Sienna Gregerson plays a rich, spoiled brat in Kauai Performing Arts Center’s (KPAC) upcoming production of Nice Work If You Can Get It, “who thinks she’s a good dancer, but she’s not at all,” says the actress, a Hawaii Technology Academy senior.
The character, Eileen Evergreen, actually is the exact opposite of the good-natured and clearly talented Gregerson. In order to get into the role, she says she channels “whiny, spoiled brats who’ve always been privileged their whole lives.”
That process of becoming a different person on stage can be challenging for Gregerson, but also fun. And it’s one of the things that keep middle and high school students like herself auditioning for KPAC year after year.
Each spring, KPAC, which is part of the state’s Learning Center Program and led by Dennis McGraw, puts on a high school musical production. Nice Work If You Can Get It opens Friday (April 21), and it’s a comedy with plenty of quirky characters like Evergreen that McGraw and Gregerson promise will delight audiences.
“It’s the funniest show I’ve seen in a long time. When we’re doing rehearsals, we can’t help but burst out laughing,” says Gregerson. “And the music is brilliant — the whole show is so good.”
McGraw chose the play after discovering it at a bookstore during a summer trip to New York City. The story takes place on Long Island in the late 1920s during Prohibition. The plot features a “playboy” who’s been married several times. In the first act, the audience finds him at a speakeasy celebrating a bachelor party for his next wedding. He ends up meeting bootleggers who conspire to stash hundreds of cases of gin in the basement of his beach house. While the story is entertaining, it was the music that really grabbed McGraw’s attention.
“My eyes popped on the music,” he says.
What makes the melodies so fascinating is that, although the show was produced on Broadway in 2012, the songs are some of the most notable pieces created by the late Gershwin brothers, George and Ira. “The Gershwins were the cutting edge of the jazz age,” says McGraw.
And McGraw would know a thing or two about good music. He started playing the trombone at age 10 and has been involved in performing arts ever since. Originally from Wisconsin, McGraw found a way to escape cold winters after working as a musical director on a cruise ship traveling to the Hawaiian Islands. He called Kauai home after landing a position as band director at Kapaa High School. He eventually transitioned to Kapaa Middle School in the same job, but accepted his current position at KPAC as soon as it opened up. He’s been with the program, which meets after school at Kauai High, for the past 17 years.
Even McGraw’s wife, Laurel Petterson, has been committed to KPAC throughout the years as a volunteer. One of the husband-and-wife theatrical team’s favorite aspects about KPAC is getting to work with keiki, “seeing the process of starting with nothing and by the time they get up (on stage), it’s turned into a beautiful, beautiful show,” says McGraw. “And it’s a huge project and undertaking, and everyone has to work together, so it teaches them how to accomplish a difficult goal within a time frame that there’s no turning back from.”
He’s seen some kids start the program as shy middle school students who blossomed into confident young adults, happy to have been given a platform where they could uncover their creativity and be surrounded by comrades.
“There is a tremendous amount of mutual emotional support during those tumultuous middle and high school years,” says Petterson.
The camaraderie she speaks of is evidenced a few weeks before opening night, as the cast waits, in costume, backstage at Kauai War Memorial Convention Hall, singing show tunes together between laughs and waiting for McGraw’s cues.
“There’s such a bond between the cast members and the satisfaction of putting on a show is unlike anything else,” says Gregerson, who has been a member of KPAC since her freshman year.
Cast chemistry is even more apparent as they step into the spotlight and rehearse one of the musical numbers from the show — smiles are imprinted on their faces as they jitterbug their way across the stage.
“The music and dance is some of the best I’ve ever been involved with,” says McGraw, who encourages everyone to come see the “fabulous” show.
Performances are slated for April 21, 22, 27 (a Thursday, not Friday evening) and 29 at 7 p.m., and April 23 and 30 at 2 p.m. at Kauai War Memorial Convention Hall. Tickets will be available for purchase at the door.