Tom Strini

Those Rhode girls and MCT’s “Main-Travelled Roads”

By - Oct 14th, 2010 01:11 am

Left to right: Alissa Rhode, Clare Arena Haden, Rich Higdon, Jennifer L. Shine, Scott Haden, Chase Stoeger. MCT photo by Mark Frohna.

We know Molly Rhode as a superb, versatile actress. Alissa Rhode, a composer-pianist by trade, has found her way into the pit as music director for several theaters around the state.

They’re together atop Main-Travelled Roads, which the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre previews at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and opens at 8 p.m. Friday (Oct. 15) in the Cabot Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center. The show marks Molly’s directorial debut in professional theater, but the two sisters have worked together often. They sing and play together (Molly plays bass) as The Rhode Sisters cabaret act. Alissa has served as music director for a number of shows in which Molly has been the choreographer.

“We’ve collaborated this way for years,” Molly (BFA, SMU 2000, theater and playwrighting) said, in an interview Wednesday. “It doesn’t feel new to us.”

“I trust the perspective of Molly’s ear,” Alissa said. “I trust her musical judgment. It’s part of the relationship we have.”

Alissa (BMus., U.of Ill., theory-composition, 1993) needs that perspective. She won’t be standing at a podium conducting; she will be on stage, at the piano, playing and singing. The orchestra for this intimate show comprises Alissa and bass player Rich Higdon — and they added the bass part for this production. The original, premiered at American Folklore Theater in Door County in 2007, was piano only.

The show, based on Hamlin Garland stories set in rural Wisconsin in the 1880s, tells of two sets of lovers and how their relationships develop in a sort of counterpoint. In addition to the couples, ancillary characters add color and comment. The same four actors play everyone, but Molly took the liberty of bringing the musicians into the mix, with the blessing of the show’s creators, Paul Libman (music) and Dave Hudson (book and lyrics).

“We’ve blurred the line between the band and the cast,” Alissa said.

Molly was one of the four actors in the original AFT production. As an AFT regular, she knows Libman and Hudson well; the Door County summer stock company has produced several Libman-Hudson shows, including Muskie Love and Cheeseheads, the Musical.

“I saw them at a wedding,” Molly said. “We had a nice long chat about the show.”

Libman and Hudson, who are based in Chicago, will come to Milwaukee to see the production on Wednesday, Oct. 20. They will give a pre-show talk that night.

Molly Rohde, American Folklore Theater photo by Len Villano.

In a broader, theatrical sense, Main-Travelled Roads is a family affair. Chase Stoeger, an actor in the show, is married to Molly. C. Michael Wright, MCT artistic director, directed the original workshop performances in Madison before M-TR made it to the stage, and he helped shape the piece. He always loved the show and wanted to stage it in Milwaukee as soon as he could. He tagged Molly to direct after seeing her act in it in Door County.

The Cabot, though a cozy place, is the biggest, most formal house the show has occupied.

“I want to take advantage of the theater and its scale, but still retain the intimacy,” Molly said. “Lisa Schlenker’s set gets both. You could do this show anywhere; to have this theater is a luxury.”

Sound plays a role in the intimacy. The singers won’t be miked, and neither will the guitar, banjo, fiddle, harmonica and casual percussion they actors play.

“We didn’t cast people because they could play instruments, but it worked out really well,” Molly said. “We’re sweetening the orchestration that way.”

Alissa described the music folkish and old-timey, but not authentically 1880s. The 1880s were too early for ragtime, for example, but some of the music has a ragtime inflection that reads as antique in 2010.

“There’s some contemporary harmonic language, mainly in the romantic ballads,” Alissa said. “Paul’s good at finding emotional shading in harmony.”

“The music doesn’t feel current — it’s nostalgic,” Molly said. “It’s catchy and easy to sing.”

She loved singing it in Door County and loved playing her roles in Main-Travelled Roads.

“It’s a wonderful play for actors,” Molly said. “We see these characters, and we think we know who they are and how things will turn out, because this is a musical. But it doesn’t happen the way we expect. The characters aren’t predictable, but they are wonderful. You fall in love with them.”

Main-Travelled Roads runs through Oct. 31. Tickets are $30 for the Thursday, Oct. 14, preview, and $15-$38 for all other performances; students, seniors, $5 off. Half-price rush tickets, if available, go on sale 30 minutes before curtain time. Call the Broadway Theatre Center box office, 414-291-7800. Details and links here.

Cast: Clare Arena Haden, Scott Haden, Jennifer L. Shine, Chase Stoeger. Musicians: Alissa Rhode, piano; Rich Higdon, bass. Production team: Molly Rhode, director; Alissa Rhode, music director; Scenic Designer, Lisa Schlenker; Costume Designer, Ellen Kozak; Lighting Designer, Jason Fassl.

Categories: Theater

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