Actor-playwright John Reeger of Riverside reflects on life in the theater; currently in ‘Gypsy’ at Drury Lane
John Reeger of Riverside is half of an acting couple who have been mainstays of Chicago theater for decades. He and wife Paula Scrofano recently shared the spotlight in “The Sound of Music” at Drury Lane, a production that broke box office records, and where he currently appears in “Gypsy.” He talks about life on stage and the unexpected success of “The Christmas Schooner,” the musical he wrote with composer and lyricist Julie Shannon.
How did you meet Paula?
We met in freshman English class (at Northwestern University) and fell in love and got married while still in school. It was kind of crazy for two people going into theater. A lot of things began happening in Chicago in the mid 1970s — a lot of plays opening up. It seemed like a good place to have a career, and it was.
Do you have a favorite type of role?
(It’s) eclectic. (I’m) at Drury Lane or Marriott doing musicals, and then I go to Court Theatre or Chicago Shakespeare and do classics. I feel really lucky to be able to go back and forth between those two somewhat distinct worlds.
How’s it felt to see ‘Christmas Schooner’ enjoy 130 productions? And are you creating other shows?
We thought we were just writing this little Christmas story. It turned into something that has become part of a lot of people’s holidays, and we’re grateful. It’s really become much more than we ever dreamed it would be. It’s tough to get new things produced. … It’s a real risk on a producer’s part. The fact we’ve had the success we’ve had, I really count my blessings. Julie and I are working on a musical about Arthur Conan Doyle (and another about) Cesar Chavez.
Describe ‘Gypsy’ and your roles.
(It has) a fabulous score, so many hit songs, and it was written by Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim and Jule Styne for Ethel Merman — four of the greatest musical theater people. They knew what they were doing. I’m playing Rose’s father in act one, and the owner of the burlesque house in act two. It’s a wonderful cast; they do such beautiful work out there. The great thing about being in Chicago (theater) all these years, it really is a community. When you go to work, you feel like you’re working with your friends and you are. What could be better than that?
[In supplying the following background on the current “Gypsy” production, Drury Lane notes that besides John Reeger, the cast includes several other suburban performers: Cheryl Avery of Bolingbrook, Zachary Gray of Villa Park, and Holly Stauder of Downers Grove.]
The six-time Tony Award-winning musical stars Klea Blackhurst as Rose. Blackhurst was hailed as “Terrific!” by The New York Times, and won a Special Achievement Award from TimeOut New York for her cabaret tribute to Ethel Merman, “Everything That Traffic Will Allow.” She starred in the London Palladium presentation of “Jerry Herman’s Broadway” with Angela Lansbury, as Ado Annie in the BBC Proms concert of “Oklahoma!” at London’s Royal Albert Hall, and has performed at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall.
The “Gypsy” cast also is led by Jeff Award-winner Andrea Prestinario as Louise, and David Kortemeier as Herbie. The production is directed by Drury Lane Theatre Artistic Director William Osetek (Jeff Award-nominee for Best Director and Best Production for “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” as well as the hit “Spamalot” at Drury Lane Theatre). The show is choreographed by Jeff Award-winner Tammy Mader.
Widely considered one of the great American musicals, “Gypsy” features music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Arthur Laurents. The Grammy Award-winning score includes “Let Me Entertain You,” “Some People” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”
A triumphant story of the complex bond between a mother and daughter, the musical is based on the 1957 memoirs of burlesque legend Gypsy Rose Lee. Mama Rose is a stage mother wildly determined to turn her two young daughters into famous vaudeville performers. For years, Rose focuses her attention on her younger, more talented daughter June. When June elopes with a dancer, Rose ruthlessly pushes her grand dreams of showbiz success onto her shy older daughter Louise.