By Deana Nall
For decades, the Abilene Civic Center stage has served as a launching pad for ACU’s finest students in the performing arts.
This Saturday, April 22, some of ACU’s most talented stage performers and behind-the-scenes legends will gather once more for “An Evening of Rodgers and Hammerstein Classics,” a Centennial Pops Concert with the Abilene Philharmonic orchestra that will help mark ACU’s 100th year.
“Music and theatre have long been an important part of ACU traditions,” said Dr. Ed George (’61), professor emeritus of music and one of the show’s three producers.
The concert will feature alumni – some coming from Nashville and New York City – as well as current students performing songs from beloved R&H musicals such as The Sound of Music
, State Fair
, The King and I
, and South Pacific
“A lot of peoples’ favorite music comes from those shows,” said Adam Hester (’77), concert producer as well as chair and professor of theatre. “They are obviously the bulwarks of musical theatre.”
The event is also bringing ACU and the Abilene Philharmonic together for a joint production that is the first of its kind.
“This program has been a collaborative effort from its earliest planning,” said Tim Graham (’80), Philharmonic director of development and marketing. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a concert partnership as extensive as this one. I think it will generate a performance beyond what we could have done separately.”
Alumni professionals returning to perform in the show are Donjalea (Reynolds ’93) Chrane, Jessie Galvan (’97), Jennifer (Speck ’02) Green, Nan (Arnold ’75) Gurley, Wayne Gurley (’75), Dr. Gary Hood (’64), Alex Organ (’03), Dawne Swearingen (’95) and Ryan Swearingen (’98).
Current ACU Theatre students performing are Ryan Fonville, Sunday Ibok, Ben Jeffrey, Annika Johansson, Jason Kennedy, Heather Ketchersid, Ryan Massie, Juliette Miller, Jessica Patterson, and Lara Seibert.
“I cannot wait to work with the ACU staff and some of my former classmates," said Green, who, as an ACU student, portrayed Eliza Dolittle in the 1999 Homecoming Musical, My Fair Lady
George, who conducted the Homecoming Musical orchestra for 28 of the 32 years he was on the music faculty, said he believes this onstage alumni reunion is a testament to the high standard of professionalism instilled in ACU’s theatre students.
“The alumni who are performing demonstrate that one can participate in the performing arts for decades after graduation,” he said.
For many of these performers, returning to the Civic Center stage will be like coming home again. Wayne and Nan Gurley were dating when they played the lead roles in the 1974 Homecoming Musical, Man of La Mancha. Now they’ve been married 30 years.
“It will be nostalgic to be back on the Abilene Civic Center stage, since that’s where we did Man of La Mancha
and I also performed in Fiddler on the Roof
in fall of 1972,” Wayne said.
Galvan, a native Abilenian, also looks forward to his return to the stage where he performed in Evita
and The Secret Garden
as a student.
“It’s comfortable,” said Galvan, who taught theatre at ACU before moving to New York City in 2004. “It’s a stage you come to love.”
This reunion of ACU theatre talent isn’t just taking place onstage. The pops concert is also bringing together some of the university’s most accomplished behind-the-scenes talent.
Jeanette (Scruggs ’49) Lipford, assistant professor emerita of voice, is returning as a producer for the concert. For more than 30 years, Lipford taught and mentored ACU’s most talented student vocalists – including the stars of Abilene Christian’s Homecoming musicals.
“It will be a treat to work with Jeanette Lipford again,” said Organ, who played the title role in the 2002 Homecoming Musical, Jekyll and Hyde. “She had a lot to do with shaping my voice.”
Dr. Ted Starnes, retired director of university events, is serving as the show’s technical director. Except for a three-year leave to work at Pepperdine University, Starnes taught theatre at ACU and did directing and technical work for numerous ACU productions – alongside the legendary Dr. Lewis Fulks – from 1970-87.
Lighting design for the show is under the supervision of Nashville resident Mark Carver (’84), whose lighting work credits include the Academy Awards and the opening and closing ceremonies of the 19th Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City. Carver also worked as a lighting director for the cable network TNN for more than 15 years.
Directing and choreographing the production is Dawne Swearingen, who will also be performing. Swearingen was known for her acting and choreography in numerous productions while a student at ACU, and, after earning her M.F.A. in acting from the University of Arizona and working in New York City, she has returned to ACU as an assistant professor of theatre. Her involvement in the pops concert has allowed her to work with her mentors, her brother Ryan, former classmates and her current students.
“Having directed and choreographed this production, it will be fun to be sharing the stage with my students," she said. “I look at them and see the future in each one of them.”
The timing of the concert couldn’t have been better for the Abilene Philharmonic. With new music director and conductor David Itkin and record season ticket sales, the Philharmonic has been enjoying an especially successful year. The pops concert was originally slated for one performance (8 p.m.) that quickly neared a sell-out, necessitating the addition of a 3 p.m. matinee performance – the first in the Philharmonic’s 55-year history.
“There was no way we could fit everyone into a single concert,” Graham said.
As final preparations come together for this once-in-a-lifetime production that will showcase some of the university’s finest stage and technical talent with a 65-piece orchestra, its participants are mindful of ACU’s first 100 years in existence.
“A concert is a great way to mark ACU’s Centennial year because bringing people together through music is a very connecting thing,” said Green. “Music is a universal language that connects people. A concert is one of the few things that can get people from all walks of life in the same room, smiling for the same reason and maybe, at some point in the evening, we are all humming along to the same tune. It’s really pretty amazing, when you think about it.”
* * *
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. Limited seating remains for the 8 p.m. show.
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