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COUNTDOWN TO JOSEPH, PART 4: Steve Poitras, Pharaoh

FMCT’s production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat may only be running for two weekends, but the show is months in the making. Over the next week, join me on a journey as I explore the theatre and talk shop with the designers, actors, and crewmembers responsible for breathing new life into this old classic.

COUNTDOWN TO
by Andy Gustafson

A theatre is often filled with voices. In fact, The Stage as a whole is usually bursting with them: actors rehearsing a scene in the classroom, singers belting out a tune in the Pavilion, tech crew chatting as they paint the set. During the business day, however, conversation is quieter and the loudest noise tends to be the telephone. It’s easy to get lost in the rhythm of routine, so it comes as quite a shock when that rhythm is broken by a deep, booming laugh in the hallway. I perk up, because this can only mean one thing:

Ladies and gentlemen, Pharaoh is in the building.

Pharaoh, the Egyptian ruler who asks Joseph to interpret his dreams, is being played by Steve Poitras, local television and radio personality and resident theatre lover. It seems only fitting to lead him into the theatre itself, where the dim light of the sconces makes the set glow golden. We settle in the front row and survey his kingdom: pyramids, palm trees. It is indeed grand. Even grander is the presence of Steve Poitras, who easily fills the empty space through the power of his voice, honed over many years of radio, television, and theatre. As he starts speaking, I immediately get comfortable because I can tell I’m not about to get any stock answers to my questions—I’m about to get at story.

“I’m out of Clay County” – thus begins Steve’s tale, but his journey takes him far from home before he finds his way back. At first his moves are small: as a child he moved from Barnesville to Moorhead, then as a college student from NDSU to MSUM. After taking part in Straw Hat for many years, he went to Illinois for graduate school. “I was actually a part of a graduate repertory company at Illinois State University from the fall of ’67 until very early ’69 [when] the draft finally caught up to me.”

Steve’s theatrical journey came to a halt as he trained for combat, and later sent overseas. “I essentially spent all of 1970 in Vietnam,” he tells me. After being released from active duty, he went back to Moorhead State to continue his graduate work, where he was immediately cast as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. “So I went from being a GI in Southeast Asia in early December to getting to play one of the greatest roles in all of musical theatre about seven weeks later,” Steve marvels. “That was a gas.”

Nor did his journey stop there. Steve had “an extensive period of drifting around,” working in Colorado and California before returning to the area. He built up his radio chops at the Brown Institute of Broadcasting in Minneapolis and spent a few years on the air in Montana. When he finally settled in Fargo, Steve worked as a weatherman for over a dozen years, and taught at Moorhead State for a dozen more. Now, though he is “basically retired,” you can still catch him Saturdays on KFGO hosting “Trivia Time.”

Despite his busy life here in town, Steve did not neglect the theatre. He worked with several companies in the region before doing his first FMCT production during the 03-04 season. He’s performed at The Stage off and on up until last December, when he played Professor Marvel in the FMCT musical production of The Wizard of Oz. Now, he continues his journey as the infamous Pharaoh in Joseph.

“One thing I’m excited about is the fact that there’s a lot of music,” he says. “Professor Marvel didn’t get to sing at all but here, I get to sing. I like to sing. I’ve got a big voice.” He booms with more laughter, momentarily drowning out the noise filtering in from the scene shop behind the set. “The songs, they’re indelible. They get into your head.”

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is indubitably a catchy show, and Pharaoh’s solo is arguably the catchiest song of the lot. It’s strange and wonderful and unforgettable at once; it’s not often, after all, you see an Ancient Egyptian god-king twisting his hips to fifties rock ’n’ roll. Traditionally, an actor playing the monarch will channel another king. The King, in fact: Elvis Presley.

“[It’s] the rendering of the big song,” Steve explains. “It’d be pretty hard not to do it a la Elvis to some degree, if not a great degree.” And Steve is definitely looking to bring that man to the table. “Obviously [Elvis had] a stage presence matched by few in history. He was so incredibly talented, and confident in that talent without being arrogant about it. I’ve read more than a little about Elvis,” he admits, but playing this role is going to be a bit more special than that.

Steve confides, “You know, I’m old enough that I was around when Elvis was brand new. I remember even before “Heartbreak Hotel,” the first song I ever heard of Elvis was “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You.” That was when I was nine years old. And I thought to myself, wow.” He shakes his head at the memory, awe still evident in his voice, all this time later. “I’ll always associate his best songs as the ones that preceded his time in the army.” And it is this young Elvis that Steve is hoping to channel. “Maybe I’ll be visited by the muse of Elvis to feel some of those moves,” he jokes.

Aside from digging The King’s style, what type of a guy is Pharaoh, really? “I think Pharaoh’s a pretty likeable character,” Steve says. “He’s number one. He’s pretty comfortable because everybody’s going to pay deference to the pharaoh.” While he does mention there are hints of darkness in the character if you know where to look, Steve then leans in as if imparting a secret: “Pharaoh isn’t afraid of making a little fun of himself.” He chuckles, and the radio-rich sound bounces off the walls.

Yet Steve leaves no doubt that people have plenty more to get excited about than Egyptian rock when they come to see Joseph. “I think [the show] has lots of appeal, from many different angles. Often the theme in many productions, whether it’s a play or movie or a book, boils down to boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, or variations [thereof],” he points out. This story does not follow that pattern. “Family loses brother, brother goes through some harrowing experiences, he triumphs and then brothers, unknowingly, meet brother again…The family that is split apart is welded back together once again.”

The story is not all that recommends Joseph.  “It’s the charming music,” he lists. “Darcy and Lauren Brandenburg [co-directors, are] really familiar with the show. They’re really experienced. Anthony Eddleston, who’s playing Joseph, has a wonderful voice. Just to the extent that I have worked with him, I couldn’t ask for more. [And] to have these charming, talented, and fun little kids in the show…” Steve smiles. “Man, that’s a treat in itself.”

It’s not just the fact that the children – several of whom co-starred with Steve in Oz as munchkins – are fun and talented. Steve points out that it’s incredible justhow much experience they have. “Fargo-Moorhead is absolutely unique, or at least it has to be very, very rare in this country, where you have the breadth of different productions of all levels going on—and the quality that is associated with them as well—you’re just continually astounded.” FMCT’s production of Joseph is a great example of this, with ages ranging from those munchkins to Steve and other castmates who will be starring in the Silver Follies production in May.

But mostly, Steve says of the show, “It is very bright in spirit, and it’s going to be bright in set and costume. After all, it’s called the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, so there’s a suggestion in and of itself.” There certainly is a reason that the dreamcoat steals a place on the marquee alongside the main character. In addition to the show’s bright spirit that honors the vividness of the coat, the many colors that make up the garment are mirrored in the pastiche of mood and style each song brings to the stage. And each character, perhaps especially Pharaoh, is a fascinating mix of different cultures and ideas in and of themselves.

Steve also follows this multicolored pattern: to FMCT he brings his vast experience in various media, his knowledge of music and places, and his enthusiastic voice to his work. Not even the interview is immune to this kaleidoscopic change; we meander from the theatre into history and language, speaking of figures from William the Conqueror to Thomas Paine, Aristotle to Freud.

As the interview – the conversation now, really – draws to a close, I’m shocked at how much time has passed since we first sat down. I figure I could sit for an hour more, just discussing every subject under the theatre house lights—er, that is, the Ancient Egyptian sun. There is no doubt that Steve’s many years standing in front of cameras, classrooms, and audiences has served him well when it comes to commanding an audience. But the show can’t go on as it must if we don’t end here.

Before we leave the theatre, though, I turn to look at the set, Pharaoh’s kingdom, one last time. It’s empty now, but soon the monarch will make his grand entrance, standing upon his pyramid and looking down at his adoring fans, Egyptian and Midwestern alike. What kind of show will he give us? What kind of journey will he take us on?

Steve, as is his wont, fills the air with his laughter. “People can come out and see: can the old bugger still do it, or what?”

I don’t know about you, but my money? It’s on yes.

See the hard work of Steve Poitras and the rest of the cast and crew come to fruition in FMCT’s production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The show runs April 4-5 and 10-12 at 7:30pm and April 6, 12, and 13 at 2:00pm.

CLICK HERE for tickets to Joseph

Join me tomorrow as I talk to the next member of the FMCT Joseph family, stage manager Tamie Maddocks.

Previously on “Countdown to Joseph” click to read

Part 1: Jeff Nibbe, Technical Director and Scenic Designer

Part 2: Mary Beth Pilon, Narrator

Part 3: Katelyn Swearingen, Choreographer

 

 

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