Actors return for Beautiful Star

by Amy Kingsley

Actors rarely get the chance to revisit roles, particularly ones they helped create – except in the case of Beautiful Star: An Appalachian Nativity, a Triad Stage original production that debuted last year and returns to the Pyrle Theatre this week.

About three quarters of the original cast returned to rehearsals in the beginning of November. Some of the musicians, stagehands, technicians and playwright/director Preston Lane are also coming back for this year’s production.

Beautiful Star is a Bible story – several of them, in fact. It starts at creation and ends with the birth of baby Jesus, material that happens to be no stranger to dramatic treatment. What makes Triad Stage’s production different is its Appalachian sensibility, which is evident in everything from the country church prologue to the bluegrass soundtrack.

“To me, it’s just very unpretentious, very basic,” said Junious Leak, who plays Abraham and other characters. “Other types of Christmas plays may have orchestras and angels. In this one, it’s a different type of music, but it still leads up to the birth of Christ.”

Leak is one of four returning cast members seated at a folding table in the theater’s narrow break room. He and his compatriots helped Lane take the script from draft to stage. The final product resulted from a lot of hard work and collaboration.

“One of the nice things about working with Preston is that he’s very ego-free,” said Chip Johnson. “He’s very willing to accept suggestions from actors.”

This year the script is five pages shorter, and the actors are more comfortable in the roles they introduced to Greensboro audiences almost a year ago, which has relaxed some of the rehearsal stress.

“Last year we spent the whole first week doing what we call table work,” says Cinny Strickland, who plays Vestina Ledbetter. “This year, within the first three days, we had restaged the whole play. It’s been a dramatic difference.”

That’s allowed the actors to enjoy this reunion even more.

“Getting back together has been like Thanksgiving,” Johnson says.

And the familiarity the actors have developed – with each other and their characters – is allowing them to experiment with their parts.

“When you’re onstage, sometimes there are times when you wonder if that moment could be better,” Strickland says. “Then this year you get to come back and make it better. It’s just a tremendous luxury because you know what works and what doesn’t work.”

But not everything is the same this year. New actors have assumed the roles of Mary and Isaac, and some of the musicians from last year’s show did not return.

“The new Mary, Erica, is wonderful,” says Michael Tourek, who plays Joseph. “Our scene goes to a totally different place this year.”

The loss of those five pages tightened the play up considerably, Strickland says, which might have opened up enough dramatic space for a new song. The cast began rehearsing on Nov. 7 and will open the play officially on Tuesday after several nights of previews. It’s a tight schedule by Triad Stage standards.

“Eighty percent of the cast has done it before,” Tourek says, “so we have the luxury of trial by fire. Because we’ve done the play before we know it pretty well. So it sounds faster than I think it really is.”

Last year, audiences warmly received Beautiful Star, and the show sold out in its final weeks. Tickets are going fast again this year.

“The friends of mine who go to see, say, Black Nativity every year,” Leak says, “they say they don’t really feel the spirit of Christmas until they see the play. We want this play to be like that, to be something that gets you in the spirit of Christmas.”

It isn’t just the audience benefiting from a little infusion of holiday cheer.

“I’m going to do this production of Beautiful Star until I’m too old to do it,” Tourek says. “It helps me get into the holiday spirit in my own way.”

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