The new show at St. Ambrose University this month brings together a special collection of people on and off stage.
“title of show” is a one-act musical (its area premiere was this summer at Moline’s Black Box Theatre) about two nobodies named Hunter and Jeff who decide to write a completely original musical starring themselves and their attractive and talented lady friends, Susan and Heidi.
Created by Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen, it received a 2006 Obie Award Special Citation, and Audience Award Favorite Ensemble Cast by Broadway.com.
Determined to write an original musical rather than adapt an existing play or movie, playwrights Bowen and Bell discovered almost immediately that their conversations about what to write were more interesting than what they were actually writing, according to a synopsis.
A 2006 New York Times review said: “Mr. Bowen and Mr. Bell have concocted a zesty, sweet, Broadway-trivia-riddled musical about the anxiety and excitement of creating a zesty, sweet, Broadway-trivia-riddled musical.”
It will be performed Friday and Saturday, Nov. 10, 11, 17, and 18 at 7:30 p.m. at the newly renovated Studio Theatre at Galvin Fine Arts Center, as well as Sundays, Nov. 12 & 19 at 3 p.m. It’s directed by Thomas Alan Taylor, a veteran QC actor who directed the former QC Theatre Workshop productions of “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” (2018) and “How I Learned to Drive” (2013).
He’s performed in musicals “Hairspray” at Circa and at Davenport’s First Presbyterian Church, and was encouraged to lead “title of show” by SAU theater department chair Dan Hale.
Hale was originally due to be part of the team that did “A Green River” at QCTW in 2013, which starred Taylor, and he did act in the docudrama “Sons & Daughters of Thunder” (2019), which also starred Taylor as 19th-century abolitionist Theodore Weld.
Taylor wasn’t familiar with the quirky, hilarious “title of show” before, and didn’t see the Black Box Theatre version, done this past July (done by four Augustana College alums).
“There are things that present their own challenges, that I’ve been very excited to take on and happy to do it with the team that I have,” he said this week. “It’s been fun to play around with a lot of the tongue in cheek humor, that aspect of the show brings.”
Taylor had not worked at Ambrose before, but is having a great time collaborating with Aaron Hook of the theater department, and music director Bobby Becher (a Circa veteran).
“I love working with Aaron Hook, for example. I love working with really great designers and I find him to be a tremendously talented designer,” Taylor said. “Working with Bobby, the music director as well, it’s been a pleasure to get to know him. I do often find that directing allows me to collaborate with a higher quantity of really talented artists and that’s gotta be the biggest thrill of it.
“I do enjoy working with actors to discover a complete through line of the show, to develop character and to develop story and working with them to discover the language and to help somebody else find their place in that role,” he added. “I greatly enjoy that.”
Taylor asked local actor Tommy Ratkiewicz-Stierwalt (over a decade older than his SAU castmates) to be in the cast after seeing him in August in the Spotlight Theatre’s Harry Potter spoof “Puffs” (which also featured Taylor’s wife Jessica).
“I knew he had a lot of musical theater experience,” the director said. “Working in an educational setting, I love the atmosphere there and the chance you get to explore. One of the biggest benefits I think is when students have the ability to work with people who have a lot of experience and Tommy does.
“We felt like he was a good person to bring in, somebody who could really create with the actors and provide a good foundation on stage and he’s been a great leader for everybody,” Taylor said.
SAU alum Colin Evers is the on-stage piano accompanist, which also has been great.
He’s one of those artists who you get to work with, it’s a dream how easy he is to work with because he’s so prepared and on his game,” Taylor said. “Between him and Bobby, the music end of this has been a good experience.”
Freshman Zach Ulmer is playing Hunter, and is a mechanical engineering major (and theater minor) from Huntley, Ill. In the 2022-23 school year, he performed in eight shows, including at a community theater and his favorite one was “Newsies.”
“I’ve always loved performing. My first main stage musical was in fifth grade,” he said this week. Last January, he also got to be in the Illinois All-State production of “Shrek the Musical.”
In “title of show,” there are many “real struggles that the characters go through throughout the show I feel like are really relatable,” Ulmer said.
Especially coming in as a freshman, where I didn’t know everyone, I was able to find my place in this close-knit group very quickly and I very quickly became very close with everyone,” he said.
Ulmer said Taylor is an amazing director and very different than ones he’s worked with before, by giving more freedom to actors to craft their portrayals. He feels close to the funny, over-the-top character of Hunter.
“You might like start and he’s like, ‘No, I don’t like that. Try something else.’ So you’ll try something else and eventually you’ll hit it and he’s like, ‘That’s it. That’s amazing.’ And it’s a great feeling when you get it,” Ulmer said.
He also appreciates Ratkiewicz-Stierwalt, since their characters are very close in the show, and Ulmer has learned from the 34-year-old veteran.
“I think that has allowed us to be very close and comfortable with each other. It’s super cool working with someone who has that real-world experience,” Ulmer said. “He inspires me to better, with the differences that he has in acting and I’d like to think that I inspire the others as well. But who’s to say?” the freshman said.
Ratkiewicz-Stierwalt (whose theater credits include Balladeer/Oswald in Black Box’s “Assassins” and Seymour in “Little Shop of Horrors” in Tipton) said he gave major kudos to Taylor and Becher for accommodating a very busy fall schedule. He’s had roles in two independent films and has done some modeling.
“They’re like, ‘if you’re willing to make it happen, we’re willing to make it happen’,” Ratkiewicz-Stierwalt recalled this week.
Since he had to miss a number of rehearsals, Taylor cast an understudy for his part, and that was invaluable (one of two understudies).
“I cannot commend these people enough. I mean, they’re just professionals,” Ratkiewicz-Stierwalt said. “I’ve been really lucky this last year.”
He appreciates the longer rehearsal for process for theater versus TV and film.
“I was familiar with both scripts but then going to film it, they’re like, all right, let’s film,” after very little rehearsal, Ratkiewicz-Stierwalt said. “Some of them I got in one take, knock on wood, others were a few takes longer.”
Though he’s never written a show, Tommy identifies with Jeff, in trying to make it in the entertainment industry overall.
“I’m very much so and like the hustle, hustle, hustle — let’s make it happen,” he said. “You’ve gotta start small before you can get your name out there and really kind of be big and be like, this is who I am. This is my reputable thing that I’ve done.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a role that has been like this close to me in real life as I have before,” Ratkiewicz-Stierwalt said. “I don’t know that I’ll ever have another one.”
He admires how the boys “do whatever it takes but do whatever they can and they have the power to do, to get them to that level of success in completing their dreams,” he said.
Ratkiewicz-Stierwalt felt very lucky to be acting in the non-union film projects during the Screen Actors Guild strike.
“I feel for this industry in general, but also for my friends who are members,” he said. “These organizations are trying to take jobs away from people who I know are there and who want to be there and are now being threatened with being replaced with this new technology, which is very unfortunate.”
Tickets for “title of show” ($15 general admission) are available HERE or call 563-333-6251 for group ticket pricing. SAU students with current valid student ID are free.