Today’s TOP FIVE comes from Rob Merritt, who should be familiar to both Iowa City and Cedar Rapids audiences. He wrote the play The Summerland Project for one of TCR’s Underground Play Festivals, and it became a bit of a sensation, garnering a mainstage production and is now being turned into a movie. If you want to know what all the fuss is about, you can check out a current production at the Olathe Civic Theatre Association in Kansas. It runs through June 21. But for now, let’s check out Rob’s TOP FIVE. (Spoiler alert – The Summerland Project made the list…)
5) The Diary of Anne Frank by by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Cedar Rapids Jefferson High School, 1993-94.
The first “serious drama” I ever did, this show remains special more than two decades later — mainly for the lifelong impact that high school theatre can have on a student. I played Mr. Dussel, the dentist who hides with other Jews in the “secret annexe” during the Holocaust. Our December 1993 production was selected for performance at the International Thespian Festival the following summer — an incredible honor for our ten-member cast.
Michael Peitz was the director of The Diary of Anne Frank. He’s gone on to be a big deal with the Educational Theatre Association, and for good reason. At Jefferson High School, he and Mr. Robert Geuder were more than just directors. They were teachers. They were mentors. They were the coaches of a lovable, dysfunctional family called theatre kids, and nothing that I’ve gone on to do on the stage since would have happened if it hadn’t been for their encouragement. They kept us in line when we started goofing off, and they showed all of us that we could create something pretty special if we focused. That’s a lesson I’ve tried to hold on to in the decades since.
4) The Wedding Singer by Chad Beguelin and Tim Herlihy, music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin. Theatre Cedar Rapids, 2012.
A musical based on the 1998 film starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore, The Wedding Singer is not a show that’s going to win a Pulitzer or change the world. However, it’s one of the most fun, goofy and exhilarating onstage experiences I’ve ever had. I played Robbie Hart, whose life is turned upside down when he’s left at the altar by his own fiancee, Linda. Robbie proceeds to go on a furious anti-love bender, hurling f-bombs onstage and playing songs about pleading for the sweet embrace of death, before falling for the already-engaged Julia and realizing what love truly is.
For a goofy musical comedy, The Wedding Singer featured some incredible TCR talent. Nicolette Coiner-Winn had the Drew Barrymore role of Julia; Alisabeth Von Presley (currently in TCR’s “Chorus Line”) was Holly; Ben Lafayette (Judas in TCR’s “Jesus Christ Superstar”) was Sammy; Nathan Nelson (the title character in TCR’s “Shrek”) played Glen Guglia; choreographer extraordinaire Aaron Canterbury was George; and believe it or not, Amy Rehnstrom made her first TCR appearance in this show. Plus, you had a pit band that made the show’s ’80s tunes rock. Director Leslie Charipar and music director Janelle Lauer were clearly having a blast at rehearsal each night. Original lyricist Chad Beguelin even shared our cast’s 80’s-parody music video for “Casualty of Love” on his Facebook. Plus, Nathan Nelson and Megan Anderson became a couple during this show. Now they’re engaged. How’s that for memorable? Besides, any show that features a DeLorean prop, a Billy Idol impersonator and Cameron Byrd dressed as Tina Turner is something pretty special.
3) The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) by Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield. Marshalltown Community Theatre, 2002.
This show is exactly what it claims: Three actors attempt to perform everything Shakespeare ever wrote in 90 minutes. Along the way, there’s a robot Godzilla, lightsaber battles and some seriously fabulous cross-dressing; this show would rank pretty high on my list just for those things alone.
But what bumps this production up into my Top 5 is the behind-the-scenes story that led to it. In the summer of 2002, I played El Gallo in a production of The Fantasticks at MCT alongside a cast that included Tim Cahill, Ben Jones and Jamie Christenson. Only a few days after we closed, Jamie died during a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters in Minnesota.
In the midst of our grief, Ben, Tim and I wanted to do something to honor Jamie’s memory. As a student at Marshalltown High School, Jamie had played Ophelia in a production of Hamlet. And we knew she was a fan of Complete Works, which Tim and Ben had already wanted to find a way to produce. After some discussions with Marshalltown Community Theatre, we planned a production of Complete Works for that December in her memory. It would be a fundraiser for the Jamie Christenson Memorial Scholarship, which would be awarded to MHS students who planned to pursue theatre in college.
The final production was hilarious — and somehow, we got a show with Shakespeare in the title to fill four packed houses. Between ticket sales, show sponsors and donations, we raised $10,000 for Jamie’s scholarship. And we memorialized her in a way that was truly fitting of her personality: The three of us, acting like complete dorks onstage while wearing dresses, spouting Ophelia monologues and playing football with a royal crown. She’d have loved it.
2) The Summerland Project by Rob Merritt. Original TCR Underground New Play Festival production, 2011.
As the writer of The Summerland Project, it’s been incredible to see how the play has taken off over the past few years. It was on the TCR Mainstage a few years back, a movie version is in post-production right now, and a new production of the play is currently running in Kansas City through June 21. But all of that was made possible because of a little tiny black-box Festival production that we did in 2011. And for some weird reason, that one is still my favorite.
It didn’t have anywhere near the budget of later versions. It was entirely volunteer, from its cast to its crew to me directing the thing. We cobbled it together with various props we found laying around at my house or in TCR’s storage. And yet it worked. The crazy thing worked. That cast — Katy Slaven, Matthew James, Isaac Helgens, Joy Mincey Powell, Nathan Nelson, Phil Schramp and Clare Duffy — rehearsed it with the level of commitment that you’d find in a mainstage show. Ben Godwin and Erica Jo Hoye volunteered their time and expertise on the technical side. And I pretty much never slept during the final two weeks leading up to our performance. At one rehearsal, the cast actually had a mutiny and forced me to go home and take a nap, telling me that they’d put in a full rehearsal without me. Somehow, we willed that show to succeed. If there’s one thing that The Summerland Project taught me, it’s that if an opportunity comes your way, grab it and run with it.
1) Cabaret by Christopher Isherwood, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb. Multiple productions, 1995-2014.
It’s hard for me to point to one specific production of Cabaret, since — for 20 years now — the show has continued to pop up in my life, inspire me and show me just how powerful truly great theatre can be.
My first Cabaret experience was as a student at the University of Iowa in 1995. It was my first (and favorite) Mainstage show, and a wake-up call to what it was like to work with high-caliber talents like Megan Gogerty, Jay Loete, Dana Green, director Eric Forsythe and a roster of actors that were all crazy-good. Then in 2003, I had the thrill of finally getting to do Cabaret again — this time playing The Emcee — at Marshalltown Community Theatre. The cast bonded so tightly that many of us got a cast tattoo of “Life is Beautiful” together. (It remains the only tattoo I have.)
I got the chance to repeat the role of The Emcee at Theatre Cedar Rapids in 2004 — and that became the greatest, but also the most difficult, theatrical experience I have ever had. Director Richard Barker refused to let me simply reprise my Marshalltown performance; he drove me to work my ass off completely reinventing the character. Two days before opening, I had an accident onstage; during the final scene of the show, under harsh spotlights, I fell into the orchestra pit and tore a good portion of my leg open. Backstage for our invited-dress preview the next night, I was limping around and needed help getting up and down the stairs. But adrenaline is an amazing thing. Once onstage, the pain disappeared and I was kick-lining like a maniac (and hoping that the stitches would hold together, which they did — although my leg retains a mangled scar to this day). It helped that the cast of Cabaret was so incredibly supportive. That group became like a family, and remains, 11 years later, possibly my favorite cast of all time — and my performance as The Emcee in that production remains my favorite role to date.
I performed in one more production of Cabaret in 2005, in New York City, but haven’t done it since — although I saw many more productions of it (including one at Iowa City Community Theatre where my mom, Linda Merritt, got to play Fraulein Schneider). But just last summer, Alan Cumming returned to the role of The Emcee in Cabaret on Broadway. I knew that this was rare opportunity to finally see one of the all-time “great performances” in person. So I flew to NYC to catch a performance at Studio 54. It was the best Broadway experience I have ever had. I could not believe that this cast took a show I’d held so close to me for 20 years — knew backwards and forwards, been in four productions of, knew every line of dialogue and had seen countless interpretations of each character — and found a way to make it feel totally new. I laughed in places I’d never laughed before. I was riveted by every moment as if I was seeing it for the first time. And in the middle of it all, Alan Cumming took a character he’d been doing for decades, and yet made it feel absolutely fresh.
It was a desperately-needed reminder of how wonderful theatre could be — and more importantly, of all the things that the stage had given to me over the years. Cabaret is a musical that, for me, will always represent theatre at its finest, and my experiences with it are among the greatest of my life.
We hope you enjoyed Rob’s TOP FIVE. Feel free to comment below and then come back tomorrow for another TOP FIVE.
Rob Merritt A graduate of the University of Iowa Theatre Department, Rob has appeared at theatres throughout the Corridor including Theatre Cedar Rapids, Dreamwell, City Circle, Fourth Room, Brucemore, Iowa City Community Theatre, Starlighters in Anamosa, the Old Creamery and Iowa Theatre Artists Company. He’s also performed with Marshalltown Community Theatre, New Harmony Theatre in NYC, and with various professional theatres in the Midwest. As a writer, Rob’s play “The Summerland Project” was produced on the TCR Mainstage in 2013 and is currently running at the Olathe Civic Theatre in Kansas City. He’s also the former Communications Director for Theatre Cedar Rapids, and currently works as an editor for The Gazette.