In keeping with a tradition of closing their season with a tent-pole musical, the Footlight Players opens the 1978 musical hit The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas this week. This year, however, an unfortunate accident led to a last-minute change in directorship.
Footlight’s artistic director Robert Ivey was originally slated to direct Whorehouse, a show that he selected for the season. But a few weeks before auditions, Ivey suffered a fall and broke his neck, necessitating a hospital stay. After casting was completed and rehearsals had started, Ivey felt it was in his best interest to take time off to heal and contacted Robbie Thomas to take over the show.
Thomas is a good choice for such an endeavor. He’s an accomplished Footlight director, having helmed five shows there in the past two years, including the recent successful run of Fat Pig and last summer’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
“It’s not a show that I knew from the beginning,” Thomas says. “There were 24 hours between taking over the show and being at rehearsal. Daunting, to say the least.” Thomas was brought in after three rehearsals led by Ivey, and the new director quickly had to work to establish the relationship and trust between himself and the cast and crew.
“I’ve done a lot of Bob’s musicals, so [there were] a few familiar faces, but at least 50 percent of the cast I didn’t know going in. Christian Self and Noah Smith are in the show, and out of five shows I’ve directed at Footlight, this is the fourth that the two of them are in. A lot of the cast are dancers with Bob’s studio and some new people who are all doing great.”
Thomas is confident about the project, despite the difference in approaches that musicals present over plays. This musical will be his first as director. “Bob Ivey said to me, ‘During a straight play, you’ve got scene after scene to build character. In a musical, there’s so much song and dance and so little scene work that you’ve gotta come out with your character working immediately.’ How to go about building that character was the biggest challenge.”
Ivey had already spoken to Richard Heffner and designed the set, put together the crew, and cast the show. It was Thomas’ job to put all the elements together and make it work. And Thomas thinks those pieces are fitting together splendidly.
John Michael Perry and Brooke McMurray serve as the choreographers, and Thomas is impressed by the results. “They’ve gotten the guys to a point where you would not believe it’s them dancing. They’re gonna steal the show.” Marsha Goldsmith is the show’s musical director. “In the final product, we’re all on the same page.”
Robbie Thomas has the Footlight experience, the blessing of Ivey (who has stayed on in a consultant capacity to the show), and the support of the cast and crew. Also going for him? The acclaim that The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas has built over 30-plus years.