At the RPI Playhouse set of Frankenstein last year, another creation came into existence besides Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. And it, too, is composed of parts that have taken on a life of their own: a new community theater troupe. Troy Civic Theater began to materialize during the September run of Frankenstein: A New Musical, where most of the company’s board were involved in the production, including president Scott Truesdell Liebig (Baron Frankenstein), vice president Michael Ciaravella (Captain Walton), webmaster Jeffrey Jene (Victor Frankenstein), and treasurer Jim Holmes (stage manager). When Liebig raised the subject of a homegrown Troy theater to his cohorts, it was met with immediate approval. “I was very lucky to be in Frankenstein with the people that were in it,” Liebig says. “We have lots of people with lots of ideas and enthusiasm.”
A longtime Troy resident (as are most of the troupe), Liebig has worked extensively with the Little Colonial Theater in Johnstown and with Schenectady Light Opera Company. Since he’s been directing, singing and acting for most of his life, he says wryly, “I thought, ‘Why not start a company here so I don’t have to drive anymore?’ ” He was then surprised by the dedication of the local theater folk who attended start-up meetings around his kitchen table.
What Frankenstein gave to Liebig’s inception was the expertise necessary to get Troy Civic Theater off the ground, such as legally incorporating, applying for nonprofit status, and finding a venue. Or as Ciaravella puts it: “Scott brought the dream, I brought the arts administration background, and Jim brought the technical skills. He got a team that could start an actual company.”
The RPI musical also gave Troy Civic the lead for its first full production: Jene goes from the godless Victor Frankenstein to godliness incarnate by starring as Jesus in Godspell, which opens tomorrow (Friday, April 13). “Jeffrey auditioned and he was perfect for the part,” says Liebig, who as director had the final say on casting. “I couldn’t have thought of a better Jesus. He really shines. And it was perfect that he joined the board.”
Ciaravella co-stars in the double role of John the Baptist and Judas, marking the second time his character will watch Jene’s character die. “I always die at the end,” jokes Jene, whose previous role was Zoser in Aida at SLOC.
Following a recommendation for his venue search, Ciaravella approached the Newman Foundation Chapel + Cultural Center at the RPI campus and was welcomed with open doors. “They are very interested in supporting the community, and they’ve been fantastic hosting us,” he reports.
Troy Civic’s preliminary foray was in December, with a staged reading of The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge that drew a surprising number of people and even turned a minuscule profit. “It was very encouraging and it helped start the financing,” says Liebig. Financing for a musical, as it turns out.
“As soon as I walked into that beautiful space, I thought, ‘Godspell,’ ” Liebig says, explaining that it was the chapel, and not the musical’s current revival on Broadway, that influenced Troy Civic’s choice for their first production. “When we put out a casting call, all these great people showed up, and that was encouraging,” he adds.
“What I love most about Godspell is the story of community,” says Ciaravella. “It’s almost a metaphor for Troy Civic, having disparate people coming together to form a new community, and having fun in the process. I adore everything Stephen Schwartz has ever done,” he adds, referring to the show’s composer. “His works have iconic melodies that lift the soul.”
In the 1971 musical, “an antic revue” with lyrics and music drawn from gospel parables and hymnal songs, Jesus is portrayed as a hippie ringleader with clown disciples. Troy Civic describes their version as updated though not modernized. “Godspell is about a group of people brought together by a charismatic leader, and after their master is gone, they stay together forever,” says Jene. “We ditched a lot of the clown stuff because it’s very easy for it to become a gag-type show. And we didn’t want the hippie thing, either. Jesus is like a kindergarten teacher, he’s very patient with his students,” Jene continues. “He has a special relationship with Judas. The duet ‘All for the Best,’ that I sing with Michael, really shows how Jesus and Judas relate to each other.”
“I saw Godspell in the ’70s and I’ve always loved it,” says Liebig. “Not for the religious aspect but because it has such great music,” he adds. “It’s a deceptively difficult show to direct, because it doesn’t have a linear story, or scenes like Act One Act Two . . . and you have to make it make sense,” he adds. “And you don’t want to get too goofy or vaudevillian. I think the cast found that happy medium where it’s very fun but not ridiculous.”
“It’s fast and funny and has a good message,” says Jene.
The production breaks through the fourth wall, and reaches out—literally—to the audience. There isn’t a stage, or even a curtain. “For me, it’s a little more natural, because I’m accustomed to interacting with the audience,” says Jene, who has been a professional magician for more 20 years. “It’s tough working without a sound stage, but the big advantage is that we’re not restricted, the whole room is our stage.”
“That Jeffrey does tricks is instrumental, because Jesus does magic, or what people call ‘miracles,’ ” says Liebig. “He’s probably the least experienced actor in the group, but he has star quality from being onstage as a magician. I got so lucky with this cast,” Liebig adds. “They have such energy and talent it’s made my job easy.”
“We came through a growing process together as actors,” says Jene, adding: “We have a lot riding on this show, and being on the board has made it more exciting, that’s for sure.” The suspense Jene is alluding to is the company’s ambition to have their own venue someday.
“It would be wonderful to have our own building,” says Liebig. “That’s the dream. Albany Civic Theater has there own, so it can be done.” Other models of success Liebig is looking at are SLOC, and Ocala Theater in Florida, where he also has performed. “Troy Civic is moving into the void left by the reduction of theaters in the Troy area,” says Ciaravella. “It’s a fantastic opportunity for a new group.” The longtime Troy resident will be directing the company’s next venture, Rehearsal for Murder.
For the immediate future, he says, TCT is looking at options to increase the kinds of shows they can do, so they can “create a sustainable season to entertain our audience.”
“We’re so grateful to the Newman Foundation for letting us perform there,” says Liebig, “but we need more space, we need storage, so we can consider all the ideas that everyone has.” After a pause, he adds: “I was surprised when people would say, “There are too many theater companies already.’ I say, ‘How can you have too much art?’ ”
Godspell will be performed at the Chapel + Cultural Center, 2125 Burdett Ave., Troy, on Fridays April 13, 20 and 27 at 8 PM, and Saturdays April 14, 21 and 28 at 1 PM. For more info, visit troycivic.org.