studies program and a longtime opera performer who ran the Peabody Conservatory's opera program for nearly two decades.

"Arne's group makes a really important contribution to senior theater nationally and internationally, primarily because of the work that they do in creating musical revues," said Ann McDonough, a theater professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and the campus' director of gerontology and senior adult theater.

At a recent performance of Hooray for Hollywood -- a revue about a retired producer who goes to the Beverly Hills Senior Center to cast a movie -- audience members at Oak Crest Village retirement community tapped their feet, applauded and, at times, sang along to the familiar show tunes.

"Let me tell you, when you get to their age, it takes a lot to dance the way they did and sing the way they did," Corrine Meyers, 75, said. "For older people, to see someone their age go up there and prance around, you figure, `You're not dead yet.'"

Cast members are aware that their performances can be inspiring and pick their material accordingly.

Young at heart

"When we go to the theater festivals, no one is doing what we're doing. Other acts dwell on being old and make bad jokes about being old," said Kathryn Smith, 70, of Severna Park, the group's stage director and a frequent performer. "We come out there trying to make people think of us as performers, not just old performers."

Since 1999, the number of senior theater companies nationwide has grown from about 80 to more than 520, according to Bonnie L. Vorenberg, who runs ArtAge Publications, a Portland, Ore.-based senior theater resource center.

Maryland has gained several senior theater groups in recent years, including the Fabulous Fifty-Plus Players of Howard County and the Golden Girls, a senior ensemble at Lorenzo's Timonium Dinner Theatre.

Senior theater can be a lucrative enterprise, Vorenberg said. One Northern California troupe puts on an eight-performance run of a variety show every July -- and sells out all 4,800 tickets by February, she said.

In the Senior Star Showcase, cast members range in age from 60 to 86 and live throughout the Baltimore area. They pay a nominal tuition fee to the community college to participate.

Only a handful of Showcase performers have acting backgrounds, and even those come mostly from dinner- and community-theater companies.

Others first took the stage as children and are returning after long careers as lawyers, department store clerks and nurses. Many parlayed years of church choir singing into more involved productions or decided to give the stage a try after a spouse's death or a serious illness.

"I lost two wives," said 80-year-old Joseph Czajkowski of Dundalk. "I had to do something other than play golf." He has performed with the Showcase for about a decade, carving out a niche as a singer and comedian.

Frisch, a Showcase dancer who joined after receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer, calls the troupe her "salvation." "One nurse told me I was in remission and I said, `No, I'm cured,'" she said.

Supporting cast

The Showcase also serves as something of a support group.

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