In any film or TV show, there are assorted people needed beyond the principal actors: party guests, shoppers, students in classrooms or assemblies, people playing in a park, etc. Traditionally, they have been referred to as “extras,” but there is a movement afoot to rename them “background actors.” It’s a pretty standard experience in Hollywood East to have a turn of waiting in a tent all day to then stand onset in silence in carefully selected clothing, devoid of loud colors, language or logos—all for about $65 a day, three meals and the opportunity to be close to the magic.
“Extra! Extra! The Musical” by Frank Trimble, currently showing at Big Dawg’s Cape Fear Playhouse, captures the painful reality of this world with empathy, generosity and just a touch of hope (not surprising for anyone who knows Trimble). It’s actually a brilliant idea for a script, not only for a local production—since it speaks clearly to many people’s experiences, hopes and losses—but also to a larger, relatable aspiration for audiences across the country.
“Extra! Extra!” follows the exploits of a group of movie extras waiting to be called to set. In the meantime they share their life stories that have brought them there. In theory, they are preparing should the film’s director ask them about themselves, but something deeper and pathological begins to emerge. It would be impossible not to draw parallels with “A Chorus Line,” the famous musical exploring the lives of chorus dancers. Where “A Chorus Line” looks at the sacrifices a group of people have made in order to find success as working performers in New York (not stars but working performers), “Extra! Extra!” looks at assorted versions of desire, denial and blind delusion in which these people dwell.
The production assistant in charge of the extra’s tent, Maggie Demo (Alex Wassil), has heard it all before and isn’t impressed at all. Actually, for act one she has perfected the amazingly put-upon and irritated attitude that seems to be de rigueur for film technicians (in spite of the fact that they are getting paid to make movies, for God’s sakes—it’s not that awful). At the top of her list of irritations is Leonard Sheldon (Fracaswell Hyman), a perennial extra with an over-inflated enthusiasm and a maxim for all occasions. Hyman’s comedic sense saves his character from being an object of pity and aggravation. His rendition of Linus in the “Charlie Brown Christmas,” coupled with the song “For the Camera,” redeems every bit of his beforehand whining encouragement.
The self-congratulating infused denial of responsibility that characterizes many roles is, unfortunately, pretty accurate—beginning with two beautiful high school people: Slate Grey (Rob Ward) and Melissa Patterson (Jocelyn Henry), the respective athlete and cheerleader. Their downward spirals were triggered by not getting everything they wanted immediately before they could vote. In Slate’s case, it was taking a lesser role in the school play; with Patterson, discovering she could possibly be wrong (as well as used by someone else the way she previously used them) was so shocking she has never recovered. So now instead of staring in the film, they are reduced to lives as extras, with nothing ever really going right for them ever again. Still, they are both beautiful and young enough they could one day mature to be decent people (not likely but possible). Their stories, like all the vignettes, unfold with various other cast members performing assorted minor parts, which really plays nicely with the theme of the show. Heather Lindquist-Bull’s rendition of super-soppy Mrs. Krispinsky almost upstages our cute little cheerleader … almost. Sour grapes continue with a theft of a science fair award for Carmella Horvath (Leslie Anne Pierce) and the perfect role for Terry Murphy (Julie Andrews). Both ladies’ voices are lovely, and Pierce has a story filled with not only humor but genuine pathos that carries the audience on a road of “surely this can’t be true.” (She convinces with the skill of a pathological liar.)
But my favorite vignette, without question, came when Paula Quattro (Lauren Gehring) detailed her own personal awakening. The story of parents who begin introducing her as a doctor at a young age reminded me of one of the sweetest, ditsiest young ladies I have ever known, whose mother wanted her to be a neurosurgeon. If ever there was someone you wouldn’t trust with your brain and a knife, it was her. Much like her real-life counterpart, Gehring’s Quattro struggles with parental expectations and a world she doesn’t quite fit into. Trimble is an educator, so it’s not surprising his solution for Quattro emerges through her liberal arts courses which allow her to try things she never felt were options. On the way to that discovery, Trimble has written a wonderful monologue about her calculating potential self-bonding elements on the periodic table and getting the answer right in class because of “Star Trek.” Gehring’s path to self knowledge during the monologue, specifically, is so wide-eyed and filled with moments of genuine amazement and discovery, I couldn’t help but swell with joy and excitement at her personal achievement. The story is lovely; her performance sold it.
Act two takes a different turn, starting with Michelle Reiff (also the music director and half of the onstage band). Reiff recounts growing up as a child of touring musicians. Act two also introduces the most adorable cast member, aspiring Food Network star Kimberly Stevens (Marley Bell). WC Fields was quoted as saying he didn’t work with kids or dogs, and Bell’s sweet and lovely performance as the pint-sized food-star-to-be is pretty tough with which to compete. However, the end of the act is where Trimble has stored deeper psychological questions. Careful building and audience buy-in have prepared both them and cast some truths about the world that are presented in a cloak of humor. Surely, they would be almost too hard to hear straight on without a laugh.
A twist on the coming-out story, LGBT advocate Marle Mattingly (Marie Andrascik) faces impact on her dreams of stardom. She’s so baffled about it that both she and the audience seem uncertain how to hope for resolution. It can be hard to achieve that paradox with an audience. Andrascik seems to sum the theme of the whole show in “Back Up Plan.” She explores the pain and frustration of the assumption by family and friends that she will never grow up or succeed.
David Bollinger brings us the frustrated (and clearly unsuccessful) would-be scriptwriter who resorts to teaching at a community college. He radiates anger and disappointment, so is it any surprise that no one wants to work with him? Like most angry young men (to misquote Billy Joel), he doesn’t see it.
Providing an additional through-line is aspiring country star Hank Mills (Kirk Robertson, also the other half of the onstage band). His evolving song—which hits every stereotype of country music, beginning with Bad Country “Duke” (losing your dog), then Bad Country “Ram” (losing your truck),and Bad Country “Ho” (losing your woman)—collectively make a series of humorous interludes that actually build to real personal growth. Robertson is fun to watch and sings beautifully, giving a sort of cross between John Mayer and Brad Paisley.
Really, the whole cast is fun to watch. It’s not surprising Trimble uses a fun and ironic take on the challenges and pitfalls of chasing dreams to actually inspire people to do it. “Extra! Extra!” reminds what those dreams feel like and why they are important to who we are. Yet, it manages to make us laugh at ourselves at the same time.