T he website of The Orange Players—a theatrical troupe founded in Orange, Connecticut, in 1974—says it’s “the oldest continuously active community theatre group” in the state.
And it still feels very much like the genuine article. For one thing, it makes do without the bells and whistles of a professional theater space. The stage for A Kick Out of Cole, its Cole Porter song-and-dance (but mostly song) tribute that opens tonight, rests at one end of a basketball court inside Orange’s High Plains Community Center. The lighting system is simple indeed, with just seven elements total: three cans mounted on each side of the stage, plus a single hand-operated spotlight in the back of the room. The sound tech for the primary performers consists of a solitary microphone, positioned low at the front of the stage.
For another thing, the group is highly inclusive, encouraging anyone who wants to perform on stage—or work behind the curtains, operate the lights, build a set, coordinate publicity, sell tickets and/or simply support the organization by chipping in annual dues, which start at $16—to join up.
Given its accepting nature, members exhibit surprisingly high levels of skill and dedication to craft. Pat Miller, who’s been with the group since the beginning, says her first love is directing. She’s experimented enough to be sure of that, having acted, run workshops, written the organization newsletter and enacted outreach programs along the way; her directing credits include South Pacific, Music Man, The Diary of Anne Frank, Wonderful Town and many others, including this week’s show, which she’s very actively assistant-directing. She remembers being in rehearsal for the Players’ very first show, Pajama Game, when President Nixon’s resignation speech came on television and interrupted a run-through.
There were no such interruptions earlier this week as the Players worked out the last kinks in A Kick Out of Cole. This sparkling musical revue of Cole Porter tunes, featuring black-tie getups and a glittering gold backdrop befitting an Oscars award show, is the brainchild of director Leo Meyer of Milford, who is not at all a stranger to the stage. He was the head of Atlas Scenic Studio in Bridgeport for forty years, constructing sets for Broadway shows, and also taught as a professor of theater design. He’s also directed Orange Players shows such as The Cemetery Club and Bells Are Ringing.
Describing Porter’s songs as “wonderful, so playable, so listenable, remarkable,” Meyer marvels at the fact that Porter wrote both the music and the lyrics, a rarity in today’s pop music landscape, and that many of his tunes are loved and listened to even now, in some cases a century or more after their writing. “Porter’s songs are as fresh today as the day they were written, filled with wit and humor,” he says.
Offering an example, Pat Miller, who Meyer calls “the ring leader of the group,” related a story in which Porter, having bragged that he could write a song about any topic, was challenged to write one about a recent bit of news in which a woman who shot her lover for cheating was about to be hanged. With a facile and sophisticated style, Porter quickly composed Miss Otis Regrets. It’s just one of the almost three dozen songs that will be presented in the show—a huge number on its own terms, but just a fraction of the hundreds Porter wrote, 300 of them alone while a student at Yale. Another selection is the little-known and slightly scandalous Antoinette Birby, about a farm gal who ventures to Yale and the city of New Haven, and learns a thing or two while there. Other tunes in the program are more well-known, like Night and Day, Anything Goes and the Frank Sinatra standard I Get a Kick Out of You.
Orange native Rich Moran, now of Hamden and a central figure in A Kick Out of Cole, says his first show with the Players was Kiss Me Kate in 1982 when he was a senior at Amity High School. After college and a ten-year hiatus, he rejoined his former group and was privileged to win the lead in shows like Oklahoma and Bells Are Ringing, accumulating “great memories” in and behind the scenes.
For Gary Harger, a professional baritone singer living in Orange, music is his life. When he first moved to town eighteen years ago, he directed Gypsy, remembering it well because it was the year his daughter Shaylen was born, who today is an Amity High senior with a voice that wowed in the school’s recent production of In the Heights. Mom Barbie is a singer, too, and both parents give voice lessons in addition to performing. Regarding Cole Porter, Harger thinks “he’s way up there in brilliance, both elegant and irrestistible.” For him, this tribute production is a win-win: he loves Cole Porter and helping out the Orange Players, by giving newcomers to the stage the benefit of his experience.
Other members of the cast include Ralph Buonocore, Christine Gill, Sarah Golley, Linda Martin, Raye McClellan, Suzanne Powers, Barbara Stolarik, Paul Templeton and Valerie Torphy, with musical director Angela Jackson playing a mean keyboard and producers TJ Chila and Marianne Miller quietly fixing the things that inevitably go wrong in the run-up to a performance.
Marianne Miller, also the current president of the organization, has been volunteering since 1990 and has served as president a record nine times, producing fifteen shows in the process. She’s adept at dealing with the daily crises involved in preparing to put on a show. Two years ago, she even managed to do her duties with a broken back, in a full body cast, proving her commitment to the ideal that “the show must go on.”
Tonight, tomorrow and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m., that maxim is again tested. A $20 ticket gets you unreserved cabaret-style seating, with attendees encouraged to bring their own food and drink.
So eat it up, and drink it in. It’s community theater, with an Orange twist.
A Kick Out of Cole
High Plains Community Center – 525 Orange Center Rd, Orange (map)
May 15-17 at 8pm and May 18 at 3pm | $20
Written by Bonnie Goldberg. Photographed by Dan Mims.