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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: The storied James Valcq of Door County theater and beyond, Part 2

Critic At Large

Multifaceted co-artistic director of Third Avenue Playhouse, Sturgeon Bay

James Valcq performs in his re-creation of George Gershwin’s “La La Lucille” at Third Avenue Playhouse. (Heidi Hodges)

STURGEON BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – James Valcq’s tale of his life in theater is that of Connect-the-Dots.

Milwaukee… boy soprano… professional theater locally… schooling… writing for funsies… coming up with “Zombies from the Beyond”… New York City… the esteemed NYU.

When his parents and friends phoned him asking what he was doing, what did he say?

“During the summer while I was at NYU, I had a job with Bill Theisen, who was artistic director of a summer stock theater in Rome, N.Y. It was semi-professional summer stock. He got me up to be their musical director.”

Filling in a name drop: Bill Theisen, among many adventures, has performed with Northern Sky Theater of Door County.

“It wasn’t my first time musical directing, but it was actually my first time conducting with a stick and not from the piano. With only a band, the more likely it is that the conductor is going to have to play piano in the pit, so you do a lot of conducting with your head. I had already done a ton of that. So this was actually very exciting for me because we had a pianist, and I conducted with a stick. It was great fun.

“A fellow named Joe Zellnik was the pianist and my assistant conductor. He moved to New York after our second summer in Rome and very quickly found himself working for Jay Binder Casting offices. Well, I got a call one day from Jay Binder Casting saying, ‘Joe Zellnik recommended you.’ They needed a pianist for auditions for a replacement Joe Hardy understudy in ‘Damn Yankees,’ which was a revival that was up at that time. ‘Can you do it?’ ‘Yeah, where is it?’ ‘Such and such studio.’ ‘Okay, I’ll be there.’

“So I get in. I had never met Jay Binder before. I come in, ‘Oh hi, Mr. Binder…,’ and he said, ‘Okay, kid, let’s see what you got. Play the piece.’ There’s a little cutting from one of the songs in the show, and it has this big flourish on the piano, a big scale up. It wasn’t particularly difficult, but it sounded difficult if you did not know how to play piano. It was very impressive, let’s put it that way. So I said, ‘Okay’… blll blll blll BLLL BLLL-BLUP! … and I played it. He said, ‘Great. What are you doing for the next two months?’

“He was casting a revival of ‘Merrily We Roll Along,’ a Stephen Sondheim show, and they wanted somebody who could play all that Sondheim stuff that people sing for the audition and could sight read it and transpose it at the site. So I said, ‘Oh, yeah, I can do that.’

“And the auditions went on and on and on. They couldn’t decide if they wanted to do it with a young cast like the original Broadway production, if they wanted to do it middle-age people like some other productions or somewhere in between. There was no filtering out any particular group of actors. They basically saw every singing actor in New York. So it was a really great job, and I got to play for everybody. It was a wonderful production team. And I did indeed merrily roll along.

“So that is what I was doing if my parents and friends called up. ‘Well, I’m playing auditions for Such and Such and playing auditions for Such and Such.’

“And now you’re going to get into ‘James, how did you get started on Broadway?’ (mimicking my voice). I’m coming to that because it’s all connected.

“Jay Binder also cast Encores! which was for New York City Center (a theater). So I was playing auditions for ‘Encores!’ and the music director/conductor of ‘Encores!’ Rod Fisher, thought I was just great. When they needed an extra rehearsal pianist, he would call me in to do that for several of the concerts at Encores!

“For one spot, we were having our bag lunch for a rehearsal break – you never know, it’s fate, because I didn’t go to the corner pizzeria, we had a bag lunch – and Rod and I were just sitting there, and I found out that ‘Chicago’ was coming up at Encores! And I said, ‘Oh, Rod, I know that there’s two keyboards in that show, and I’m sure you could put your fingers on a dozen pianists to play in the orchestra for it, but I know one of them has to play the accordion as well, and it’s not generally known in New York, but I’m from Milwaukee and I play pretty mean accordion.’ And it wasn’t a week later that Rod called me and offered me the job playing in the orchestra for ‘Chicago’ at Encores! And the rest they say is history, not for me, but as far as ‘Chicago’ goes because it was a huge hit at Encores!

“During its brief run there, we knew that there were Broadway producers in the audience and there was a possibility of it having a limited resuscitation on Broadway at some point. And, of course, that limited run is still running 23 years later.

“I was with the show for almost a decade in many capacities. I was a pianist. I was a rehearsal pianist. I was a designated conductor. On the national tour, I was the associate conductor.”

It took a few tries for “Chicago” to really catch hold.

“It opened in 1975, and the big hit was ‘A Chorus Line,’ which was opposite it. That was also a wonderful show, but it had a completely different message. And that is what the national ear wanted to hear, what the national heart wanted to be told, and ‘Chicago’ did not speak to that.

“In ’95, people were more ready to hear ‘Chicago.’ And I have to tell you, doing that show for so long, with every new social or political scandal that would come along, we didn’t have to change anything we were doing, but the laughs in the show would come in different places. There were always the given laughs, the big laughs, because there’s a very wise cynicism to that show, a very wry way of looking at how some people get along in this world. There was a whole lot of that in the news, and there still is. But during the 10 years that I was with it just seeing responses to different things was just a wonderful, wonderful period in my life.

“I remember Ann Reinking’s first replacement as Roxie was Mary Lou Henner. Mary Lou was grand. We adored her. She would tell stories about different parts of her career. When we were talking once, she was talking about ‘Taxi’ (TV sitcom) and her experience on that. She said, ‘At a certain point, I looked in the mirror and I said to myself, “Mary Lou, these times are golden. These are golden times.” A little bell went off when she said that. I thought, ‘Wow, I already know that about these times that I’m in, doing “Chicago”.’

“You know, we’re doing it with Joel Grey and Sandy Duncan and George Hamilton and Lou Gossett Jr. and, I don’t know, there’s so many of them.

“And not just the above-the-title stars or the featured players, but everybody was just at the top of their game. Rehearsal pianist was one of my duties, to put new people into the show – new swings, new covers. It was eye-opening and fascinating to watch people honoring the structure of the show and the way the numbers and the scenes have to work, but doing it their own way, that you didn’t have to just come in and give Ann Reinking’s performance. Even if you were understudying her and it was still her show, but you could come in, work within the parameters of the timing and the structure, but do your own performance. And that was something that was – I don’t want to say completely new to me, but I would see it every day. In any show on Broadway and especially in that show – they are not easy to do eight times a week, and people are out all the time, not with a major injury but you pull something and you just can’t dance that day. So this cover goes on. Oh, but his cover is already covering somebody else. So we bring in the emergency replacement swing cover to go through that track. So it’s like a revolving door. And you’re never getting short shrift. I mean, unless you’re going to the theater to see Bette Midler and it’s not her that day, that’s a different story. But when I’m talking about the ensemble and the general cast of the show, they’re all fabulous. The talent pool of Broadway, oh my goodness, the myriad of talent. I have to say, now, immersing myself in making my living in regional theater – and I’ve sort of always believed this – it’s more difference of quantity than it is quality. There are great talents out here. It’s just New York continues to be a magnet, so there’s more of them. For example, I sent a recording of ‘Victory Farm’ to Sheldon Harnick, who wrote ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ ‘She Loves Me’ and many other things who I very humbly say, is, I guess, somewhat of a colleague of mine, I guess. But I sent him the CD of that show, aside from the wonderful things he said about the music, he said, ‘The singing – are all these people from Wisconsin? Do they all live there?’ I had to write him back and say, ‘Well, yes, actually they do. They don’t all live in our little Door County, but they’re all spitting distance from where we are.’ He was just amazed at how beautiful the singing was on that recording. So, yes, we have extremely wonderful talent here, too. There’s just so many of them in New York.”

***

A side trip for “Victory Farm,” a production of Northern Sky Theater of Door County for whom James Valcq teamed with Katie Dahl and Emily Coulson.

“I was thrilled to be included in the project. Katie Dahl told me about the project, and she in fact asked me if I would consider writing the music. I knew her as a singer/songwriter. I said, ‘I would really love to hear a Katie Dahl score for the theater,’ and she said, ‘James that’s very flattering, but I don’t think I’m ready and I really want to work with you.’ But it was that, and that was really the first full-scale musical I wrote since ‘The Spitfire Grill.’ So you see, that was a very long time in coming.

Scene from 2017 production of “Victory Farm” with Jeff Herbst, Chase Stoeger and Isaiah Spetz. (Len Villano)

“Working with Katie and Emily on that was a sheer joy. They had some things they needed to learn, and I was more than happy to teach what of those things that I knew. They were really eager sponges and took bits of advice I would give them and really ran with it. They were just great, it was a very joyful experience.

“What Sheldon Harnick said is a tribute to Katie Dahl and Emily Coulson, too. While I was on the ‘Chicago’ tour, Sheldon Harnick called me about writing a show with him. This is one of my idols, and one of Fred Alley’s idols, too.

I had gotten to know Sheldon a little bit at NYU. He was one of the master teachers I had mentioned when I was in the program and did work with me on a couple little assignments at school, not writing with me but mentoring. Imagine how thrilling that is.

“But it was a heartbreaker. I could not find my voice. When Sheldon sent me the script and the lyrics, it was ‘Sheldon Harnick, lyric’ on my piano, and I couldn’t make anything come out, either by magic or osmosis or by force.

“Well, I did force some stuff down, and I brought it to Sheldon. And he was rather encouraging, if not effusive. And was surprised he was even encouraging. He did seem very kind. After several months – and I left the tour at a certain point for several reasons, part of it was hoping to be back in New York and really collaborate with Sheldon in a close fashion, though that didn’t happen – we both knew that it wasn’t really working out. And it was heartbreaking for both of us.

“And Sheldon is the nicest man in showbusiness. And I know a lot of really nice people in showbusiness. I’m lucky. But he’s the nicest man – kind, and he’s a mensch. He made our parting of the ways much easier than he could have. Communication has been kept open over the years. We’re not like buddies or anything, but every couple years we communicate.

“It was with trepidation that I started working on ‘Victory Farm’ because I wasn’t sure if I could. I had written some stuff for Door Shakespeare that I was pretty happy with. This was a few years after, so I felt by that point maybe I was ready to try to start writing again. The timing was really right.

Emily Coulson, left, Katie Dahl and James Valcq at premiere of “Victory Farm.”

“That was one of the reasons that I specifically sent Sheldon the music because I knew that he would be really pleased that I figured out how to get back in the saddle. It took a long time in coming – and a real tribute to Katie and Emily, not just how good they were in the process of writing but how persistent they were in kind of convincing me to do it when I was trying to get them to do it on their own. Not everybody gets a call by Sheldon Harnick.”

***

James Valcq lived in New York for 22 years. But Wisconsin and Door County were always in the picture.

“My first performance in Door County was in 1983. I was in the Heritage Ensemble, precursor of American Folklore Theatre, the precursor of Northern Sky Theater. The two men in the show with me were Doc Heide (ensemble co-founder) and the great Gerald Pelrine, who we just lost (January 15, 2020).

“The previous year, ’82, those two men were in it, and the third man was Fred Alley. But in ’83, Fred decided to go on this vagabond journey to San Francisco, so he wasn’t in the Heritage Ensemble. And if he had been, they wouldn’t have been auditioning for other men in Madison, where I was in school for a couple of years. So I was there in Madison and heard about this audition. I was planning on doing something else that summer, a different job, but that job fell through, so I was all of a sudden very close to summer without a job. I went in and auditioned for Dave Peterson and got hired for that.

“Fred Alley and I had been friends since high school. Fred and Jeff (Herbst) and I all met one summer when Fred and I were at music camp. Fred was sort of a vagabond and a renegade. He didn’t actually go to the camp but kind of hung around. He and Jeff were in school together. Jeff and I were best friends at the camp, and so I met Fred, and we sort of formed a music theater mafia.

“Fred really wasn’t a writer at that time, and I guess I wasn’t, either. That was later in college after I went back to Milwaukee. Jeff had been trying to get the two of us together writing something. It wasn’t happening.

“I think it was in 1993 that Fred was in New York and called me, and I said, ‘Oh, I really want to see you.’ He said, ‘Come and see me on Ellis Island. Let’s go there.’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. I’ve never been there.’ The museum there was a relatively new attraction in New York. So I said, ‘Yeah, definitely. Don’t get on that ferry without me.’

“So I got there a little bit late. Literally, Jeff and Fred and Doc were on the ferry. It was leaving without me. But there was another one. It was like something from a movie where it’s pulling away in the water and you’re waving, ‘Wait! Wait!’ I got on the next one, and they waited to start the tour because they saw me calling out on the mainland.

“So we toured Ellis Island, and of course it didn’t take me long to figure out that Fred was there doing research for a possible show. And I thought it was a great idea for an American Folklore Theatre show and really wanted to be a part of it.

“So right from the beginning I was there with him as we were being inspired by the same things. We knew we got along well as friends, but even just touring Ellis Island, it was pretty clear that we could get along as collaborators as well, that the same kinds of things were sparking us and we were taking notes on the same things. ‘Oh that – I hear a singer in that. This could be a dance.’ Like that.

“So we spent the rest of that year writing that show, ‘The Passage,’ and it premiered at American Folklore Theatre in 1994.”

***

From my review: “(… a little masterpiece, The Passage. It is tender, touching and uplifting… The Passage weaves together two stories of emigration – one from Russia, one from Ireland – to America. The show covers a sweeping array of emotions. People are left behind. The travelers are lonely or apprehensive. New love is found, and so is the new land. There’s rejoicing. This is the saga of countless families. The Passage is a fairly universal show. On the night I saw The Passage, its impact was palpable. The audience hung on every word and every note. Some songs are so powerful it would be a sin to applaud and break the mood, and this audience didn’t. It caught numerous subtleties and shifts. When the show was over, soul-satisfying enjoyment could be felt in the crowd. Along with the sensitive songs – ‘The Map on My Mind,’ ‘Somewhere in the Night,’ ‘Shadows in the Moonlight,” etc. – is the amazing ‘Pull the Chain.’ About the first experience with a flushing toilet, it’s downright hilarious. Beautiful voices abound – Alley and all the women roles – Suzette Nelson, Karen Mal, Amy Chaffee and Kathleen O’Regan. This show could stand up on any stage. It is that special.”

***

“I spent a good amount of time in Door County in that summer as well. I didn’t come back to work too much, but I definitely came back as a visitor, to see Jeff and Fred and AFT and to see my old pal, Suzanne, when she started running Door Shakespeare. And then I did three summers at Door Shakespeare, 2009 through 2011.”

Floating around was a pipedream for James Valcq and Robert Boles which materialized with Third Avenue Playhouse that they run in Sturgeon Bay.

“What you may not know about me is I started a theater company when I was 15 years old during summer in Milwaukee. It operated for three years. Suzanne Graff (!) was in my first production, and she joined me in running the outfit for the second and third year. Suzanne and I basically were like Mickey and Judy in Milwaukee and had a little theater company.

“Not everybody in theater has the particular gene, but Suzanne and I did and Bob did, too, where some people are content to be an actor or a conductor or whatever your role is and don’t really necessarily want to pick a season or decide what show it is. They just want to go to the audition for that show and get hired for it. They don’t want to be the one hiring. But obviously from a very young age, I had that gene where I wanted to – I don’t want to say call the shots; I mean that’s part of what you have to do, but that is so not the impetus for doing this. It’s more into writing. It’s putting something out there. It’s having a somewhat bigger or more comprehensive vision than being a member of a production than being a person who actually generates a production and how people get hired and how people are treated in your company. All of that. “Bob and I have always sort of fantasized over the years about running a theater – any place we would go. I remember specifically beating the door one time somewhere there was a schoolhouse that was falling apart. It wasn’t occupied. A one-room schoolhouse. I remember walking around it thinking, ‘Oh, wouldn’t this make a cute little theater? We could run a theater here.’ And not everybody thinks that way. But that’s the way our conversation would go sometimes.

“So I was here doing Door Shakespeare, and I was walking around Sturgeon Bay. We had this house. It was to be our summer house, right, to support my Shakespeare habit and spend our summers in the Door, which we loved and thought would be a great place to be. So I’m walking around and I saw the train depot on Third Avenue, the old Ahnapee and Western train station and stood outside and it’s like peering inside an abandoned one-room schoolhouse, only better. This would have been really cute, and I brought Bob over there, and he thought so, too.

“We met with the realtor who was selling the property. We get to go inside, and the wheels are really turning. Then we got together some of our friends who were acting in Door Shakespeare with us that summer and others who happened to be in the county that week for whatever reason and had a little meeting right here at the table I’m sitting at and talked about starting a theater company and, you know, what kind of a theater would it be, what would we do, what would set us apart from the other theaters, would you guys all be in it? – like that.

“At a certain point, Bob thought, ‘Well, there is a theater a block away from this train station, Third Avenue Playhouse.’ It didn’t seem to be open very much in the summer, but Bob thought he would take a walk down there just to sort of see what it was all about… So Bob went over there and talked to Judy Drew and told her we were thinking about a small, intimate theater. She said, ‘Well, I have something to show you,’ and she took him into the back room, which we now call the Studio Theatre. It was a storage space at the time. It was packed floor to ceiling with furniture and set pieces and some makeshift dressing rooms that were built in there. A sloping floor. No seats. You could see the shape of the room.

“Bob came back to tell me about it and said, ‘Well, they do have this space over there that really is sort of an ideal size.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but it’s not a theater now, and neither is the train station and then maybe we could rent this space and we wouldn’t have to buy a train station or some theater but we could rent the space and run our performances in this space. It wouldn’t be as much fun as owing a train station, but I’ll think about it.’

J

“Again, coincidences such as happen sometimes, we were in Weisgerber’s (Cornerstone Pub in Baileys Harbor) after a Door Shakespeare show and (Door County musician) Hans Christian came in. He said, ‘James, Bob, Judy Drew has just resigned as the executive director of TAP. I made an appointment for you with the president of the board of directors tomorrow. He’d love to meet you about your possible, provisional plans to start a theater company.’

“That was Bob’s last night here, and he was heading back to New York. So only I met with the president of the board of TAP. But that’s how it happened. It was a pipe dream and then a random coincidence.

“Bob and I are big ones for trying something new at any place in life. You’re never too old. He went back to school to finish a degree when he when he was in his 40s. He decided to go on to grad school and then started a whole new career in academia. So Bob was in the throes of that, and I was doing my thing in New York and Broadway and all that. But here was this opportunity of for something that we for decades had talked about the possibility of and it was sort of being offered to us in a place that we both loved visiting and assumed would love living. We had a lot of friends here both seasonal and year-around. So it wasn’t like moving to a completely strange environment. Because I grew up in Wisconsin. So we took a plunge and just decided to do it.”

Third Avenue Playhouse, Inc. owns the building.

“And then the ‘Inc.’ is whoever is the board at the time.”

James Valcq and Robert Boles are employees.

“Indeed.”

James Valcq’s job:

“As co-artistic director, my main responsibilities are choosing plays and directing them. Up until very recently, Bob and I both had administrative duties. Bob had a lot more of those than I did, but we both took part in how the theater was run as a business.

James Valcq, rear, with cast of “La La Lucille.”

“Up until extremely recently, I was also primarily responsible ultimately for what happened technically at the theater. We usually, but not absolutely always, had a production manager on hand. And this would be somebody who had a skill set that was much more attuned to technical theater than me. I really don’t have any to speak of, but it just sort of happened our first season. We had a plan of how to engage a really wonderful set designer. For various reasons, the plan didn’t work out and it was getting closer and closer to the start of rehearsals for ‘The Subject of Roses,’ the first play that we put in the Studio Theatre, and nobody was there. And Bob said, ‘We’ll figure it out, we’ll figure it out.’ Well, there’s something to figure out: Somebody has to design some kind of a set for the show to take place at. So I designed it as best I could. We had no power tools. We had literally no money. I had to use things that I found in the theater, and I did kind of an abstract reconstructed, strangely angled corner set of a two-room apartment. It was a very simple set, but for our capabilities at the time, it wasn’t simple because nothing was at a 90 or 45-degree angle. Everything was at cockeyed angles and nothing was braced. It held on through the run of that play by a wing and a prayer. It’s amazing it stood up for the whole run because it was aerodynamically unsound. That plane should not have flown, but somehow it sort of did manage through the run.

“But that’s how it started that I just kept designing sets. And that has never been my favorite part of the job. I have very much enjoyed designing the lighting, which also came about entirely by accident. But it’s something that I felt – I don’t want to say mastered, but I had somewhat of a knack for. It was a very pleasant means of expression heretofore unavailable to me. The set design – it was only because I had to and we didn’t have anybody else. And some of the sets turned out nicely, and others you don’t see full-stage photographs of certain productions because the sets weren’t very photogenic. So, yeah, it was hit and miss as far as that goes.

“I had those duties until recently because we have actually hired a full-time technical director for the theater, Jon Ginnow, who has relocated to Sturgeon Bay with his family to be near some extended family. It’s a very happy – I don’t want to say an accident, it’s not an accident – but it’s a happy turn of events when you’re looking to fill a position and there’s a very qualified person who has as one of their goals relocating to Door County. That’s a big part of the picture because it’s not for everybody. We love it. We live here and we know it and we love it. But living here is really not for everybody as we found with some of the people we’ve hired. Whatever parts they like and whatever parts of the job at the theater they love, it’s just not where they want to be in their life at this time.

“So finding Amy Frank, who’s our managing director, and now Jon Ginnow, who’s our technical director, and both of them want to live in Door County, it’s certainly not why they got the job or that was their prime qualification, but it didn’t hurt our easiness to hire them.”

Tuesday: James Valcq’s stories continue with “The Spitfire Grill” and the special Fred Alley.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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