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Uptown talent tell a dark tale

By David Dixon

‘Follies: In Concert’ debuts this month

Stephen Sondheim may be considered one of the greatest living songwriters in musical theater, but some of his work is rarely produced in San Diego. However, Uptown residents will help bring “Follies” — a story he developed with book writer, James Goldman —  to the local theater scene.

“Follies” is a story about former performers of the fictitious Weismann’s Follies. Many of the stars — including the unhappy Sally Durant Plummer (Debbie David), movie actress Carlotta Campion (Lesley Knoth Pearson) the master of ceremonies Roscoe (Ryan Deitrich) — show up for an evening to celebrate the musical revue. Several of their personal lives are explored as they say goodbye to the Weismann Theater before the building is demolished.

(l to r) Bankers Hill resident and director Vanessa Dinning; music director and Talmadge resident William BJ Robinson (Photos courtesy of Coronado Playhouse)

A concert version of the dark tale — fittingly titled “Follies: In Concert” — is playing for a limited run at the Coronado Playhouse starting Aug. 31, directed by Bankers Hill resident Vanessa Dinning.

Before establishing residency in San Diego approximately 11 years ago, Dinning lived in the U.K., where she performed in other Sondheim productions including “Company,” “Sweeney Todd,” and “Into the Woods.”

“I’m such a Sondheim fan,” Dinning said. “I think he’s a genius.”

Dinning previously worked for the San Diego Shakespeare Society as the artistic director. During her time working for the organization, she heard about an opportunity to direct a pre-show at the Coronado Playhouse. Eventually, she became the director of artistic planning and marketing as well as a board member of the theater.

Similar to most people involved with the arts, Dinning is a woman of many talents. The performer, dialect coach, cellist, pianist, and singer has trouble picking a favorite artistic pastime.

“Whatever I’m working on is generally my favorite thing,” she said. “I love doing it all.”

A look into the “Follies: In Concert” rehearsals in the Coronado Playhouse, which began on Aug. 22. (Photo courtesy of Coronado Playhouse)

For her latest production, Dinning recruited many other multitalented local artists, including City Heights resident Walter DuMelle.

DuMelle — the co-founder of Bodhi Tree Concerts — plays the role of Benjamin Rogers Stone, who is the husband of character Phyllis, performed by Kim Hendrix. He worked with Dinning at a collaboration event between his music company, San Diego Opera, SACRA/PROFANA, and FAB United in 2016-2017, “ALL IS CALM: The Christmas Truce of 1914.”

“I’ve grown to really respect Dinning as a professional in the theater scene,” DuMelle said. “When she first told me about staging ‘Follies,’ I told her ‘I’m in if you need me.’”

Another Uptown crewmember who has no shortage of skill variety is music director William BJ Robinson.

Aside from “Follies,” Robinson is a local performer, vocal instructor, and host of a program dedicated to regional events “KPBS Arts” (formally known as “KPBS Spectrum”). Robinson became involved in the arts because of his passion for music.

“I was always playing instruments, singing, and dancing,” he said. “I realized in high school that that was the way to go with my life.”

Previously, Robinson taught as a choreographer, music assistant, accompanist, and conductor for the music department at Southwestern College. After working on music for a few years, he decided to try performing on stage.

Last year, Robinson starred in a show at the countywide San Diego International Fringe Festival, “Yellow Hell of Vincent Van Gogh,” where he portrayed the legendary painter. Other recent roles include the voice of Audrey II in Coronado Playhouse’s 2017 production of “Little Shop of Horrors” and high school music teacher Bob Ruby in the San Diego Repertory world premiere, “Beachtown.”

When he’s not on stage, Robinson spends his downtime at his canyon-side home between Talmadge and Montezuma where he moved three years ago. He enjoys the calm atmosphere of the neighborhood as well as its close proximity to cafes and grocery stores.

Similarly, one of the reasons Dinning appreciates living in Bankers Hill is being within walking distance to local restaurants and the bustling — yet relaxing — Balboa Park.

In addition to performing locally and living in Uptown, Robinson and Dinning have another commonality — their love of Sondheim.

“Every note, rhythm, and lyric that [Sondheim] writes is so purposefully detailed,” Robinson said.

Part of the reason why “Follies” was picked for the Coronado Playhouse is because Dinning wanted to work on a project with Robinson.

“I know he’s a Sondheim freak and I’m a Sondheim freak,” Dinning said. “After we chatted about Sondheim musicals, we chose ‘Follies.’”

They picked the narrative because the show is not produced often in the county. Although “Follies” is being presented as a concert, the musical typically features a 40 plus cast, an expansive set, and a symphony-esque orchestra.

A major goal that all these local artists — especially Dinning — hope to accomplish is to do Sondheim’s songs justice.

“I want to honor the work,” Dinning said. “I want to make sure that we’re doing a good job, so we don’t let Sondheim down.”

“Follies: In Concert” will be performed at the Coronado Playhouse Aug. 31 through Sept. 2. For tickets or more information, visit coronadoplayhouse.com or call 619-435-4856.

—A fan of film and theater from a very young age, David Dixon has written reviews and features for various print and online publications. You can reach him at
daviddixon0202@gmail.com.

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