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It started as a little known play about an elderly white woman and her black chauffer and ended as blockbuster that garnered a Pulitzer Prize and the Best Film of 1990. And now, a new drama from the playwright who authored Driving Miss Daisy is coming to Shelby County.
Inside the Shelby County Community Theatre, seven men and women have been rehearsing several times a week, forgetting what’s going outside on Main Street to propel their minds and voices back to December 1939. After nearly 20 more hours of preparations, they will open The Last Night of Ballyhoo on Nov. 13, one of six performances.
“I read the play and just knew I had to direct it sometime,” director Rick Reinle said. “The opportunity was presented to me and I jumped on it. Alfred Uhry is a wonderful playwright.”
Originally a series of vignettes, each featuring a different member family, Ballyhoo was inspired by Uhry’s own childhood memories. It was commissioned by the Olympic Arts Festival for the 1996 Summer Olympics and that year was performed at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre.
When Uhry revised the play for its debut in New York City, he decided to focus solely on the Freitag family – after Uhry’s own relatives. The Broadway production opened in February 1997 at the Helen Hayes Theatre, where it ran for more than 550 performances.
Reinle said he is drawn to shows that have strong, interesting characters. “This show has those,’’ he said. “Not to mention the fact that Gone with the Wind is my favorite movie, and the character of Lala [in Ballyhoo] is infatuated with the premiere and Scarlett O’Hara.”
Although Ballyhoo is set in Atlanta in December, when Hitler is invading Poland, it is true that by far the most important thing going on in Lala Levy’s life is the premiere of Gone with the Wind. And her mother has her own obsession: Who will be taking her daughter to the last night of Ballyhoo, a formal dance and highlight of Atlanta’s affluent Jewish community.
The family is pulled apart then put back together again – with plenty of romance and comedy along the way.
“It is extremely funny and at the same time it is a show about tolerance and acceptance and it’s a show about family, however twisted they are,” Reinle said.
Reinle, who was a theater major in college, acted with a professional children’s theater, The Blue Apple Players, for three years, touring around the state and the country. He then directed several shows in his hometown of Taylorsville, when the Spencer County Arts Council was formed. Reinle also has directed at Little Colonel’s Theatre, Anchor Theatre and Shelby County Community Theatre.
Acting, though, “is my first love,” said Reinle, whose favorite roles have included Billy in Little Mary Sunshine
and Fagin in Oliver.
Reinle previously has worked with all but two of the current Ballyhoo cast members. “They are truly some of the most talented people it has been my pleasure to work with,” he said. “Theater is rare in that you get to know one another so well because you truly open yourself up in the process of the development of your character.”
There has not been anything particularly challenging about directing Ballyhoo, Reinle said. ““I suppose you always want to be true to the playwright’s intent – and I hope I have done that.”
And that includes the stage itself. Earlier this month volunteers began the painstaking process of turning a Cat-and-the-Hat-themed set from the previous Seussical Jr. performance into the home of Adolph Freitag, the head of the Jewish family so highly assimilated they have a Christmas tree in the front parlor.
Cook Farmer, Shawn Shelton, Cyndi Skellie and Gary Steinhilber paid attention to every detail as they worked on an arch in what will eventually become the living room. Fortunately, Shelton has more than just an interest in theater. He’s also a civil engineer.
“It’s the first time we’ve ever had a civil engineer on set,” Steinhilber said. So perfection, they hoped, is in this performance’s future.
Want to go?
Tickets to Last Night of Ballyhoo at the Shelby County Community Theatre go on sale today. Performances will be Nov. 13-15 and 20-22. Tickets are $14 for adults, $12 for seniors and $10 for students. For reservations call 502-633-0242.