One gentleman of music makes a Baltimore debut

Stage

Theater - Music - Dance

February 17, 2005|By Ann McArthur | Ann McArthur,SUN STAFF

Ten years ago, at age 20, Eric Svejcar was a concert pianist with the Cincinnati Pops. For three days.

Svejcar despised all the scrutiny in the profession and felt he would be judged a sloppy player. Itching to focus more on the music than the notes, he came up with a compromise that would allow him to trade in Mozart's concertos for the show tunes of West Side Story:

"I realized I could be a pianist without being a concert pianist," said Svejcar.

Now, in Center Stage's production of Two Gentlemen of Verona, a musical from the creator of Hair playing through March 27, Svejcar is not only the pianist, but also the musical director, conductor and arranger.

Svejcar is used to wearing all three hats since his move from Chicago to New York City six years ago. He has made a living accompanying theater auditions, conducting on Broadway and creating and launching his own musical.

He wrote the lyrics and composed the score for Caligula: An Ancient Glam Epic, setting the life of the crazed Roman emperor to an early-'70s-style glam rock score.

"Mounting Caligula was one of the most frightening things I've ever done. It practically killed me," he said of the 2004 production that premiered at the Theatre at St. Clement's in New York. "But the rewards have been amazing."

The rewards have ranged from being a finalist for the 2003 Richard Rodgers Award, winner of the Audience Award at the 2004 New York Theater Festival to a review in The New York Times that said the production "rocks."

Svejcar calls the chance to work in Baltimore on Two Gentlemen of Verona - another 1970s rock-infused musical - a lucky accident that happens a lot in the theater.

This production of Two Gentlemen of Verona will mark a rare professional revival since its 1971 debut in New York (it went on to win the Tony Award for Best Musical).

The score was written by Galt MacDermot in 1971 as an attempt to enliven one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, which showcases some of his favorite themes: young love, betrayal and friendship. MacDermot, librettists John Guare (who also wrote the lyrics) and Mel Shapiro left the best bits of Shakespeare's poetry, then let the music take over from there.

While in rehearsals, MacDermot added 39 songs inspired by '70s rock and the array of cultures and styles of the multi-ethnic cast that included the late Raul Julia. The result was a score that blended rock, rhythm and blues, doo-wop, salsa and gospel. The music jumps from one style to the next, said Svejcar.

"It's like walking through a barrio and hearing the eclectic music coming from all the open windows in the neighborhood."

In Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare tells the story of Proteus and Valentine, best friends who have both fallen for a woman named Silvia. But Silvia is in love with a knight called Eglamour and is betrothed to Thurio, a gentleman of Milan.

Thanks to the musical score, even theatergoers who aren't fans of Shakespeare can enjoy this tale of young love, said Rodney Hicks, who plays Valentine and was in the original cast of the Broadway musical Rent. "The music contemporizes Shakespeare and makes it easily accessible," he said. The cast of 10 men and seven women is a mixture of young adults just starting their careers and young Broadway veterans.

"With a young cast, you don't usually get great singers, actors and musicians," said Hicks. "But we have a cast of Broadway-caliber performers."

The late '60s and early '70s also influenced the costumes and the set. From a backdrop inspired by Andy Warhol paintings to the sight of the ensemble dressed in pixie skirts, audiences can expect to be taken on a journey through time that will keep them on their toes.

As the conductor, Svejcar is responsible for keeping the audience's toes tapping throughout the two-hour performance. He controls the music, sets the tempo and cues the actors. But not with a stick.

"I usually conduct with my head, give cues with one hand and grab chords with the other," said Svejcar.

After the six-week run of Two Gentlemen of Verona, Svejcar will work on getting Caligula to Broadway. And he plans on working as a conductor and composer for at least 50 more years.

"Conductors live well into their 80s or 90s because all the exposure to music is supposed to be good for them," he said. "An entire life in music is healthful."

"Two Gentlemen of Verona" runs through March 27 at the Head Theater at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Show times vary. Tickets are $10-$65. Call 410-332-0033 or visit www. centerstage.org.

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