Augustana Musical Theater Prof Juggles Many Musical Projects
After a fairly hellish 2020, Shelley Cooper is back in musical heaven as the first half of 2021 is shaping up to be very busy and fulfilling.
The enthusiastic Augustana College assistant professor of theater arts recently filmed two special performances for Circa ’21; she’s directing a new college production of “Into the Woods” this month; choreographing the next Circa mainstage show in March, and directing the Circa musical after that; performing a one-woman original show at the Black Box Theatre in late March, and then going to Orlando, Fla., to do the same show by June.
Plus, you know, her regular musical theater teaching schedule at the private Rock Island campus.
“I’ll be busy, but I have been not busy for so much of 2020, I am welcoming and excited about this,” Cooper said recently of her full theatrical plate. “I am beyond grateful. I went from being bored out of my mind, to having a lot of exciting things on the horizon, which is very needed right now, honestly.”
Part of her pain in 2020 was seeing the Augie rock musical she was directing last spring (Green Day’s “American Idiot”) canceled before its April performances. Over 20 students were in that show, and its future is unclear. But three of the talented cast members – Ravyn Davis (sophomore), Ryan J.
Hurdle (junior) and Becca Casad (junior) – performed songs from it for the Circa ’21 cabaret, “Let’s Fall in Love,” which is available online until Monday, Feb. 22.
“It’s one of those very sensitive topics, in my opinion,” Cooper said of the Augie show. “It hurts so much. When I was going to my office for the first time this semester and found my ‘American Idiot’ score, it was just like – with all of my blocking notes in it – I don’t know. I hated-slash-loved seeing it.”
For her own recent online performances, the tremendous singer didn’t get to sing solo – either as villainous Velda in “Big Rock Candy Mountain” at Circa’s Speakeasy (available to stream until March 1) and in the exuberant “Always Be My Baby” tap number for “Let’s Fall in Love.”
For “Big Rock Candy Mountain” (an original bluegrass musical written and directed by Tristan Tapscott), Cooper didn’t mind not singing a solo, since it didn’t make sense for her character (the cruel wife of the genial mayor). “I did love singing at the end,” in the group finale, she said.
“There were so many great performances, it was nice to sit back and admire the great local performances in that show,” she said.
A 35-year-old native of Louisville, Ky., Cooper has a master’s in musical theater from University of Central Florida. She’s performed all over
the world for many companies, such as the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, Monroe Symphony, Chicago Summer Opera, Opera Quad Cities, Orlando Repertory Theatre, Shawnee Summer Theatre, Redhouse Arts Center, Varna Opera Theatre, Bangkok Theatre Festival, and the Simbiose Produções (MOVE Studio) in São Paulo, Brazil and Venetian Macao in Macau, China.
Among her performances have been Johanna in “Sweeney Todd,” Nellie in “South Pacific,” Cinderella in “Into the Woods,” Ariel in “The Little Mermaid,” Armida in “Rinaldo,” Edith in “Pirates of Penzance,” Berta in “The Barber of Seville” at the Varna Opera Theatre in Bulgaria, and the soprano soloist in Handel’s “Messiah” with Bangkok International Orchestra.
Cooper’s original one-woman show, “La Divina: The Last Interview of Maria Callas” has been performed on three continents.
She’s taught at Augie since late 2017, and the last musicals she directed on campus were “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and “Dames at Sea” (the latter for Mississippi Bend Players) in 2019.
The lives and songs of Martin (1913-1990) — vulnerable, dainty, and lovely – and Merman (1908-1984) — brassy, unapologetic, and bold – were highlighted in “Mary and Ethel: How I Learned to Sing.” They were medleys arranged by Quad-City music director, Mason Moss, in
songs from some of America’s greatest composers, such as George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Irving Berlin, Jule Styne, and Jerry Herman.
“This is how I learned to sing,” Cooper said of Mary and Ethel. “I tell my students, I didn’t learn how to sing through the 26 Italian art songs. I learned how to sing with Rodgers & Hammerstein, with Cole Porter and George Gershwin and Irving Berlin. It was listening to recordings of Mary Martin, Julie Andrews, Judy Garland, Ethel Merman and all of these gems.
“The roles I wanted to play, I wanted to either be Mary Martin or I wanted to be an Ethel Merman,” she said. “I loved both of them.”
Going back “Into the Woods”
Cooper is returning to the popular 1987 Stephen Sondheim musical, “Into the Woods,” which combines classic fairy tales with an original tale of a baker and his wife, to be performed at Augustana Feb. 25-28, only for limited audiences of students, faculty and staff.
They planned to perform “Into the Woods” in late November, scheduled before the pandemic — the first collaboration among the college opera program, musical theater and chamber orchestra. Cooper is doing stage direction; with vocal direction by Michelle Crouch, and orchestral direction by Daniel Chetel.
They wanted to give more time with the vaccine rollout and figure out “how to do a show in a Covid world,” Cooper said, noting the 21-person
cast and about 12 in the chamber orchestra will all wear masks.
They started rehearsing in September, three days a week, changing rehearsal spaces every 30 minutes, between Potter and Larson halls, disinfecting each time. They first had just a half dozen people at a time in rehearsal and the orchestra rehearsed on their own Monday nights.
Chetel came to work with singers and invited a couple singers to come to orchestra rehearsals, for some big solo numbers. “It was always about figuring out the least amount of people, trying to rehearse,” Cooper said. “It’s a challenge, but it’s worth it.”
It’s fitting because “Into the Woods” is about hope, overcoming challenges, and we all need a little bit of that now, she said.
“For students, it is something that has kept them going throughout all this pandemic,” Cooper said. “It was important for us to do something and to do something this academic school year. It was very much at the forefront of the theater department and music department’s minds.”
They rehearse in masks, six feet apart and after they leave each space, they sanitize it, and everyone has assigned seats. Everyone in cast and orchestra will be masked for performance as well.
The costumed performances can only be attended by college students, faculty and staff, at a limited audience capacity, to be determined
(likely about 30 percent), Cooper said.
They have broken the 165-minute show into sections – split between Centennial Hall with the orchestra (with some students on stage and in the hall), and after 30 minutes, they cross the street to Brunner Theatre, and perform with Michelle Crouch on piano, moving back and forth over the course of the show.
The sections in Centennial will be the larger group scenes, with a concert feel, and Brunner will have more theatricality, Cooper said. The cow “Milky White” will be brought across the street, “which will be entertaining to say the least,” she said.
“Ellen Dixon and Megan Hoppe, her assistant, have done a phenomenal job with costumes,” Cooper said. “I couldn’t be more thrilled, and they look like a million bucks.”
“It’s a really ambitious project, but the students are really rising to the occasion,” she said. “Every single one of them are coming to rehearsal, giving 110-plus-plus percent.”
“It’s a lot, but I think it works for the concept and the meaning of the show,” she added of moving between performance spaces after roughly half hours. For royalty rights, they’re not able to stream “Into the Woods.”
It also will mean more to audience members as they literally “go on this journey with us” between two buildings during the musical, Cooper said. “We’re trying to make lemonade out of lemons, with these Covid policies. This is something I think people will jump on to.”
“At the end of the day, it’s important the students are getting to experience the process,” Cooper said of “Into the Woods.”
Special memories of the show
“Into the Woods” also is special for Cooper since she played Cinderella in early 2016, in a Redhouse Arts Center production, in Syracuse, N.Y.
“I will say that with the show, I’m very happy to be in the director role,” she said. “It’s hard to be an actor in that show. I knew the next time I did that show, it would be as director, so here I am.”
At the time (2016), Cooper’s mother in Kentucky was dying from Parkinson’s as she was in dress rehearsals, and passed away on the opening night of “Into the Woods” (so her understudy went on for her). The next week, Cooper came back to do the show, for the rest of the run.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done as a performer,” she recalled, noting the Act II ballad “No One Is Alone” took on extra dramatic weight with her mom’s death (it begins, “Mother cannot guide you/now you’re on your own…”). When the pandemic was added to this past year’s adventure, Cooper thought, “You’ve gotta be kidding me.”
2016 was a hellish year, and 2020-21 is “hell in a different way,” she said. Of the moving musical, “It’s perfect for the students. It’s perfect for Dr. Crouch and Dr. Chetel’s abilities, but truth be told, there is this added level from me.”
“No One is Alone” (which Cooper sang in the show) always chokes her up and certainly is relevant during this isolating pandemic.
“Absolutely. And for our students, dealing with their struggles and things that they’ve lost – the losses they’ve gone through with this pandemic, it really has special meaning,” she said. “It’s that searching for hope but at the end of the day, the biggest message from it is, ‘no one is alone, truly.’”
In February 2016, after her opening night as Cinderella, Cooper posted on Facebook about that song – “I always thought ‘No One is Alone’ was the perfect song….I never knew how perfect until last night.” The lyrics (with extra meaning today) include: “Hard to see the light now. Just don’t let it go. Things will come out right now. We can make it so. Someone is on your side. No one is alone.”
From Thailand to “Beehive” auditions
On Feb. 12, Cooper did a Zoom vocal workshop for Mahidol University in Thailand, where she taught from 2013 to 2015.
“I helped build their musical theater program; it was such a pivotal time in my life,” she said. “I’m working with Augustana College’s study abroad, doing a Global Impact Project, and we’re bringing the world essentially to Augustana, since we can’t go see the world right now.”
The professor for Mahidol’s musical theater class will also teach Cooper’s students (on Zoom) about “The King and I” and “Miss Saigon,” and Thai musical theater.
“It was great; I had to get up at 5 in the morning, but it was well worth it,” she said, noting she’s doing three workshops. “These students gave
me so much life.”
One of her former students went on to get her master’s and teaches at that university, and Cooper got to work with some of her students. “It was amazing. I was really proud of her.”
Despite setbacks from Covid, it’s created opportunities where her students can work with a musical theater professor from Thailand. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Cooper was asked by Circa owner/producer Denny Hitchcock to direct the musical revue “Beehive,” which will start rehearsals in late April, and open in mid-May. That’ll be her Circa directing debut; she’s not performed there either.
“I love jukebox musicals,” she said. “My dad and my grandmother just ingrained that style of music in me. So all the songs, the style, I understand it, I love it. I love that style of dance.”
The show is a fun, frothy flashback to the fabulous females who unmistakably left their mark on 1960s pop music, matching big voices with
big hairdos — from the early decade bubble-gum classics to the explosive late ‘60s soul sound, according to Circa.
The “Beehive” video auditions are due Feb. 24 and they begin rehearsal April 29.
Cooper is working out maybe doing a dance callback for potential “Beehive” performers. Circa veteran musical director Ron May will return to music direct both upcoming shows.
“It seemed like a really great fit, and I was so honored that Denny asked me to do it – really honored,” she said. She’s also choreographing the first Circa musical back (since “Kinky Boots” closed in early March 2020), “The Church Basement Ladies in You Smell Barn,” starting in March. That will open in previews March 17-18.
Circa will again be limited to 50 audience members in these smaller shows, but familiar titles which should be popular, Cooper said.
“I think Denny’s being really smart about the cast size, and the titles he’s choosing,” she said. “They’re entertaining and my goodness, we
need that right now. Right now, we need some fun.”
“You Smell Barn” is the seventh installment in the very popular CBL series (which began its life at Circa in 2007 with the original), and features seven actors, while “Beehive” features six young women.
Reprising her operatic original
Cooper is bringing her “La Divina” — a one-woman show she wrote and performed first in 2010 – to Moline’s Black Box Theatre in late March. In the hour-long piece, she becomes the dramatic opera singer Maria Callas (1923-1977), including stories of Callas’ life and famous iconic arias that she was best known for singing.
It premiered at the Orlando Repertory Theatre Black Box in October 2010, later performed at the International Performing Arts Institute in Bavaria, Germany, Bangkok Theatre Festival, and KAD Theatre in Chiangmai, Thailand.
Cooper has done it at Augustana and at the Retzhof Castle in Graz, Austria as a part of the International Global Theatre Experience.
She wrote her 2010 master’s thesis on Callas, whom Cooper wrote “stressed the importance of understanding and interpreting text and music with precision, detail, specifics and artistry. Her techniques set the standard for future aspiring singer/actors.” In the 1970s, Callas lost her ability to sing, so she led master classes at the Juilliard School of Music, which inspired Tony-winning playwright Terrence McNally’s biographical play, “Master Class.”
Cooper posted on Facebook late last year that she missed doing “La Divina,” and Black Box co-owner Lora Adams asked her to perform it there, at 1623 5th Ave., Moline.
It was supposed to happen in November, but there was a big outbreak in local Covid cases, which closed theaters. Cooper has rescheduled it for March 26-28 at the Black Box, and also just got approved to do it at Orlando Fringe Festival in Florida by June.
“It’s been a dream – I’ve always wanted to do that festival,” she said. “I wrote that show in Orlando, so to get to do it 11 years later is really amazing.”
In 2010, Cooper was performing at Disney World, Universal Studios, Orlando Rep and University of Central Florida.
“What’s so interesting, ‘La Divina’ came out of a rejection,” she recalled. At first, she was to write a thesis on the evolution of the ingenue in operetta and musical theater, hoping to play Mabel in “Pirates of Penzance,” but didn’t get the part.
“I ended up coming up with this instead,” Cooper said about Callas, giving herself the challenge of writing her own show and performing it. She had been in the play “Master Class” her senior year of college (at Hanover in southern Indiana) and always loved Callas.
“I brought this idea to my chair and he enthusiastically thought it was just a great idea,” Cooper said. “I really pushed myself and that’s what your master’s thesis should be and that’s what art should be doing. At the of the day, I’m really glad I didn’t get cast in ‘Pirates of Penzance,’ so that I could write this show.
“It’s one of my greatest accomplishments and it’s something I’m really proud of,” she said.
“Master Class” — the 1995 play — took more liberties with the opera singer’s life, painting her as less sympathetic, Cooper said.
“She really wasn’t as mean as she came off in the play ‘Master Class,’ so I was trying to I guess be her defense attorney in a sense, as I was writing ‘La Divina’,” she said. “I’m very much a champion of Maria Callas, not to say she didn’t have diva tendencies, but to know the other side of the story – why she was the way that she was.”
There is much more singing in “La Divina” than “Master Class,” Cooper noted. “La Divina” may be streamed by Black Box, and Orlando Fringe will film her performance, also to be shown online.
Cooper also is thrilled she got her first dose of the Covid vaccine this month, as Augie president Steve Bahls fought for Rock Island County allowing in-person college professors to be part of vaccine phase 1B distribution. That includes K-12 teachers, residents 65+, and essential workers.
“It’s very exciting,” Cooper said. “I didn’t realize how much energy I spent worrying about catching Covid. So, getting vaccinated as soon as I’m going to – hopefully by the end of March, I’ll have my second dose March 5, there’s still a 5 percent chance I could catch it. But I will feel so much better. I already feel better knowing there’s an end in sight.”
For more on Augie’s 2021 theater schedule, click HERE.