After retiring from a professional dancing career in ballets and musicals, Cindylu Mancini moved from New Jersey to the Wilson area in 1990 to set up a dance conservatory. She followed that by starting a production company to stage dance-centered theatrical works. But the thought of putting on a Broadway show never crossed her mind.
Then the idea for an intimate musical, celebrating American communities during World War I, took hold of her.
Now, after seven years of following her vision, and through her unshakeable determination, Mancini’s “An Extra Penny” will have its first workshop performances beginning Thursday, July 27, in Louisburg College’s Jones Performing Arts Center. If all goes well, the musical won’t stop there.
The two-weekend run is being produced by Conwell Worthington II, a Greenville native whose four decades of experience includes directing national tours and Broadway runs of such shows as the revival of “The King and I” with Yul Brynner, “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Dames at Sea.” He’s also produced Disney show tours, including “Beauty and the Beast.” His eye is on an eventual Broadway opening of “An Extra Penny.”
For years, Broadway shows had out-of-town tryouts in commercial theaters near New York City. But production costs started rising – “The last workshop I did in New York ran about a million dollars,” Worthington says – and producers started looking to cut costs.
Cooperative ventures with regional theaters and universities, which offer incentives such as cheaper space, technical assistance and crews, are one way they’ve dealt with the problem.
The Triangle has benefited from the trend with the occasional pre-Broadway try-out, including those headed by veteran producer Emanuel Azenberg at Duke University in the late 1980s, but they are rare enough to cause excitement in theater practitioners and audiences alike.
And to have a show get its workshop at the smaller Louisburg College is rarer still.
But Louisburg try-out makes sense as it will bring considerable savings. The college is providing the venue and technical assistance. Faculty member Walter Hurst, producer of the college’s theater productions, is happy about the arrangements.
“To have a Broadway show workshopped and premiered here at Louisburg College is very prestigious,” he says. “We hope to increase our visibility exponentially with the attendant publicity.”
Starting with research
The college agreed to host the production after vetting the historical accuracy of Mancini’s script. Her rigorous research began with a desire to create a story about American values and character. She settled on the World War I years after reading letters between soldiers and their loved ones. During that time, a price increase in postage stamps, from two cents to three, became an economic hardship for families wanting to keep in touch. Mancini eventually envisioned a show of vignettes focusing on the mothers and children left behind to wait and worry.
With the framework established, Mancini began looking for appropriate music. Exploring YouTube, she came across South Carolina classical composer Mary Lee Taylor Kinosian.
“As soon as I heard her music I knew it would be right; beautiful but also very theatrical, “ Mancini said during a recent rehearsal. “I chose some pieces that seemed to tell a story and tried creating scenes around them.”
Mancini contacted Kinosian about adding lyrics to her compositions, an idea that Kinosian first rejected. But after Mancini completed some samples, Kinosian was convinced and agreed to add vocal lines to her pieces. All the show’s songs have been created from Kinosian’s pre-existing works, which will be played by a live trio, including the composer on violin.
Finding the right cast
Because the music is more difficult than typical Broadway fare, Mancini has handpicked her cast. Some performers have been working with her for almost three years, such as operatic bass Branch Fields from Williamsburg, Va., who sings a father’s poignant farewell to his daughter as he boards a train for the war.
Of the five cast members from the Triangle, two are familiar faces. John Ivey recently appeared in the one-man show, “Martin Luther King – An Interpretation” at Carrboro’s ArtsCenter and Lora Deneen Tatum sang the lead in Raleigh Little Theatre’s musical, “Caroline, or Change.” They play Uncle Rubin and Aunty Star, both former slaves and now respected elders in the community. Tatum’s solo, “Cry,” a soulful outburst of grief, is a prime example of how Kinosian’s music has been repurposed.
The show was originally scheduled for the college’s 175-seat Norris Theatre, but technical issues necessitated moving to the 1,200-seat Jones Performing Arts Center. This meant some adjustments to lighting, sound and sets, but it also allowed the addition of some townspeople’s roles, giving more area performers a chance to participate. Three theater students from Wake Forest’s Franklin Academy High School – Kristen Seegers, Emma Suzik and Zachery Jones – found out about the auditions, all eventually winning roles they count as major steps in their theatrical training.
“I’d been trying to do something besides school and community theater,” Seegers says. “I sent my teacher’s email to my mom and asked if I could audition. She said, ‘Sure, go for it. You’ve always wanted this.’ ”
Luck has played a big part in getting Mancini this far, including the happy happenstance that producer Worthington is her husband’s long-time friend. Now, with a little more luck, the show will have a life beyond Louisburg.
“If the emotions are there and the messages get conveyed,” Worthington says, “we’ll work on it and then take it to a regional theater.”
But Worthington’s own gut reaction has been strong from the beginning. “It’s very enthralling and emotional,” he says. “You’d have to have a heart of steel not to be moved to tears.”
What: “An Extra Penny,” presented by Signature Inc.
Where: Jones Performing Arts Center, Louisburg College, 501 N. Main St., Louisburg
When: 8 p.m. July 27-29, Aug. 3-5; 2 p.m. July 30, Aug. 6
Tickets: $30 (military $15, children 12 and under $10)
Info: 252-238-2192 or anextrapenny.com