Bill Theisen plays Oliver Hardy in the Rep’s Laurel & Hardy
In Milwaukee, this year, Theisen is Mr. Show Biz. He will direct Rossini’s The Italian Girl in Algiers, which opens in March, for the Florentine Opera. He will travel to the University of Iowa to direct Donizettis’s The Elixir of Love and to Opera Carolina to direct H.M.S. Pinafore this season. He remains artistic director of the Skylight Opera Theatre, where he will direct that company’s holiday Pinafore. This fall, with Pam Kriger, he co-directed the Skylight’s Dames at Sea, which is up and running now. As Dames came to a head, Theisen went into the home stretch of rehearsal with Gerard Neugent, co-starring as Stan Laurel, and Paul Helm, the on-stage pianist. Laura Gordon is directing the U.S. premiere of Tom McGrath’s play with music about the first great comedy duo in American movies.
The English-born Laurel (1890-1965) and Hardy (1892-1957) had worked separately in vaudeville and movies before landing in Hollywood. Laurel made his first film in 1917. Hardy, a Georgia native, made many films in a studio in Florida and later in New York. He moved to Hollywood about the same time Laurel arrived there. The two worked separately in silent comedies for the Hal Roach Studios until 1927, when Roach made them a team. They jumped to talkies and quickly became huge stars in two-reel shorts for the Roach Studios. They remained big draws through the 1930s. They moved on to feature-length films in major studios after that, but their popularity faded in the 1940s. The 30-minute films they made with Roach turned out to be excellent for television, which carried them to a new audience in the 1950s and 60s and cemented their place in American pop-culture history.
“I was always fond of Laurel and Hardy,” Theisen said. “I came to realize, as I found out more about them and watched the films, that they have such heart, such a sense of true friendship, a real love. And that makes the difference in their comedy.”
In the play, the two comedians look back at their lives and careers. Theisen noted that Hardy as an acting role must live on something like three levels. Theisen must differentiate between Hardy the man and Hardy the film character. And it’s not enough to merely study the films and reproduce Hardy’s mannerisms.
“Making that work is one thing when the camera is five feet away, and something different if you’re on stage,” he said. “Laura Gordon is really helping with that.”
Theisen’s presence on the Rep’s stage began when Mark Clements visited Milwaukee last January, six months before Clements succeeded Joe Hanreddy as artistic director at the Rep.
“Mark saw our Marriage of Figaro,” Theisen said. “We had coffee and just talked about collaboration. Mark mentioned the Laurel and Hardy piece, which had never been done in the U.S. Once he got the rights to do it in the U.S., things happened quickly. I was doing Hairspray in Louisville in April when Mark called and offered me the role and sent me the script.”
Theisen cleared the Rep show with Amy Jensen, the Skylight’s managing director, before formally accepting. Given that Theisen is working as a half-time AD there, as the Skylight is still in financial recovery mode, she could hardly deny him this opportunity. Then he called Pam Kriger, originally slated as choreographer for Dames at Sea, and asked if she’d be willing to co-direct. She was.
“Everything lined up to make this possible,” Theisen said. “Crazy, but possible.”
Laurel and Hardy previews Friday and Saturday (Sept. 24-25) and opens formally on Sunday. It runs through Nov. 14 at the Rep’s Stackner Cabaret. Tickets are $35, $30 for students and seniors. Call the Rep box office, 414-224-2490, or click here to order.