You could say it began in a puff of smoke.
In the summer of 1994, there wasn’t much but smoke in Leavenworth. And when it cleared, there was Leavenworth Summer Theater, coming out of its first year penniless, and more or less audience-less. Its first show, “Hansel and Gretel,” had failed to draw crowds, and the venue, a middle-school gymnasium without air conditioning, hadn’t done a lot to remedy the problem.
Fast forward 20 years to this summer.
Under clear night skies, with the scent of smoke replaced by the ponderosa pines surrounding the stage, “The Sound of Music” spins its classic tale of love and loyalty. Somewhere below in the Bavarian village, Joseph triumphs over his wicked brothers in the biblical tale of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” and Ren McCormack reinstills life into the dull town of Bomont in the ’70s.
The theater began as a shared project between John Wagner, his wife, and his friend Bill Weis. After meeting in a theater program in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, Weis and Wagner shared an interest in beginning their own program in Washington. After that shakey first year, it might have been hard to believe things would improve, but with the first showing of “The Sound of Music” in 1995 success suddenly didn’t seem so far away.
“It was a huge hit in the very beginning, it was a good fit for Leavenworth — the setting is superb,” said Executive Director Susan Hufman, who’s been with the program since 1996. The show is still popular today. “When your family comes in from out of town — whether it’s your mother-in-law or your sister — you go see ‘Sound of Music.’ It’s very much a part of Leavenworth.”
The show has run every year since then, making it the program’s longest running show, as well as its largest in terms of number of shows. It is performed 20 times a year beginning the first week of July and ending on Sept. 1. The directors and everyone in the cast change from year to year … well, almost everyone.
Mother Abbess, the kindly head on the abbey in “The Sound of Music,” is played by Susan Gubsch, a Spanish and drama teacher at Cashmere High School, and has been for 18 of the show’s 19 seasons.
“That’s a lot of times singing ‘Climb Every Mountain,’ ” she laughed. Of her many roles with Leavenworth Summer Theater, she says Mother Abbess is her favorite. She has done the show in the role of Mother Abbess over 300 times.
“All the directors kind of pre-cast me, so I’m not auditioning for that anymore,” Gubsch says.
Over the years, she has seen the theater grow more professional, recalling a time when the dressing rooms were nothing but blankets thrown over tree branches, and crowds would gather, huddled in blankets before Hatchery Stage, to see the show without any of the creature comforts it has today, like Porta Potties within walking distance. Gubsch also acts as the vocal director for the cast, and assists backstage with quick changes and other tasks to keep the show running smoothly. But what’s her favorite part of “The Sound of Music?”
“The costumes,” she joked, referring to the multiple layers of her nun’s habit, which can be uncomfortable in the summer heat. Although, the discomfort doesn’t keep her and the other “sisters” from having some “nuns night out,” as Gubsch likes to call them.
“We wore our costumes and we were in convertibles and we went down to Sonic,” Gubsch laughed, recalling one of her favorite memories. Abiding by the abbey motto “Once a sister always a sister,” she hasn’t tired of the role yet. “If I do get tired, then I need to be done. It’s such an honor and a privilege to tell the story — because it’s a true story. It’s such a joyful experience.”
Another interesting twist to the story this year are the roles of Captain Von Trapp and Maria, played for the first time by a married couple.
“I’ve acted in ‘Sound of Music’ a couple times — I’ve played the Captain — and I need the Captain to be a really strong man … But at the same time he needs to believably fall in love, a lot of times you get one or the other but you can’t get both,” said director Kevin McKee.
This year, he got both. He knew during call-backs when the couple, Jenness Klein-Schrenzel and Julian Schrenzel, performed the scene in which Maria and the Captain fall in love that the chemistry was there.
“(And) her Maria is very Julie-Andrews-style Maria,” he added.
“The Sound of Music,” although the longest running, is not the only show the theater performs. The other two shows change from year to year, with shows only recycling every seven to 10 years. This year they are “Footloose,” with nine shows at the Festhalle, and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” with 13 shows on Hatchery Stage.
“Each show has their own kinds of audiences,” said Hufman. “Every year you have the people that love that show.”
This is the third year for “Joseph” with Leavenworth Summer Theater since its showings in 1997 and 2004. Yet the show reamins popular.
“It’s been well received, lots of standing ovations,” said director Tiffany Mausser, who has been directing the program for five years. “It’s such a fun show, it’s short and it’s fast paced.”
Each of the shows draws talent from as far as Seattle, or as close to home as Wenatchee. And while a large portion of the cast each year are college students working for the summer, there are adults and even high school students, like Wenatchee High Schools Jace Pauly.
Pauly, a junior at WHS this fall, is the featured dancer Jeter in “Footloose,” and though he has years of dance and theater experience under his belt and hopes to pursue theater later, this is his first year with Leavenworth Summer Theater.
“It was kind of scary auditioning because when I first got there, there were a lot of people who were in college and semi-professional actors,” he said.
He was invited to audition while performing in the WHS school musical “Phantom of the Opera.” But despite the nerve-wracking audition, he’s found the cast friendly, and the experience worth it.
“It’s been a great experience, it’s kind of changed my life by opening up my eyes to the world of professional theater,” Pauly said.
Although new actors and actresses come and go each year, Leavenworth Summer Theater has built a reputation in the area that far precedes it.
“I am just amazed when I’m walking around town and there just isn’t anyone whose seen the show that isn’t just enamoured with it,” said McKee, recounting one of many times he’s heard audience members old and new talking about the show. “It does have that buzz of being a high quality show.”
With next year’s shows being announced mid-September, the program is still going strong 20 years later.
“It has shown no signs of stopping at this point,” said Hufman. “Producing magic on stage is what they do.”