For the last six years, the Summer at the State program has brought professional shows to the State Theatre’s stage in Uniontown.
Organized by local natives director John Wagner III and Stage Manager Kristen Tunney, who are both active in the arts in New York City, New Jersey and locally, the shows have become very popular with area residents as well as area actors.
For several years Wagner lived in New York City, but recently moved back to the Pittsburgh area where he is still in the entertainment business full time.
In addition to his work with Summer at the State, he teaches for the Mon-Valley Performing Arts Academy, teaches acting and dance classes at the State Theatre, and works remotely for a performing arts studio in New Jersey.
Wagner also has freelance directing and choreography projects on the side.
“My love for the arts began at a very young age because I was exposed to the arts at a very young age,” he said. “I want to make sure the arts continue to thrive all throughout the world, especially in my hometown. There were times when I was growing up that I would have to travel out of the area to either participate in productions or see quality productions, so I’m hoping that Summer at the State creates these opportunities right here in our community.”
Tunney said she was a passionate theatre kid when she was growing up in Fayette County and she’s intensely thankful for everyone here who taught her to love the performing arts.
“Coming back to the State each year is a chance for me to try and pass that love of musical theatre forward to the next generation,” she said. “It’s also a nice change of pace to spend my summer away from the city in a place where there are trees and grass and nature.
“Summer at the State lets me focus my energies in a new way and share what I’m learning about my career and the industry with a whole different community, and I love it,” she added.
This year the program will put on two very popular and high-energy shows in “Mamma Mia” and “Newsies.”
The first follows the lives of Sophie Sheridan and her mom Donna Sheridan as Sophie tries to find out who her father is through a series of ABBA songs, and the second shows the resolve of a group of paper boys who decide to go on strike after given unfair wages by the powers that be.
Wagner said he actually had these productions selected in April, 2018, before they even began rehearsals for both productions last year.
“The release of the performance rights was a big factor in choosing both of these shows,” he said. “We’ve been trying to get our hands on “Mamma Mia” for several years now.
“We try to choose productions that allow us to use as many members of our community as possible and speak to our audiences,” Wagner added. “Both of these shows easily fell into those categories.”
The first design and production meeting for “Newsies” and “Mamma Mia” was mid-August last year, just a few weeks after last summer’s production of “The Music Man” closed.
Before auditions were held in April, Wagner had several meetings with the production crew, including scenic designer, technical director, costume designers, music directors, and other production staff.
“We aim to have most of our design work completed before we go into auditions,” he said. “We also develop and implement a budget, a marketing plan, and a fundraising plan. Our work in these areas begins at the end of the previous summer and continues through the end of our current season.”
Tunney said they have been very fortunate in the past to receive grant funds from the Community Foundation of Fayette County, the Heinz Endowments, the Chevron Community Fund, PNC Foundation, and more.
“Writing those grants takes a significant amount of time and preparation,” she said. “Over the course of the fall and spring we’ll have meetings with the State’s Executive Director, Erica Miller, and our board liaison, Toby Maykuth to discuss scheduling, facilities, ticket sales, box office practices, marketing — all the different departments. These are important conversations where we try to address any challenges we face and grow and evolve to better serve our audiences and performers each year.”
Wagner said the thing he’s most excited about this year is to work with both of the casts.
“I know what I want to creatively achieve with both of these shows, and that cannot happen without the right performers,” he said. “The energy, collaboration, and commitment to the process in rehearsals so far has been incredible. I consider myself very lucky to get to continue this process for the next 8 weeks.”
There were open auditions for both shows for all of the roles except that of Donna Sheridan in “Mamma Mia,” which was pre-cast with the role going to Rebecca Kaufman Taylor.
“I had the opportunity to work with Rebecca in 2017 with our production of “Chicago,” said Wagner. “Rebecca is a powerhouse vocalist who is not afraid to take risks in rehearsals or shy away from the significant amount of work required to build and develop a character.
“She opens herself up to collaboration throughout the entire process and is the ideal actor to work with,” he added. “You can’t take your eyes off of her when she is performing and having someone with that strength for the role of Donna was very important to me.”
Tunney said Taylor was Velma in Chicago in 2017 and they had a fabulous experience working with her.
“You really need an actress with a lot of stamina who is prepared to carry a show with ‘Mamma Mia,’ and we knew Rebecca could do that,” she said.
After portraying Velma Kelly in “Chicago” in the State’s 2017 production, Taylor said she is thrilled to be returning to Summer at the State.
“We are very fortunate to have professionals like: John (Wagner) and Kristen (Tunney) who have trained professionally in the arts and returned to their roots to share their talents with the community,” she said.
“We are also fortunate to have a community that supports the performing arts,” Taylor added. “I know how much the community has enjoyed past productions, and I enjoy being a part of the tradition of bringing quality productions to our area.”
Local actor Will Dixon will take on the lead role of Jack Kelley in the show “Newsies.”
“Jack is a very complex character and we needed someone who could not only showcase Jack’s strengths, but also his weaknesses,” said Wagner. “This is also a very vocally challenging role and requires someone who has a significant amount of vocal training and strength.
“You could tell from Will’s audition that he spent a good amount of time researching and working on this character before the auditions,” he added. “Working with him in the auditions and watching him take direction and apply it on the spot also showed me that he would be the ideal person to go through this process with. I knew after watching Will’s audition that he was the Jack Kelly that we needed.”
Dixon said “Newsies” is a cult classic movie turned Broadway hit that has alway resonated with him since he was a little boy.
“The movie inspired me to get into theatre when I was 4 or 5 years old, and I’d like to think maybe this production could do the same for another young person out there,” he said.
Dixon added that he is most looking forward to experiencing the magic on stage of one of his favorite shows with a high level of professionalism backstage.
“This is going to be one for the books,” he said.
Tunney said Dixon was a great team player throughout the rehearsal process, came in super prepared with his material and brought a great spirit and energy into rehearsal.
“In ‘Newsies’ you need a Jack Kelly that has the ability to rally a huge group of different people and also the depth to go on a pretty rough journey of self-discovery,” she said. “Will has both the charm and the range as an actor to do all of those things, and a very solid work ethic. It was a perfect fit.”
Both shows have a lot of fun choreography and Wagner, who is also the choreographer, said building the choreography is definitely one of the challenges with both of these shows because there is a lot of it.
“It’s easy to lose the story-telling in the sequences that require heavy choreography,” he said. “My challenge is to make sure I’m putting something impressive on the stage that looks good on the performers I have while not losing sight of the story that needs to be told. Tackling this challenge each year is also one of the things I enjoy the most.”
Taylor implored the public to come out and see the shows this summer.
“’Mamma Mia’ is a show about relationships — mother/daughter, father/daughter, best friends, young love, old love, new love — it’s a story in which an audience can relate,” she said.
As someone who left the area to perform professionally for many years, Taylor always looks forward to being able to perform in her hometown.
“With this stellar cast and creative team, I am looking forward to a highly-creative summer filled with groovy ABBA music, excessive laughter, and talented and remarkable people who are passionate about the arts,” she said.