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Centennial Pops Concert a true family affair

Part one of a two part series

By Deana Nall








Nan Gurley


Wayne Gurley


Dawne Swearingen


Ryan Swearingen

Some of ACU’s most legendary theatre and behind-the-scenes talent will gather April 22 in the Abilene Civic Center for “An Evening of Rodgers & Hammerstein Classics,” a Centennial Pops Concert with the Abilene Philharmonic orchestra to help mark the university’s 100th year.

For many of the performers, the event will prove to be a family affair in more ways than one.

When Wayne (’75) and Nan (Arnold ’75) Gurley take the stage at the Abilene Civic this Saturday, it won’t be the first time the husband and wife have performed together in an ACU production.

In fact, their first performance together took place on that same stage in 1974, when Wayne played Don Quixote/Cervantes and Nan played Aldonza/Dulcinea in the ACU Homecoming Musical, Man of La Mancha.

“Wayne and I were dating during La Mancha, but had made no serious commitment to each other yet. We were still sizing each other up,” Nan recalled. “My respect for him grew immensely during the process of the show. And I thought he looked real cute in that fake beard."

In the years since Man of La Mancha, Wayne and Nan have made a name for themselves in many areas of the performing arts community.

Nan, a two-time Dove Award winner, has written, hosted and produced an educational television series on the performing arts (“Front Row Center”) which aired on PBS stations nationwide and won the Southern Education Communication’s Best Series of the Year Award in 1997. She has appeared in numerous plays for the Tennessee Repertory Theatre, including Cyrano, Romeo and Juliet, The Little Foxes, Annie Get Your Gun, Shenandoah, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and My Way. Her recent performance in The Story Builders, named by The (Nashville) Tennessean as the year’s best overall production, has generated critical acclaim.

In the early 1980s, Wayne was a founder of the Christian comedy, drama and music group ARIEL, whose Reunion Records album, “Bless This House … Please” spawned another comedy group, a southern gospel quartet spoof called The Glory Bugles. He has served as managing director of Nashville’s Nightingale Theater and produced many shows including 1776 and The Importance of Being Ernest. Wayne also performed with the Nashville Symphony Chorus and was a featured soloist for two consecutive years in its performance of Messiah. In the Nashville area, his credits include Annie Get Your Gun, Shenandoah, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Currently, they are performing together in The Glory Bugles (  

“One thing about a married couple performing together that is so much fun is that you have a kind of shorthand in communicating with each other. You understand the language of theatre and have a common ground and respect for the process,” Nan said. “We both love the arts. Neither of us is encouraging the other to “be more practical.’ Wayne has never asked me to ‘get a real job.’ ”

One number from this Saturday’s pops concert holds special meaning for the Gurleys. Wayne will perform the song “Soliloquy” from Carousel. Nan’s father, the late Henry Arnold, was the theatre director at Lipscomb University and performed the song many times early in his career.

“It was a sentimental family favorite,” Wayne said. “As a very young girl, Nan remembers her Dad singing it, and so it’s strangely coincidental that I’m doing it now. As I’ve been rehearsing the song, our two girls have memorized every word of it – just like Nan and her brothers did when they were kids.”

And having become a father to Erin, age 9; and Lena, age 5; has given the song, in which a father-to-be sings to his unborn child, new meaning for Wayne.

“When I first started working on it, the emotion of singing about ‘my little girl’ was pretty overwhelming,” Wayne said. “As I’ve worked on it, I’ve really grown to love it. I just hope I can do it justice without getting too caught up in the emotion.”

Another concert highlight for the couple will be their duet of “Some Enchanted Evening” from “South Pacific.”

“We just celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary and it’s great to get to sing such a romantic song together,” Nan said.

ACU theatre audiences saw siblings Dawne (’95) and Ryan Swearingen (’98) perform together in the 1994 Homecoming Musical Hello, Dolly! But the sister and brother were on stage long before arriving at ACU as students.

Born in Boise, Idaho, Dawne and Ryan eventually moved with their family to New Jersey, where the emphasis on the performing arts in nearby New York City was difficult to ignore. Dawne, who had studied dance most of her life, began performing in community theatre at 13 and continued to act, as well as choreograph, through high school. Ryan also had taken dance and followed Dawne into community theatre and school plays. The Swearingens came to ACU three years apart.

“The rest, as they say, is history,” Ryan said.

In addition to Dawne’s and Ryan’s portrayals of Minnie Fay and Barnaby, respectively, in Hello, Dolly!, Dawne choreographed Ryan in Fiddler on the Roof, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and She Loves Me.

The two have lived and worked in New York City where they performed in an off-Broadway production called Yankee Doodle Boy in which they played siblings Josie and George M. Cohan.

Ryan has appeared in touring productions of 42nd Street, Titanic and Footloose.  His regional theatre credits include Call Me Madam, Bat Boy, Dames at Sea, Irving Berlin’s Music Box Revues of 1923-24, The Chromium Hook, Academy, Oliver!, Guys and Dolls, Peter Pan, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Fantasticks. He has appeared in musical revues aboard the Paramount cruise ship Queen Elizabeth II and also performed in several concert and cabaret settings. He still lives in New York City.

Dawne moved back to Abilene to serve on the ACU theatre department faculty in 2005. As a director and choreographer of the pops concert, Dawne looks forward to not only working with her brother again, but the reunion of ACU’s theatre performers representing several decades of the school's history.

“What an amazing night of collaboration to have alumni standing on stage with students about to graduate and embark on their own journey,” Dawne said.

In addition to her behind-the-scenes work on the show, Dawne also will be performing “My Favorite Things” and “Mr. Snow.” Ryan will sing “If I Loved You,” “Whistle a Happy Tune” and “People Will Say We’re in Love.”

“I’m really looking forward to seeing and working with some folks that I either knew and performed with in school, or that I knew of who came before me, but never had the pleasure of working with,” Ryan said. “I am of course also looking forward to working with my sister, Dawne, as director. I’m sure she will bring a real sense of style to the production.”

Other alumni with roots on the ACU Homecoming Musical stage who are performing Saturday include Donjalea (Reynolds ’93) Chrane, Jessie Galvan (’97), Jennifer (Speck ’02) Green, Gary Hood (’64) and Alex Organ (’03).

The Philharmonic’s new music director and conductor, David Itkin, will conduct both performances of the show, which includes hits from beloved R&H classics such as The Sound of Music, Oklahoma!, State Fair, Carousel, The King and I, and South Pacific.

Tickets to “An Evening of Rodgers & Hammerstein Classics” can be purchased by calling the Abilene Philharmonic at 677-6710 or 800-460-0610. Due to ticket demand, a 3 p.m. matinee show has been added to complement the 8 p.m. performance for the first time in the Philharmonic’s 55-year history. Limited seating remains for the 8 p.m. show.


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