Uptown Country Girls (and boys) “Getting Over It.” Photo courtesy of Stage West
Stage West kicks off Stampede in style with Uptown Country Girls, a celebration of the music of some of our generation’s great female country music stars. I spoke to director and choreographer Tim French (who co-created the revue with Executive Producer Howard Pechet), earlier this week and here’s what he had to say about himself and the show.
Tim was born and raised in Toronto and got into musical theatre through dance. “I knew I wanted to dance from the time I was young”, he said, “but I didn’t start until the end of high school.” He was fortunate enough to get into former prima ballerina Lois Smith’s school (affiliated with Toronto’s George Brown College), for free since they were hard-up for male dancers. He then went to the National Ballet School where he studied ballet, pas-de-deux, Spanish and modern dance. “It was a bit strange dancing with everyone from 9-year-olds attending the regular high school to graduating dancers,” says Tim, “but it was a great experience which ultimately led me to Les Ballet Jazz and a few years of commercial work in Montreal on stage, in night clubs and television”.
“I loved Montreal”, says Tim, “but I knew my heart was in musical theatre and that if I wanted to pursue that, I’d have to go elsewhere”. He joined the Banff musical theatre programme in the early eighties and got his first professional job as a dancer in the original Canadian touring company of Cats in the ensemble (Alonzo). That’s also where he also got his first taste of choreography, when he was promoted to dance captain (the person who learns all the steps and supports the choreographer in rehearsing dance numbers with the cast). After that he moved into their Resident Director role (“kind of like the Artistic Director of a regular theatre company”, he explains), where he worked on all the big Broadway touring shows. From there he spent 5 years as a performer and associate director and choreographer with Brian Macdonald at the Stratford Festival.
“I was in my thirties at that time, and figured I had to start facing the fact that my dancing days were numbered,” says Tim, “so I started doing choreography and directing, which is mostly what I do now”. His first professional opportunity in that arena was for The Music Man for Edmonton’s The Citadel Theatre. “I actually thought I would continue dancing for much longer”, says Tim, “but I got more opportunities to work as a choreographer and director, so my career moved in that direction. It actually is a better fit for my personality. I still get the thrill of dancing as I design and demonstrate all the moves, but also get to work on integrating dance into story.”
Tim got involved with Stage West many years ago, first as a performer in their Mississauga (Toronto) theatre production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. He was later invited to help co-create one of the many revues for which Stage West is famous, Music for the Millennium, a tribute to the music of the 20th Century. Since then, he’s typically co-created and/or or directed/choreographed one revue a year for Stage West. Previous examples include Motown Gold, Love Train, Canadian Explosion and last year’s Two Hit Wonders (a sequel to his previous One Hit Wonders, of course) and Roger Bean’s The Marvelous Wonderettes.
“Revues are a challenge because they don’t have a script or a plot,” says Tim, “but instead are a series of songs that must be portrayed in an entertaining way.” I asked Tim how they choose what music to include. “The process we used for Uptown Country Girls is pretty typical”, says Tim. “First Howard and I did the research on the top 20 or so artists based on record sales, #1 hits (Billboard and Country), Grammy awards, Platinum and Gold record sales, and top singles. Then we took this list and narrowed it down to 50-70 that we wanted to keep”. Tim says the the key criteria are how well-known they are to the audience and how well they can come across on stage. “That was a bit more of a challenge with this show”, Tim explained, “because country music doesn’t often naturally feature movement, say, the way Motown does.”
With the list of songs in hand, they next decide how to structure the show. Sometimes songs are grouped by artist, chronology, or type of music, for example. In Uptown Country Girls they looked at the music and what it said and it led them to group songs by theme (Looking for Mr. Right, A Love Gone Bad, Mr. Wrong, Revenge, etc.). “Dolly Parton and Anne Murray were prolific and interesting enough that they just had to get their own set,” says Tim, “and we also went for a grouping called Classic Country/Grand Old Opry featuring Loretta Lynne, Tammy Wynette and Patsy Cline.”
“Once we’ve got the show together, we then have to find versatile singers who can cover the voice and style of a variety of artists,” says Tim. “Because revues appeal to peoples’ sense of nostalgia, we want the songs to sound like what the fan’s ear is accustomed to. Our goal is to remain faithful to the original music and artists without doing out-and-out imitations. Since it’s a small cast of five women and two men (the latter of whom who sing back-up harmonies and duets) who have to sing 65 songs in the course of a couple of hours, everyone has to be top-notch”.
Because Stage West’s theatres are in Calgary and Toronto (their Mississauga theatre just announced its closure last week, I was surprised to discover) and people come from all over the country to audition, Stage West has a big pool to draw from and there are also usually some Calgarians in the cast. Uptown Country Girls’ Calgarians are Amber Bissonnette (seen last year in The Marvelous Wonderettes and Evil Dead The Musical) and JP Thibodeau (recently seen in The Last 5 Years and If I Weren’t With You and last year’s Avenue Q).
“We chose the Uptown Country Girls theme, because, despite its Alberta roots, Stage West has never done a country music show”, says Tim. “It was an obvious choice for the summer production in Calgary, with the Stampede and everything.” Tim says they focussed on women instead of the whole genre, not just because there would be too much music to choose from, but “because in the last twenty years, women have come to the forefront and become a major force in country music, which makes for a really exciting stage show, especially when you throw in a live band, lighting, costumes, and the lot. It’s a show any fan of contemporary or classic country music is sure to enjoy.”
Uptown County Girls runs through July and August. Regular ticket prices range from $69 to $105 + GST ($59 for Seniors on Wednesdays) and include a buffet dinner. For more information go to Stage West.