October 2022
Hello, Toni!
A diva role to thrill Tennille fans

At age 82 it would seem unlikely for Prescott resident celebrity Toni Tennille to take the stage in the lead role of a big musical like Hello, Dolly!, but she’s more than ready for the show to go on, particularly after a two-year pandemic delay.

The delay “really worried me, even though I’m in really great shape,” Tennille said. “But that’s a big thing to ask for a woman who will be 82 when she steps on that stage for the first performance. I know I can do it, but it’s still scary. On the other hand, I went back and I read The Matchmaker, Thornton Wilder’s book that Dolly was based on, so I could get a better idea of the Dolly character. And I had met Carol Channing several times throughout my career, including at the White House.”

Those who have played the role on stage include Bette Midler, Pearl Bailey, Phyllis Diller, Ethel Merman, Martha Raye and Ginger Rogers, not to mention Barbra Streisand on film. When she plays the irrepressible matchmaker Dolly Levi, Tennille will be seven years older than Carol Channing was when she last played the role at 75 on Broadway.

Fortunately Tennille’s voice and physical abilities are still impressive. She admits that her voice isn’t what it used to be and has dropped to a lower range, but it’s also stronger after training for three years with Darrell Rowader, the founder of Prescott Pops, to sing operatically in performances at Prescott Center for the Arts and also for demanding roles in the Prescott Master Chorale.

In short, Tennille can still belt it out with the best of them, and her voice is distinguishable above the entire chorus.

Toni Tennille rehearses with dancers on the YCPAC stage

Even so, it might seem surprising for Tennille to take on the physical demands of such a role, and even waive compensation for her twelve performances in November, giving up her Actors Equity Association membership to do so. She said she had two motivations for taking it on: she wanted to support the Yavapai College theatre department, and to perform a role she’s always loved but never had the opportunity to do.

“I’m a pro and I can set an example for the other people, young people,” Tennille said. “You’re on time, you know your lines, you appear at all rehearsals, and if you’re not going to be there, you let people know. You always represent the company with a positive attitude. It’s the professional ethics of theatre that they’re learning, and it’s hard for these kids because a lot of them are working and they’re in school, too.”

Having Tennille in the lead role has already attracted the kind of publicity that would be impossible to buy. Publications including Broadway World and websites such as TheaterMania, Expedia and local websites and magazines have been promoting the musical and marveling that Tennille is the lead. She will be doing TV and radio interviews leading up to opening night.

Dr. Craig Ralston, director of performing arts at Yavapai College, who is co-directing and playing the lead role of Horace Vandergelder the “half-millionaire,” says that working with Tennille has been “a little bit surreal.” He grew up in Zimbabwe and knew her music from the Captain and Tennille albums.

“To be from another country and to know these big stars as a young teen …, it’s a fabulous experience,” Ralston said.

Like Tennille, Ralston has embraced his role with gusto, even learning how to tap dance for a scene in his character’s store. For that matter the entire cast started dance-conditioning in January to prepare for the demands of the musical, then began choreography rehearsals in May. The 50 cast members include Yavapai College students, high-school students and community members. Unlike in a Broadway musical, where actors are already trained coming into rehearsals, they had to start from the ground up, Ralston said.

In a recent rehearsal most of the cast is moving in unison on the stage, Ralston calling out direction and clapping the rhythm, “Walk, walk, walk — glide, glide glide,” and the dancers begin waltzing. A line of professionals shaping the musical are seated at a table facing the cast, including Assistant Stage Manager Brian Moultrup, Co-director Scottie Scott, YC choral-music Director Dr. Josh Harper, Choreographer Pam Zahnzenger, and accompanist Laura Taylor. It’s six weeks before the first performance.

Alyssa Ebel, Tennille and Luis Tovar practice a trio number

“Right now, at this level, we could be two weeks out and be okay, it’s come together well, which is great for everyone on this stage because they won’t feel rushed,” Ralston said. This despite that most Broadway stagings of the musical have had as few as 18 in the cast and up to 24, as opposed to 50. Ralston said he felt it was important “as an educational institution” to bring in as many local performers as possible to gain experience. The large stage also accommodates more performers.

“The Performing Arts Center is definitely the jewel in the crown of Prescott, without a doubt,” Scott said.

Tennille carries most of the musical’s dialogue, and has been preparing for months. She previously performed in a Broadway touring company of Victor/Victoria, proving her chops as a comedic actress, a dancer, and of course a singer who can deliver while acting and dancing, though the dancing has been pared down for her in this role.

“I’m not bragging, I’m just telling you I’m a very good comedic actress,” Tennille said. “You either have comic timing or you don’t. And it’s like that with musicians who play jazz and stuff. Either you can swing or you can’t. You can’t teach a person how to swing, you know what I mean by that — taking liberties with the time and the melody but staying where you’re supposed to be.”

As an up-and-coming singer and actress in the early ‘70s, Tennille previously performed in many musicals in Los Angeles-area theatres, including South Coast Repertory and Laguna Beach Playhouse. Among her roles were Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Auntie Mame in Mame, and a dancer in Sweet Charity.

She said she likes the character of Dolly for her wit, her grit and her determination to get what she thinks she deserves. She also thinks that Dolly’s romantic views and belief in herself at a time when women didn’t even have the right to vote are “touching.”

“This was first staged in the Sixties, and the women’s rights movement had started,” Tennille noted.

But mostly Tennille loves the songs for their classic sing-ability.

“She sings ‘Before the Parade Passes By,’ which is meaningful to a lot of women who are getting to be of a certain age who might look and say, like Dolly did, ‘Wait a minute, you know, I gotta get back into life again.’ Everybody's on stage and we have a huge parade. Dolly’s under a spotlight singing it very softly, and she's talking to (her late husband) Ephraim when the parade passes by.”

Tennille expressed delight at the original costumes that the theatre’s costume department has created. When she was on The Captain and Tennille TV show, Bob Mackie designed her flashy dresses, as he did for Cher and her variety show. The costumes, staging and depth of the cast all make it far more professional than she expected.

Costume renderings for the cast of 50 line the shop wall

“It's just like Bob Mackie, except you don't have the beautiful lighting for trying on dresses,” Tennille said. “They're doing 50 costumes for this show. And there are 27 musicians — a full orchestra in the pit — a chorus offstage to blend with chorus onstage, because of course on stage is dancing and singing all the time. Sometimes we want to make sure there's plenty of choral sound, so, bless their hearts, these people are back there singing along with the chorus. I was so impressed.”

Tennille has four costume changes, and says all of the dresses are “gorgeous” and the hats are “exquisite.” “Dolly looks fabulous every time she goes out.”

Tennille said fans from across the country will be coming to see her in the show at the Yavapai College Performing Arts Center, which pleases her immensely. She even asked her longtime publicist to help out, and that’s begun to give coverage of the production a national bump. “It'll be good for Prescott,” Tennille said. “I always promote Prescott and the college whenever I get the chance.”

While she’s savoring the experience, Tennille says this will be her last musical, because she doesn’t want to push her luck or fail to give the audience a quality experience. She will, however, continue to sing in local choral performances.

Like Tennille, Ralston said that the Prescott-area community’s degree of involvement and support for the arts, as well as its deep talent pool to draw on, make it that much more meaningful for him.

“We are a community college and we are a community,” Ralston said. “It’s not just 18-to 24-year-olds, it’s a variety of people who want to be in the arts. That’s what it takes for a production like this to come together.”

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