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Theater veterans share tales of first love

Here is another edition of a continuing series of local theater veterans sharing their stories about the shows and experiences that made them fall in love with live theater:

Colleen Chance, McDonald — I first fell in love with theater as a little girl watching “Pump Boys and Dinettes” at the Uptown Theater with Easy Street Productions. I am now a featured singer with Easy Street, and it is so surreal being on stage with Maureen Collins and Todd Hancock.

Maureen and I have become the best of friends, and she has taught me so much about theater over the years. I am forever grateful.

Rick Haldi, Boardman, Hopewell Theatre board member — My love of theater started early in life. During first grade, I absolutely loved Christmas plays. Later, my love expanded to Westerns. To this day, those subjects get my first choice for auditions.

Since moving back to Youngstown after being away for many years with my railroad employment, I have volunteered for Victorian Players (now Hopewell) where I enjoyed “The Death and Life of Sneaky Fitch” and, with other theaters, numerous editions of “A Christmas Carol.”

Now I am busy keeping Hopewell above water and hoping to put on shows very soon.

Robert Dennick Joki, Youngstown, founder of Rust Belt Theater Company — The first musical I fell in love with as a young adult was “The Phantom Of The Opera” by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

As a closeted gay teenager growing up in a very conservative town, something about the idea of a disfigured musical mastermind lurking in the shadows beneath the Paris Opera House really spoke to me.

I used to listen the original Broadway cast recording obsessively on my Walkman. When other kids would hear high pitched screams coming from my headphones on the bus, I told them it was AC/DC.

James McClellan, Youngstown, operations manager of Youngstown Playhouse — I think it was “The King and I” that hooked me. The score is no less than Rodgers and Hammerstein at their best, the story is emotionally involving, the setting and time period are far away and exotic, and there are parts for people of every age.

I was 6 years old when I played one of the King’s children — my first community show (at St. Christine’s), with Bob Vargo directing and Playhouse veteran Ray Dohar as the King. The neighbor lady down the street was one of the King’s wives. This was when I realized that doing theater amounted to a family gathering, and we had the ability to sweep audiences away night after night with what we did.

Kyle Merritt, Warren — In 1997 when I was 13, I started performing at Kent-Trumbull Summer Stock. At the time, Summer Stock had two children’s shows (a traveling show and a stage show, which I was in) as well as an adult musical and non-musical.

Knowing very little about theater at the time, I was blown away by the musical “You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown.” It was evident the performers not only knew their character and vocal range but also trusted and enjoyed performing with their castmates. It was clear at the time that enjoying theater was just as much about learning and expanding your abilities as a performer but also embracing the talent of others involved.

The best shows I’ve seen aren’t always as a result of just one standout performance but based on the sum of all parts.

Michael Moritz Jr., a Youngstown native now living in New York — I discovered theater relatively late in my childhood. I grew up in the Valley as a musician, a piano player. I can vaguely remember field trips to the Youngstown Playhouse in grade school, but my junior high years were spent in recording studios.

When I entered high school (Cardinal Mooney), the then associate principal and director of the theater department, Joanne Carney Smith, approached me and asked me if I wanted to be involved with the musicals at the school. Very quickly, I was music directing my high school shows, learning as I went.

As high school ended, I assumed so would my theater work. I was clearly wrong. The then-managing director of the Youngstown Playhouse, Bob Vargo, attended my senior musical, and called me the next day asking if I would join the Playhouse full time as music director in residence.

I distinctly remember my first show at the Playhouse — “Damn Yankees,” September 2000. It was the first realization that I wanted do this work for as long as I could. Twenty years later, I still feel like what I do isn’t work.

That was the first of probably 60 or so shows I would music direct locally. I would work at the Youngstown Playhouse for the better part of a decade. I cherish my time in local theater to this day and try to involve the Valley theater performers in my current work every chance I can.

Terri Wilkes, Boardman — My love of theater started with my childhood trips to Packard Music Hall to see The Kenley Players. I was so mesmerized by all of the shows with all of those famous actors. I remember the thrill of seeing “The Man Who Came to Dinner” with Margaret Hamilton and Joan Bennett, “Half A Sixpence” with Noel Harrison and “Carousel” with Robert Goulet in particular.

I still have my autographed programs. What a magical time that was.

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