A look inside the life of a country music legend
Apple Hill Playhouse in Delmont is never at a loss for presenting a full schedule of quality main stage and children's productions.
As its new season gets under way, Artistic Director Pat Beyer is paying even more attention to Apple Hill's Johnny Appleseed Children's Theatre shows in an effort to strive for higher production values and offer curtain times that are more accessible for working “stage moms and dads.”
As a result, she says the season will feature fewer plays, but fuller productions.
In the past, Apple Hill included seven to eight adult plays and four to five kids' plays that ran for two weeks each. The 2017 season will feature six main stage productions — including the family show “Seussical the Musical” — over two weekends each with one or two Sunday matinees, and two children's shows, each with five morning performances and a show at 7 p.m.
“The reason for changing our lineup is to give the children's plays full use of the stage,” Beyer says. “In the past we divided the stage with a traveler (curtain) because the adult set was in place. This meant limiting the scenery for the children's play and also striking the set after each performance, storing the set pieces; this takes time and staff as well.
“We added an early evening performance because many parents work during the day and they want to see their kids perform,” she adds.
The new season opens May 11 to 21 with the musical, “Always … Patsy Cline.” Directed by Rori Aiello-Mull with musical direction by Aaron Gray, the show pays tribute to the Country Music Hall of Fame inductee who died in a 1963 airplane crash in Tennessee.
Besides spotlighting Cline's hit songs, including “I Fall to Pieces,” “It Wasn't God who Made Honky Tonk Angels” and “Walkin' after Midnight,” the production focuses on the singer's friendship with Louise Seger, a homemaker from Texas she met during a concert appearance.
Katie Aiello McCusker of North Huntingdon portrays Patsy Cline, reprising a role she played in 2011 at the Theatre Factory in Trafford; Mallory Hayden Grantz of Apollo plays Louise. The show's title refers to Cline's signature in the letters she wrote to Seger, “Love Always ... Patsy Cline.”
“I have wanted to do ‘Always … Patsy Cline' since I saw it at Mountain Playhouse years ago,” Beyer says. “It should be a crowd pleaser, the music still holds up, and Katie has the stamina to carry the many songs. Mallory Grantz is a very funny, warm Louise.”
On a personal note, Beyer says she grew up listening to Cline's songs and her mother, Marge Krehlik, sang and played her music on the guitar.
“I heard ‘Cheatin' Heart' so many times I thought it was a condition,” she says, adding she's sad her mother isn't around. “She would love this show.”
McCusker says the musical “is a very fun and touching show,” for fans and even for those who aren't familiar with Cline's music, “and they might just hear a couple songs that they didn't know she originally sang.”
Grantz says her character, Louise, “is a quirky housewife who becomes obsessed with a celebrity. She's boisterous and full of personality. She's almost exactly like me.”
Aiello-Mull returns as director after taking a hiatus from the theater to focus on her career and starting a family, “so when this opportunity presented itself, I jumped on it,” she says.
Beyer says Apple Hill's season will continue with:
• “Mixed Emotions” opening June 8 with Shirley Ratner and Chip Kerr of Greensburg together again in the romantic comedy that will feature a dance number choreographed by Dan Krack.
• “Seussical the Musical” July 6-22, is directed by Tim Daugherty, a newcomer to Apple Hill. “He has had a wealth of experience directing and performing and also worked the Carnival Cruise Lines and Walt Disney World,” Beyer says. Mitch Aeillo will take on the role of “The Cat in the Hat”.
• “The Dixie Swim Club” Aug. 24-Sept. 2 will be directed by Matthew Mlynarski, who also will contribute as a costumier for the production.
• The Neil Simon confection, “Rumors,” July 27-Aug. 5, will be directed by Steven Toth, a “pastry chef by day.”
• “Boeing Boeing,” Sept. 14-23, will be directed by Ron Ferrara.
Johnny Appleseed Children's Theatre shows will include:
• “A Winnie the Pooh Birthday Tail” June 20-24, with Tobitha Sasso as director and Aaron Gray, musical director.
• “Cinderella” Aug. 8-12, directed by June Beighley.
Beyer says she is proud “of my family's efforts to keep the Little Apple up and running. We have provided a good place to play and opportunities for many actors and directors to hone their skills.”
The biggest challenge the theater faces is in finding technical staff to run the shows, according to the artistic director.
“It is difficult to fill the necessary jobs of light board operator, stage manager and technical director, house manager and box office staff. We are aware that many small theaters like Apple Hill are experiencing the same problems. Too many jobs and not enough money,” she says.
“Owning an aging building complicates things, too.”
Beyer says her sister, Marge Kerr, “has been the glue that has held the Playhouse together.”
Because of health reasons, Kerr is retiring from her position as business manager and Beyer says, “it will be next to impossible to replace her because she does so many jobs so well.”
Apple Hill's board of directors is taking a more active role in the day-to-day business of the theater “to insure we can continue do what we do, pretty darn well,” Beyer says.
Candy Williams is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.