The show must go on—and it hasJan 03, 2022 02:59PM ● By Sarah Morton Taggart
Actors filmed their roles separately for “Disenchanted! The Stay at Home Version,” which was available to watch online in May. (Photo courtesy Cassidy Ross)
Eighteen months is a long time to stay in character.
Midvale Main Street Theatre was six days away from staging the Stephen Sondheim musical comedy “Company” when they temporarily shut down in March 2020. Like most theatre companies in the valley, they hoped they’d be back up and running in a few weeks.
“It was very weird. It felt very uncertain,” said Cameron Garner, the lead actor in “Company.” “For a few weeks we kept that tension going, hoping people would be kind enough to wear masks and have it be over.”
For Tammy Ross, who owns and operates MMST, keeping the actors safe was her biggest priority. The weeks of being closed turned into months, then a year.
“We—meaning me, my students, professional (actors)—realized we’ve got to focus on other things and when we come back to it we’ll have to reinvest,” Garner said.
Ross and her daughter, Cassidy Ross, spent much of 2020 cleaning and updating the theatre. It was their first chance to complete improvement projects after years of back-to-back performances.
“We added a new concessions counter, upgraded air purification systems, added touchless faucets and paper towels and updated the green rooms,” Tammy Ross said. “Just trying to improve things as much as we can in this little old building with no money coming in. We sanded and repainted doors and trim, cleaned out costumes, touched up the art and painted the stalls.”
She reassures longtime patrons that the unique character of the bathrooms has not been changed.
They also made technology upgrades to improve the experience for actors and audience members by adding new stage lights, making adjustments to the sound system so that every seat gets the same sound quality, and adding onstage cameras with monitors in the green room to make it easier for actors to hit their cues.
In August 2020, MMST hoped to stage a virtual version of “Disenchanted!” They assembled most of the original cast that had performed with the theatre before, but the technical challenges of singing over Zoom were too difficult to overcome and the project was postponed.
Virtual cabarets in July and December 2020 were more successful, with individual artists streaming their performances one at a time.
In May, MMST tried another virtual performance of “Disenchanted! The Stay at Home Version.” This time they built a set in the theatre and brought the actors in one by one to record their parts.
“It was way more work than just putting on a show,” Cassidy Ross said. “It was hard for us as cast members because there were dances and we had to make sure we were all doing it at the same time. And it’s like I had to sing everyone else’s part in my head and just be an alto in the background for the entire song.”
“Disenchanted” was available to stream during one weekend in May for $10.
“It was so hard. It was fun, but hard,” Tammy Ross agreed. “It’s a project I never want to take on again, but it was a learning experience. The actors were so hungry for something to do. They got to perform somehow, even if not together.”
“It’s been a bit of a roller coaster in deciding how to open up,” Tammy Ross said.
Later in 2021, MMST was finally able to stage four live musicals—two shows with adult casts and two with young actors.
“I appreciate that Midvale took their cues from Broadway,” Garner said. “Midvale was willing to take our safety more seriously than our hopes and dreams.”
MMST had been closer to staging “Company” when COVID-19 hit, but another musical, “Next to Normal,” had also been cast in 2020 and seemed like a better fit for the reopening in June. The rock musical from 2008 explores the effect of mental illness on a typical suburban family.
“I feel like ‘Next to Normal’ is the poster child for 2020,” Tammy Ross said. “It had a smaller cast and no dancing, just blocking and singing. It was an easier thing for us to come back with while trying to navigate what was going to happen. We were pleasantly surprised at the number of patrons that came back for ‘Next to Normal.’ We had probably 85%-plus of seats sold every night.”
In July, the children’s program returned with “101 Dalmatians Kids.”
Cassidy Ross runs the youth and teen programs at MMST. She knew the young actors were eager to get back on stage, but their health and safety was her first priority.
“We have three cancer survivors in our youth program,” Cassidy Ross said. “This is a very big deal, very compromised immune systems. I’ve tried to keep them as safe as I can.”
MMST partners with Millie’s Princess Foundation to give young cancer survivors a chance to perform. The nonprofit is based in Sandy and gives financial and other support to families of children fighting cancer.
“Every kid wore a see-through mask (during the performance) and multiple parents came up after and said they didn’t notice,” Cassidy Ross said.
Not a single member of the large cast tested positive for COVID-19 during rehearsals or performances of “101 Dalmatians.”
The theatre was not so lucky in August when they staged the teen show.
“We had planned the closing weekend of ‘Descendants’ to be the weekend before school started, but then school started two weeks earlier this year,” Cassidy Ross said. “We opened the week school started, and that’s why we had COVID outbreaks.”
The theatre implemented temperature checks and required masks and negative COVID-19 tests during rehearsals, even though most cast members had been vaccinated. Then an actor tested positive on opening day.
The rest of the cast tested negative, so MMST scheduled a make-up performance and re-sanitized the theatre. The rest of the first weekend of performances went well, but the next weekend two other cast members tested positive. Then Cassidy Ross herself became sick from the virus.
“I didn’t think to wear a mask by myself backstage while I was cleaning things out,” Cassidy Ross said. “It knocked me out. My doctor said it could have been really bad if I hadn’t been vaccinated.”
The show must go on
The theatre had to postpone the final six, sold-out performances of “Descendants the Musical.”
“Some people were extremely understanding. Some were not,” Tammy Ross said. “Then we had ‘Company’ right on the heels of that.”
The set for “Descendants” was hidden at the back of the stage, to be used again in January.
Then in October, “Company” was finally performed, 18 months after being fully rehearsed and ready to go.
“Midvale was very helpful, when we did come back and confirm the new performance dates,” Garner said. “They said we would do the music from the beginning and start over with the choreography. We started over as if we had never done it before.”
Garner is the theatre teacher at Taylorsville High School. Starring in “Company” was his first time acting with MMST, but several of his students have been involved in the youth program.
“Part of the interpretation to the show that we brought was how isolation affected those relationships, and how social media affected them,” Garner said. “Not a complete reinvention of the story, but we added those touches.”
Garner turned down other opportunities to stay involved with the production.
“I knew playing Bobby was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Garner said. “Theatre is one of the best ways to learn about another perspective, to learn about somebody who’s different than you. There’s so much great theatre out there that enlightens, not just entertains.”
All the world’s a stage
Tammy Ross and her husband, Steven, bought the theatre at 771 S. Main St. in 2008. Owning the building has been a significant factor in being able to keep MMST open.
“Part of why we bought this building was because this street is so unique and has so much potential,” Tammy Ross said. “I’m excited for some of the plans the RDA has to improve exteriors of buildings and the walkability of the street.”
Tammy Ross volunteered to serve as chair of the newly-formed Main Street Business Alliance in August and advocated shutting down the street occasionally to hold festivals. She feels encouraged by the attendance at recent celebrations for Halloween and Christmas and is hopeful that new restaurants will bring more foot traffic past the theatre.
“It’s very nice to see people coming back and realizing that there is still a group of patrons out there that are wanting to come see live theatre,” Tammy Ross said. “I think people have missed it, or maybe didn’t appreciated it as much and now they do.”
MMST’s next musical production, “First Date,” will run from Feb. 10-27. Tickets can be purchased online at www.midvaletheatre.com. They ask their patrons to please wear masks if they’re not vaccinated. Anyone who is unable to attend but would like to support local theatre may donate to MMST’s Venmo account @Midvale-Main-Street-Theatre.
“We stayed closed maybe a little longer than we absolutely had to,” Tammy Ross said. “But for safety’s sake I just felt like it was the right decision to make. And we’re not out of the woods with this craziness yet. We hope to be back running full steam…eventually.”