Exit stage right
Former local theater members take a bite out of the Big Apple
Coy Middlebrook remembers being an 11-year-old boy growing up in Chico watching the Kennedy Center Honors on television, a yearly habit for him and his family.
“I still hold that as one of the best nights of television,” said the well-spoken Middlebrook, on location in Toronto as associate director of the national stage tour of Disney’s High School Musical. “I remember saying to myself, ‘Maybe one day I’ll work at the Kennedy Center.’ ”
That day has come. The 39-year-old—who has worn many hats as a director, choreographer and actor—was asked in March of this year to direct the world-premiere performance of the stage adaptation of Marlee Matlin’s book Nobody’s Perfect. The show debuts this fall in the Kennedy Center’s Performances for Young Audiences Series.
In May Middlebrook found himself, after a long, busy day of casting for the play, “standing on the terrace of the Kennedy Center, looking out, seeing the Washington Monument and everything all around me … and [thinking] of that 11-year-old boy … what a charged moment!”
What makes his dream come true even sweeter is the fact that his close friend, former Chico playwright and director Tim McDonald, is also directing an upcoming play at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., later this year, in the same Young Audiences Series.
McDonald, who followed on the heels of Middlebrook to New York City to pursue a career in theater, will direct the world premiere of the musical stage adaptation of Norton Juster’s classic 1961 children’s book, The Phantom Tollbooth.
It’s the quintessen- tial story of two small-town boys whose passion and talent for theater saw them rise through the ranks locally—making an unmistakable, memorable mark on local theater—before moving on to the big proving ground of the New York City stage.
McDonald moved to Chico in the fall of 1984 from what he calls “the whopping metropolis of Anderson,” a small town of 11,000 just north of Red Bluff. The two friends met when McDonald was a 17-year-old freshman at Chico State in the theater department. Middlebrook was 16 and attending Chico High School, but he’d already experienced theater at Chico State, an involvement that he began as a Bidwell Junior High student when he acted in a production of Oliver.
They ended up forming Chico City Light Opera, a now-defunct (this year is the 10th anniversary of its closing) musical-theater company. The company was highly regarded, and rose from humble beginnings with its first production in 1990 of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado (staged at the original Wall Street Center for the Arts) to become a nonprofit and make a permanent home at the Eaton Road Opera House in 1991. It eventually went on to produce an annual show at Laxson Auditorium.
CCLO thrived with the help of such fellow local theater luminaries as Rob Greene, Dan Valdez and Romney Clements, to name a few—some of whom have gone on to work in theater beyond Chico. Greene, for one, is also working in New York City. CCLO’s productions of such stage gems as Hair, Love! Valor! Compassion! (co-produced with The Blue Room) and the West Coast premiere of Stephen Sondheim’s Passion set the standard for excellence in theater for seven years in this community.
“They always thought big, dreamed big, and brought out the best in those that they worked with,” said Daran Goodsell, marketing director for Chico State’s Chico Performances, who used to do the marketing and PR for CCLO.
The final show at CCLO was La Cage Aux Folles, directed by Pat Kopp, in the fall of 1997. Middlebrook had already departed in 1994 for New York where, after the expected grueling big-city pavement-pounding, he made an impression on Broadway director Jeff Calhoun, who started hiring Middlebrook to associate-direct on certain Broadway productions. McDonald, however, was with CCLO until the end.
“We closed, and two weeks later I moved to New York City,” McDonald recalled.
Since moving to the Big Apple, Middlebrook and McDonald haven’t seen a lot of each other until recently, contrary to what a lot of Chicoans would surmise when the two would come home to visit.
“When Tim and I came home, people thought we were together in New York,” Middlebrook explained. “But we weren’t really. We each separately had to find our way in.”
Middlebrook’s way in was helped greatly by Calhoun’s early recognition of his directing talent, which led to Middlebrook’s being asked to go to Los Angeles (and then Broadway and the historic Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., before touring internationally). In L.A. he served as associate director in 2001 for Deaf West Theatre’s Tony-award-winning landmark production of Big River, an adaptation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn featuring both deaf actors using American Sign Language and hearing/speaking actors.
His involvement with Deaf West led directly to being chosen to direct Nobody’s Perfect, which tells the story of a deaf girl’s experiences in a hearing world. Like Big River, the production uses deaf and hearing actors.
McDonald is generally recognized as a trailblazer in American family theater for his impressive work on such adaptations as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (actually his first Kennedy Center production, which broke attendance records in 1995) and his work with Music Theatre International developing the first educational division in a major musical-licensing firm. He has also worked with Disney Theatricals on stage adaptations of eight different Disney animated films and founded the influential New York City youth-oriented theater company iTheatrics.
Kim Peter Kovac, production director for the Young Audiences series at the Kennedy Center, with whom McDonald first worked more than a decade ago, called McDonald and asked him, “Do you know a Coy Middlebrook? We’re looking at him to direct Nobody’s Perfect.”
McDonald confidently recommended Middlebrook, telling Kovac about their long association and their 200-plus shows with CCLO.
“A number of us from Chico are toiling here in New York; it’s what you do at our age,” said the charming McDonald, speaking by phone during rehearsal as director for A Year With Frog and Toad, the Tony-nominated musical adaptation of Arnold Lobel’s popular Frog and Toad children’s books. “The 40s seem to be the magic decade, but I don’t want to work this hard when I’m 50.”
McDonald worked with Juster and well-known lyricist Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof among his numerous credits) on the musical adaptation of Phantom Tollbooth—a story about a boy who enters a magical world after going through a mysterious tollbooth that appears in his bedroom—which the Kennedy Center picked up after seeing it in a workshop production.
Middlebrook said he and McDonald feel good about bringing a little slice of Chico to the East Coast.
“The Kennedy Center does two children’s productions a year, and this year it’s me and Tim,” Middlebrook said. “This year, Chico’s got it. … It’s wonderful that [Tim and I] are starting to work our way back toward each other and run in the same circles again.”