How a Summer Stock Gig Turned Into 10 Off-Broadway Debuts

Special Features   How a Summer Stock Gig Turned Into 10 Off-Broadway Debuts
 
Meet the leading players of Fiorello!, who make their Off-Broadway debuts after the Berkshire Theatre Group production unexpectedly transferred to New York City.
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The cast of Fiorello! Monica Simoes

“This was a little show up in Stockbridge,” says director Bob Moss. The cast “put their hearts into it, and we were just doing it up there. Suddenly, that Wall Street Journal [review] came out, and wallets opened up, and people said, ‘You’ve got to take it into New York.’”

So to New York City the show went. The Berkshire Theatre Group’s revival of Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, George Abbott and Jerome Weidman’s Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning musical Fiorello! officially opened September 9 at The East 13th Street Theater, and cast members from the BTG production were granted their professional Off-Broadway debut.

Overnight, the summer stock gig turned into a New York City run through October 7.

“I had heard that it was a young company,” says Harnick, “and I was curious to see how young they were. When I looked, I thought, ‘They can do it!’ They’re not that young. They’re young, they’re eager, they’re enthusiastic. What I love about it is many—I think most—of these performers don’t know this show, and their enthusiasm for it is very touching for me.”

Get to know the ten who gained their first Off-Broadway credit.

Fiorellorehearsal_HR_4704.jpgAustin Lombardi
Austin Lombardi Monica Simoes

Austin Scott Lombardi
Age: 21
Hometown: Pittsfield, MA
Role: Fiorello

“Performing has always been a passion of mine, so having an opportunity to do theatre in New York has always been a goal, but not one I ever fathomed would come true—especially with such a wonderful group of people and so soon in my career,” says Lombardi. The show’s leading man first got into theatre when his older brother, Codey, auditioned for the school musical in eighth grade—and Austin followed suit. Codey landed the lead role of Jesus in Godspell, while Austin was in the ensemble—but that never deterred him from following his dreams. He finished high school a year early, graduated college by age 20 and pounded the performer pavement.

When he learned that Fiorello! was transferring to New York City, his brother was the first person he called. “I'll never forget that day,” he says. “It was simply a magic moment. I started crying instantly. All I wanted to do was tell my mom, so I called her, and she didn’t answer. So I ended up calling my brother, and talking to him for a couple minutes before I had to sprint over to the theatre and do the show.”

Michael Sullivan
Age: 22
Hometown: Guilford, CT
Role: Neil

“Because of school and summer jobs, I unfortunately haven't had that many opportunities to audition for professional theatre,” says Sullivan. “I am very new to the city, and I have found it challenging to get my foot in the door. I’m hoping that with more time and research I’ll be able to find the kind of jobs that I will thrive in.”

Luckily for him, though, Fiorello! marks his Off-Broadway debut, though he was in disbelief that the show was transferring. (He thought the cast was in trouble when they were gathered for the announcement that they’d all move to the city with the show.)

The “adventure” is what inspires him to keep pursuing his theatre dreams. “As an artist, I know that job security isn’t a part of my career choice,” he says. “Although that’s incredibly stressful, it’s so exciting! I have worked 9-5 jobs on breaks from school, and even though I had a steady paycheck, it wasn’t as thrilling as making theatre. Each production is a new adventure, and I’ll be able to look back on them with fond memories. Each experience will teach me new things and introduce me to new places and new people. I’m definitely nervous for my future in the arts, but my excitement outweighs my fear.”

Ana Lorvic
Age: 23
Hometown: Chicago, IL
Role: Mrs. Pomerantz

Lorvic wasn’t in the initial run of Fiorello! in the Berkshires, but she had a few friends in the production, so when she found out that the show was transferring to New York City, she thought, “Huge congratulations to them!” She admits, “I had no idea at the time that I would soon be joining them.”

She was bit by the theatre bug in eighth grade, when she starred as Golde in her elementary school’s production of Fiddler on the Roof. “The first time I made the audience laugh, I was hooked,” she says. Then, during sophomore year of high school, “I was in a production of All My Sons, and it was the only thing I thought about all day while I was in class. Someone told me it was possible to do that for the rest of my life, and I was sold.”

Chelsea Cree Groen
Age: 24
Hometown: Phoenix, AZ
Role: Dora

Groen isn’t new to professional theatre. As she says, “My big claim to fame as a child performer was playing Annie in Annie at regional theatres all around the country. I was Annie at The Ogunquit Playhouse, West Virginia Public Theatre and The Starlight Theatre in San Diego when I was 10-12.”

However, her theatrical journey came with a few challenges along the way. “I have had several health challenges in the last four years that have really made it difficult for me physically and mentally to perform at my fullest capacity,” she admits. “Probably the toughest situation for me thus far was when I was in Utah rehearsing for a production of Fiddler on the Roof with Pioneer Theatre Company last year, and doctors there discovered that I had a 10cm cyst on my ovary that required immediate surgery, which was pretty invasive, so I had to undergo the surgery by a doctor I had just met in a new town and had to drop out of the show because of the recovery period. That really took a toll on me because I was just so sad that I couldn’t finish out the run. But I moved on and haven’t let these various ailments stop me from pursuing my dream. I have the most wonderful and supportive parents in the world. They have constantly encouraged me and loved me no matter what. But I think ultimately my own passion and drive is what keeps me going in the hardest of times. I’ve obviously had my doubts about this unstable career, as most people have, but I keep coming back to it!”

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Chelsea Cree Groen and Dan Cassin Monica Simoes

Daniel Cassin
Age: 22
Hometown: Clarendon Hills, IL
Role: Floyd

Though Cassin is living the dream getting to perform in New York City—after studying with New York University’s New Studio on Broadway: Musical Theatre program—he’s still working three other jobs while performing Off-Broadway. “It’s definitely hard,” he confesses. “Waking up at 4:30 AM to work a 5:30 AM shift at Soul Cycle, followed by immediately high-tailing over to Queens to walk two sets of dogs, then straight to rehearsal for nine hours or hosting at a restaurant on my off nights…has definitely been grueling. I never expected that it would be so challenging just to make ends meet as an actor. It had always been this theoretical idea, but now I’m really living it. But I’ll tell you what, I may be a naïve, recent college graduate, but I wouldn’t change anything about my situation. I love that I work for my money and get to experience NYC in so many different capacities.”

He first found theatre when a church cantor was in search of singing children for a Chicago production of The Sound of Music… and his mother volunteered him. She also serves as his daily inspiration. “Cheesy and clichéd as it is, she is my guiding star,” he says. “It’s difficult because we are so close, but now live so far apart. No matter what show, the distance, the money, she always found a way to get there and support me. She has sacrificed so much for me, and I will always be eternally grateful. I find solace in the hope that one day I will be able to give her everything she’s ever dreamt of. Thank you to the best friend and mother a boy could ever ask for.”

Michael Brahce
Age: 30
Hometown: Cedar Park, TX
Role: Ensemble

Brahce’s first professional theatre job was as an artist-in-residence with Berkshire Theatre Group. During a summer as an acting apprentice there, he really began to think about pursuing a career in the theatre. “Since that time I've had dreams of performing in Off-Broadway and Broadway shows,” he says, “but the main career goal lately has been to be able to make a living as an artist, and perhaps one day be able to support a family while doing so.”

When he learned that Fiorello! was transferring to New York City, “it was a moment of pure joy,” he says. “It’s always exciting to have the opportunity to revisit a particular show or project, and to have the chance to do it in NYC is an amazing privilege. The news of the show transferring also made the end of the run in Stockbridge a little easier, knowing I would be seeing a lot of the team again soon and that I had another artistic job waiting for me when I returned to NYC.”

Brahce says he constantly keeps in mind three Fs as he continues a career in the arts: faith, family and friends. “Knowing that there is a larger plan for me, that I was created for a purpose, and that there is more in store than what’s happening here and now is a huge comfort and relief,” he says. “Having an extremely supportive and loving family, helping remind me of who I am and keeping me grounded is something I am thankful for every day. The friends and fellow artists I’ve met along the way continue to encourage me and inspire me to persevere through challenges I’ve encountered.”

Katie Birenboim
Age: 21
Hometown: New York, NY
Role: Marie

“Appearing in a musical in NYC has been my greatest dream for as long as I can remember,” says Birenboim. “When I was four, I dressed up for Halloween as a ‘Broadway star’ (my own words at the time)—complete with a blonde wig, a zebra print hat, long white gloves, and more sequins than you could count.” Her first brush with theatre was seeing a production of Peter Pan in Connecticut, and she cried at intermission because she thought that the show was over.

So learning that Fiorello! was transferring to the city was big news for Birenboim. “What a whirlwind that was!” she says. “Honestly, my first thoughts were of disbelief, and then, of gratitude. It still hasn’t quite sunk in that I’m making my NY professional debut three months after I graduated from college. Wrestling with the unknown is the hardest thing by far for me. What's the right approach? What's the right audition song? Will it work? Will it happen? It makes this opportunity, to work on Fiorello! professionally so soon out of college, that much more meaningful for me.”

Rylan Morsbach
Age: 27
Hometown: Belchertown, MA
Role: Ben

Talk about being bit by the theatre bug! When Morsbach was around five-years-old, he played a “freakishly large cricket” that was “outfitted in a trash bag and wearing green pipe cleaners glued to a headband,” but he officially got into theatre during middle school.

His first professional gig was a production of Rabbit Hole in Wilmington, NC, where he attended college. “At that time Linda Lavin and Steve Bakunas had a studio theatre in town, and by some crazy luck they cast me,” he says. “They are lovely people and consummate theatre artists; I learned a lot on that show.” Fiorello! marks his first show in New York City, and he says that he’s “still figuring out my exact career goals! But performing in NYC has been an ambition for a while. I’m from New England, so it's been hard to be in theatre and not feel a sort of gravitational pull in this direction.”

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Rebecca Brudner Monica Simoes

Rebecca Brudner
Age: 21
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY
Role: Thea

“I’ve always wanted to perform, since I was a little girl,” says Brudner. “I remember when I was six going to see a Broadway show and sitting right next to the orchestra pit. Before the show started, I was so excited by the instruments, and I kept talking to my parents about how I wanted to play the violin. One of the violinists in the orchestra heard me and stood up and asked if I wanted to ‘play’ his violin (he held it and moved his fingers on the fingerboard while I moved the bow). I was enchanted. That’s one of my earliest memories of the magic of music and of Broadway. So, whether it was through playing music, dancing or doing theatre, I’ve always known that performing was what I loved most and what I wanted to do professionally.”

Brudner recently graduated college from Yale University before getting cast in Fiorello! “Having the support of my parents has always been integral to keeping me positive and motivated,” she says. “They have always encouraged me to keep pushing, training, working and believing in myself. Also, seeing people close to me take on challenging careers—my brother is currently getting his PhD in neurobiology (talk about difficult), and my boyfriend is also pursuing a theater career and just started acting graduate school—reminds me that I’m not alone in wanting a career doing what I love, even though it isn’t easy.”


Matt McLean
Age: 22
Hometown: Babylon, NY
Role: Morris

When McLean learned that Fiorello! was heading to New York City, “the first thing I thought was, ‘Matt stop crying.’ It was a true burst-into-tears moment,” he says. “I actually cried so much that some of my cast mates just flat out started laughing (I’m told it was actually really funny). I felt like we were on a TV show or we were being pranked. It’s a dream come true; it’s something that doesn’t happen in real life. We’re all still trying to wrap our heads around the fact that we’re here in NYC doing this incredible show.”

After all, he knew that he wanted a life in theatre from a very young age. He saw The Lion King on Broadway when he was four years old and was jealous of all the actors up onstage. “Granted, I hadn’t decided to pursue a career in theatre at age four, but I think the seed steadily grew from that moment on,” he says. It was when he played Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors that he knew he wanted to pursue theatre as a career. “As little 12-year-old Matt stood on the Babylon Junior Senior High School stage yelling the final notes of ‘Don’t Feed the Plants’ (terribly off key because #puberty), something clicked. I never wanted that final note to end. I could’ve sung ‘PLAAAANTS’ all day; I was addicted to being onstage. Even if I didn’t know it then, I found my home.”

Michael Gioia is the Features Manager at Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.

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