Like weathering July storms at Wolf Trap or packing a picnic for the Twilight Tattoo at Fort Myer, basking in the air-conditioning at a Signature Theatre cabaret has become a summer tradition in Northern Virginia. Some performers are New York cabaret regulars, such as Christine Pedi, who take the train to D.C.just for a night. Others are Broadway singers, such as Alysha Umphress, who played leading roles in Signature musicals last season. Many are stalwarts of D.C. stages like Will Gartshore and Stephen Gregory Smith, locals who deserve a solo show at least once a year.
The 2014 Sizzlin’ Summer Nights’ series opened July 9 with perennial Signature tearjerker Natascia Diaz and closes July 26 with a tradition-within-a-tradition: the annual “Revenge of the Understudies” cabaret. Once more, an open call went out to local performers who understudied roles during the Signature season. The resulting cast list reads like a cross-section of Washington’s acting pool and features performers ranging in ages from 9 to 65.
There are plenty of 20-something up-and-comers, but a surprising number of understudies are older guys with day jobs who are ready to leave the office early if the stage manager calls. Often she never does. But the annual cabaret is a testimony to the deep reserves of resident acting talent ready in the wings to make sure that if the lead actor’s daughter is getting married in the middle of the run, or a member of the ensemble is bitten by a dog hours before curtain, the show will go on.
Without further adieu, meet 10 actors who served as Signature’s second-string this past season, and what they plan to sing when they finally get a turn in the spotlight. (Setlist subject to change, at the behest of pianist Joel DeCandio or director David Zobell.)
Education: Rising fifth-grader at Pine Crest Elementary School
Understudy roles: The children’s parts in “Gypsy” (December 2013–January 2014) and “Beaches,” (February–March 2014).
Did she go on? Yes. On very short notice when one of the boys in “Gypsy” got sick. “I messed up a little but it was okay,” Lottie said. She got a standing ovation backstage, and star Donna Migliaccio congratulated her on Facebook.
Dramatic accomplishments include: Recently appearing as a chick in the Washington National Opera’s production of “The Magic Flute.”
Theatrical aspirations: Lottie auditioned for the title role in “Matilda” on Broadway, but the producers were worried she was too tall and would age out of the role, her mom, Gretchen Weigel Doughty, said. She’s hoping to get another shot at the role soon.
Go-to song: What else? “Naughty” from “Matilda.”
Education: Shenandoah Conservatory
Understudy role: The older brother in “Pride in the Falls of Autry Mill” (Fall 2013).
Did he go on: No. “The entire cast stayed healthy the whole time, which I’m told is unusual.”
Dramatic accomplishments include: Playing Cogsworth in Disney’s “Beauty in the Beast” at a regional theater in New Hampshire.
Theatrical aspirations? Get as many seventh-graders from Iowa as possible to see “Shear Madness” at the Kennedy Center, where he works in the group ticketing office.
Cabaret song of choice? “To Excess” from an unpublished musical by Christopher Dimond. “It’s a dark comedy about a stalker,” Moss said. “I performed it once and got a really good reception.”
Education: Graduated in May with a musical theater degree from Point Park University in Pittsburgh
Understudy role: Detective Nick Cutter in “Cloak and Dagger,” a new musical that debuted at Signature in June.
Did he go on? No. But the he did stand in for star Doug Carpenter during some early readings. It was his first understudy gig.
Dramatic accomplishments include: Spending last summer performing as one of the Milkmen, the boy-band-in-residence at Hersheypark. “It was the best job I’ve ever had in my life.”
Theatrical aspirations? Building his résumé as an actor in Washington, starting with Signature’s fall production of the musical “Elmer Gantry.”
Go-to audition number? “At the Fountain” from the Marvin Hamlisch musical “The Sweet Smell of Success.” Van Meter was inspired to learn the song after the late maestro did a residency at Point Park."
Education: BA in history from Oberlin College
Understudy role: Tiger Brown in “Threepenny Opera” (Spring 2014).
Did he go on? Yes. Fri was cast as Crook-Finger Jake, and but knew even in auditions that Signature needed someone to sub for actor John Leslie Wolfe, who would have to miss four shows for his daughter’s wedding. When he returned to his usual role, Fri approached it differently: “I’d never been inside a play and then seen it from a new perspective before,” he said.
Dramatic accomplishment: Just four days before “Threepenny” rehearsals began, he finished a run of “Richard III” at the Folger Shakespeare.
Theatrical aspirations: Fri is known around Washington as a go-to supporting actor in classic plays. Upcoming productions include “The Tempest” at Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Cabaret standards: None. Fri will bring his guitar and sing original country bluegrass tunes. “Threepenny” was his first musical. “I sing, and I act, I just seldom do both at the same time,” the full-time actor said. “I am too lazy to learn someone else’s music.”
MFA in directing from Catholic University
Understudy roles: Mr. Peachum in “Threepenny Opera,” older male roles in “Beaches” and three previous musicals.
Did he go on? Not this year. “Bobby Smith is too healthy,” Tinder said. “I know that when I take understudy roles in my age bracket, I’m behind some pretty hard-charging horses. But I still learn a lot. It’s doing a theater workshop, but I draw a salary for it.”
Dramatic accomplishment: “I’ve played John Adams in ‘1776’ about 200 times at eight different theaters,” Tinder said, “but that does sort of box me in.”
Theatrical aspirations: Tinder had to drop out of the actor’s union when he took over his family business, Tinder Wholesale, but he plans to keep acting as long as he can.
Go-to crooner number: “Till There Was You,” from “The Music Man.” (He met his wife, Patricia, when he played Howard and she played Marian at a dinner theater production.)
Education: BFA in acting from Ithaca College
Understudy role: Lucy in “Threepenny Opera.”
Did she go on?No. Despite the fact that actor Rick Hammerly, who performed the role in drag, was constantly tweeting about the pain of walking in heels. “We had to pamper the diva to make sure she was ready every night,” Turner said. Instead, she performed nightly in “Threepenny” as a member of the ensemble.
Dramatic accomplishments: A graduate of Oxon Hill High School in Prince George’s County, Turner has already worked at Ford’s Theatre (“The Laramie Project”) and Shakespeare Theatre (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) since returning to the area.
Theatrical aspirations: Turner has a big gig in New York this fall, but she can’t say what it is just yet.
Cabaret standard: A jazzy version of Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” as influenced by Nina Simone.
Education: BA in musical theater from American University
Understudy role: Younger male ensemble parts in “Threepenny Opera.”
Did he go on? Yes. The weekend that John Leslie Wolfe traveled out of town for his daughter’s wedding caused a chain reaction for three understudies, and Dick went on as Chainsaw Bob.
Dramatic accomplishments: Dick “tries to do a little bit of everything” and has dabbled in directing and lighting design. “My goal is to keep working in theater in some capacity, and to get better at all of it,” he said.
Theatrical aspirations: Dick will appear in Rorschach Theatre’s upcoming production of “She Kills Monsters,” as well as Adventure Theatre’s fall national tour of “Big Nate.”
Go-to audition number: “On the Street Where You Live,” from “My Fair Lady.”
“In high school, it was the first song that I learned and memorized and knew, ‘That felt good to sing,’” Dick said.
Education: Bachelor of music in musical theater from Catholic University
Understudy role: Four female ensemble parts in “Beaches.”
Did she go on? Yes. “It was very much unexpected,” Lentz said. She was working at her day job and got a call from the stage manager three hours before a matinee: One of the ensemble members had been bitten by her roommate’s dog and was on her way to the hospital to get stitches. “It was my time to rise to the occasion,” Lentz said. She had to borrow makeup and “appropriate undergarments” from other cast members.
Dramatic accomplishments: Lentz recently appeared as Frenchie in “Grease” at Toby’s Dinner Theatre. “I’m normally the kookie weirdo in the gang, so that makes sense,” she said.
Theatrical aspirations: In January, she’s booked for a reading of new musical in New York. Until then, she’s on the hunt, “but that’s the actor life.”
Go-to cabaret number: “Mr. President,” from the high school student council musical “Vote.” Lentz described it as “screlty,” a combination of screaming and very high belting, which is her vocal specialty.
Education: “I did all the shows at my university [Hamline, in Minnesota], even though I wasn’t a theater major. I’ve been working ever since.”
Understudy role: Herbie and two male ensemble roles in “Gypsy.”
Did he go on? No. “I would have liked to, but that’s just the gamble you take.”
Dramatic accomplishments include: Appearing in Season 1 of “House of Cards” and Season 3 of “Veep.” “People who recognized me say I was great,” Lebens said.
Theatrical aspirations: Lebens is thinking big and small screens rather than stages these days. He appears in the new Civil War film “Field of Lost Shoes,” which stars David Arquette and is due out in September, as well as the new television miniseries “Pigeon.”
Go-to audition songs: “I have a lot of those,” Lebens said. Among his options are “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” from “My Fair Lady”; “Luck Be a Lady” from “Guys and Dolls”; and George Gershwin’s “Embraceable You.”
Education: Washington and Lee School of Law and the Theatre Lab School of the Dramatic Arts. “I was in my mid-30s when took my first musical theater class,” Lester said.
Did he go on: Yes. Lester appeared 11 times in “Company,” most famously at a Saturday matinee when Thomas Adrian Simpson got stuck in traffic. (They switched actors midway through the first act.) Then later that night, Bobby Smith was running a high fever, so Lester went on in his stead. (Note to Mick Tinder: Even “hard-charging” Bobby Smith gets sick.)
Dramatic accomplishments: “‘Company’ was a big highlight for me,” Lester said.
Theatrical aspirations: Lester was recently named a judge on the U.S. Civilian Board of Contract Appeals. He’s going to lie low, theatrically, while he adjusts to this new role, but says he’ll be back onstage soon. “You can’t stop doing this,” he said. “It’s really contagious.”
Go-to audition number: Ideally “Finishing the Hat,” from “Sundays in the Park with George” by Stephen Sondheim, “But I’m getting a little too old for it,” Lester said.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Van Meter learned “At the Fountain” from Hamlisch himself.
“Revenge of the Understudies” cabaret. At Signature Theatre July 26 at 9 and 11 p.m. Tickets $25. Call 703-573-7328 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.