Update: As of posting, both “The Music Man” and “I Remember Mama” will perform as scheduled on Thursday, June 9. Think good thoughts!
If you paid close attention to Sunday evening’s charming performance of “The Music Man” at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, as I did, there were a few variations from the routine because of Covid-19.
Some of those changes would be obvious to any eagle-eyed theatergoer. Missing was the iconic opening number, “Rock Island,” in which the traveling salesmen famously blare through speak-sing lyrics to the choo-choo rhythm of the train. The role of Tommy Djilas, the town’s teen rapscallion, regularly played by Peter Hartley, was instead played by the understudy, Jacob Cozzi. And the role of the Mayor’s wife, Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, regularly played by Tracy Jones, instead was taken over by none other than the director of the show, Elizabeth Fiester.
But one change was known only to those behind the scenes. The emcee for the show – the person who rattles through the list of audience birthdays and anniversaries and then welcomes the Junior Company to the stage – was Laurie Pessano, the creative director of Good Company Players.
That emcee should have been managing director Dan Pessano.
But he was sitting alone in the GCP office because he tested positive for Covid-19.
After staying negative during two years of obsessing about the pandemic – after sweating through those vaccine-free days when a maskless cough could be a death call, after plowing through countless hours of paperwork applying for relief funds, after learning enough about airborne aerosol transmission rates to qualify for a minor in immunology, after juggling cast members at two venues trying to keep players and audiences healthy – yes, even Dan Pessano, the guy who has taught generations of young actors what it means for the show to always go on, had to be replaced by an understudy.
In the overall sweep of the pandemic, Pessano’s asymptomatic positive test and subsequent isolation is an insignificant development. But it speaks volumes about how local theater is still being impacted by this illness – even as large swathes of society are behaving as if everything is free and clear.
Here’s the challenge: The dominant Covid-19 strain is crazy contagious, even for people who are vaccinated and boosted, as all the GCP performers are. The good news is for those who do have the protection of the vaccine, the strain also seems quite mild. For most people, testing positive and being asymptomatic go hand in hand. So, you have cast members who feel perfectly healthy who still can’t perform.
For GCP and Roger Rocka’s, both for-profit businesses struggling to stay afloat on stormy pandemic seas, it’s been rough.
“Right now we’re beaten up,” Pessano tells me.
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Pessano tested positive on May 24. That set in motion a series of GCP protocols for performers and staff members that include temporary isolation from the stage and a negative retest before being able to come back – even if there are no symptoms.
The number of positive tests and the size of the two casts now in the GCP rotation – “Music Man” at Roger Rocka’s and “I Remember Mama” at the 2nd Space Theatre – have been wreaking havoc the past several weeks. Through its third weekend of performances, “Music Man” has been scheduled to perform 14 times. It only managed to play seven.
Prior to the pandemic, the last time GCP canceled a show was in 1991, at a performance of “My One and Only.” For decades there was a sign at the rehearsal hall with that date with an X through it.
At one point, eight “Music Man” cast members tested positive. Cozzi, who stepped in as Tommy Djilas, ended up playing four performances last weekend (Friday, Saturday and two Sunday shows). Meanwhile, because Cozzi and Hartley (the actor he was covering) both have prominent parts in the opening “Rock Island” number, that song had to be cut from the weekend’s performances.
“We were not able to have anybody fill in for either his spot or mine (at least not with such little preparation time), so unfortunately we deemed it more feasible to simply cut it,” Cozzi says. “It was sorely missed amongst us traveling salesmen.”
The situation has been stressful, especially when more than one cast member has tested positive in a given week.
“Currently, we are all expected to get one proctored test a week and to take a rapid test on each performance day,” Cozzi says. “I agree that this is necessary for us given how many positive cases we have had recently, but over time it starts to make each test we take feel almost as though our lives depend on it.”
Across the street at the 2nd Space Theatre, “I Remember Mama” director Karan Johnson has had a frazzling couple of weeks.
“Directing in the time of Covid is not for the faint of heart,” she says.
Thinking back on a several-week period, Johnson shared some of the challenges she confronted:
• Michelle Olson, who plays Sigrid, couldn’t perform. Her understudy, Rachel Hibler, went on with little notice.
• The actors who played Dagmar and Jessie left for non-Covid reasons. Johnson replaced them with Evie Van Vleet (as Dagmar) and Hayley Weakley (as Jesse). Half an hour from curtain, Jessica Knotts, who plays Katrin, one of the major characters in the show, couldn’t go on. The rest of the weekend’s run was canceled.
• The following weekend, it had already been planned for Sandra Montelongo to play Mama (because of a scheduled absence by Kate McKnight), with Renee Newlove stepping in to play Jenny (normally played by Montelongo). Weakley stepped in to cover the role of Katrin, who was still out. Weakley’s two roles in the show were covered by Jocelyn Chavira and Guneet Grewal. Because Evie, who originally played Arne, was now playing Dagmar, Johnson recruited a new Arne, Delilah Miranda. ”So, for Thursday we would have had eight people stepping into roles they had not played before,” Johnson told me in an update.
• But that plan fell through. On Tuesday, Evie tested couldn’t perform. No Dagmar. “But, since there is a never-ending supply of talent in the Van Vleet family (parents Amalie Larsen and Chris Carsten), Evie’s little sister, Finley, is going to go on as Dagmar. She is frantically learning lines and we will rehearse with her Wednesday,” Johnson told me at the time.
• And even that plan fell through when Maddie Wistern, who plays Christine, got the flu (not Covid). Because there was no one to cover her, the show was canceled through the weekend.
Did you follow all that? I was dizzy just from reading Johnson’s Facebook updates.
“We can’t catch a break,” she says.
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Anyone who knows Pessano can be sure of one thing: He doesn’t like to whine.
So I’ll whine a little for him.
My guess: If all of us running around without masks were taking Covid-19 tests every day, there’d be a heck of a lot of positive results. We just don’t know it. But GCP and Roger Rocka’s are playing by different rules. And they’re paying a price in the form of missed performances.
I’m not saying that the GCP rules should change. Far from it. Neither is Pessano. With the cross section of ages on stage, his philosophy is that you protect the weakest link. He is happy to be on the safe side, even when it means he’s stuck in his office when he’d rather be helping run a show.
What I am saying is that I wish the rest of the world would be a little more careful. (And, for those who are still aren’t vaxxed and boosted, you should be a lot more careful – you’re playing Russian roulette.)
Cozzi notes that there are still vigilant people out there. At his Starbucks store, he and some of his coworkers continue to wear masks while on the job, “so the theater community isn’t entirely alone in its stance against the rest of the world.”
And Cozzi is proud that GCP is so strict on the rules, as frustrating as it can be sometimes.
“I think that the standard that theater companies are upholding is not only justified, but completely necessary,” he says. “Performing is one of the most intimate experiences you can partake in, and going to those extra lengths in order to protect each other is the most important thing to ensure that we can keep performing and that you can keep coming to enjoy us.”