There was a party tonight at the Bing Theatre. It’s called the Sitzprobe for Grease.
The Sitzprobe, aka the Sitz, is the first time the orchestra plays and the actors hear the full sound of the show that they’ve spent the past four weeks learning, accompanied only by a piano — an amazing piano, but a sole piano nevertheless. This night, we bade goodbye to our wonderful accompanist Ryan O’Connell as the afternoon’s tech was his last rehearsal. The musical director, Parmer Fuller, has taken over and tonight is his night. He has the “god mic” and his clear instructions to the cast and musicians are what we should be hearing in the theatre — and for the most part, they are. This is the night for the orchestra’s integration into the show.
The Sitz represents the end of tech rehearsals and is the bridge to the dress rehearsal process. Up until this moment, the actors have been confined by the 20-plus hours of the stop-and-go tech process, where light cues are built, mic levels are set, transitions are rehearsed and perfection is achieved. Although we’re not quite done yet, the actors are freed tonight — they are celebrating the crystallization of their show. It is a joy to see.
Director Jeff Maynard has run a tight ship. The rehearsals began on Feb. 9 and here we are on March 29 with a strong semblance of a show and three more nights until opening. The scene work is tight, the characters clearly defined and relationships are strong. The ballads show that the actors are secure in their stories. The ensemble is enthusiastic and well coordinated with rich individual backstories and witty choreography. Tonight, the cast of 30 are dancing and singing, and just killing me with their enthusiasm. Dana Solimando’s spirited choreography has come alive with the addition of the guitars, saxes, drummer and electric bass. The actors are confident of their choreography and enjoy having accompaniment.
The director and choreographer have been supported by a fierce team of stage managers, led by BFA Stage Manager Kelly Merritt and assistants Jessica Major and Alex Rehberger. The designers are in the home stretch: set designer Dreem Qin and assistant Lea Branyan jump up on stage during breaks to add new detail to the walls, and lighting designer Austin Allen and assistants Liam Sterbinsky and Nicole Eng work the kinks out on the marquee and on internal cues. It’s a really busy night as well for sound team Associate Professor of Theatre Practice Phil Allen and BFA Sound Design junior Danielle Kisner, supported by Stephen Jensen and Emma Bramble. Danielle, who is actively mixing the show tonight for the first time with both orchestra and cast, has her hands full.
In addition to hearing The Burger Palace Boys confidently sing “Greased Lightning” as they stomped out their number, were the squeals and appreciative laughter and clapping of the entire female ensemble. Led by the Pink Ladies, the students darted out through the house doors to sit in the orchestra and pay homage to the boys as they jumped up and down on the Grease Lightning car. I know it is probably really bad theatre CARma to talk about specific numbers that will bring down the house, but I can’t help it, as they couldn’t help their excitement in letting the actors know they were amazing. The Burger Palace Boys later returned the sentiment for freshman Sidne Phillips, cast as Sandy, by sneaking into the house to listen and appreciate her rich and full voice as she sang “Hopelessly Devoted to You.”
Kelly, at the tech table with her prompt script, watches and listens with a huge grin on her face in between calling cues. I recognize that from my experience of Sitzprobes, and I’m feeling a little jealous of her process at this point — it really is fun to call a musical.
As a stage manager, the Sitzprobe has always been my favorite rehearsal in a musical rehearsal process. It’s when you actually hear the instrumentation which you will rely on to call the lighting and sound effects cues, as well as follow spot cues. Generally, too, you aren’t running the full tech of the show, so it is your first and best time to appreciate the addition of the musicians to the process.
The rest of the Sitz goes very smoothly, and while the actors eventually show the wear of the past 25 hours of tech, they still clearly demonstrate their love of performing in all the dance numbers. This creative team has been very busy to have accomplished so much work in creating such a crowd-pleasing show.
About the writer: Elsbeth M. Collins is a veteran stage manager who leads the BFA Stage Management program at the USC School of Dramatic Arts and has also served as Director of Production since 2008. Prior to coming to USC, Collins worked as a professional stage manager for over 25 years. Her long list of credits include the Ahmanson Theatre, the Mark Taper Forum, the James A. Doolittle Theatre, the Geffen Playhouse, the Los Angeles Theatre Center, The Pasadena Playhouse, the Hollywood Bowl, the Alpine Theatre Project in Whitefish, Montana, La Mirada Theatre, and in Gibellina, Sicily, among others. Collins has worked with such noted artists as Al Pacino, Alan Alda, Victor Garber, Alfred Molina, Peter Falk and Jason Alexander, but relishes teaching the next generation of theatre artists: actors, designers, stage managers and technical directors.