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Original Broadway cast member directs CCU’s production of ‘Steel Pier’

February 19, 2019
"Steel Pier" opens on the Wheelwright Stage Feb. 21.Adam Pelty, an original Broadway cast member of "Steel Pier," directs the CCU production.Kevin Stites, conductor and musical director.

When the student cast of “Steel Pier” takes the Wheelwright stage at the end of this month, they’ll do so under the direction of someone who’s been there/done that on a stage by another name: Broadway.

Adam Pelty, assistant professor and associate chair of Coastal Carolina University’s Department of Theatre, was part of the original Broadway cast alongside Kristin Chenoweth when “Steel Pier” opened in 1997, and he recruited another Broadway alumnus for help with the musical direction: Kevin Stites, renowned conductor and musical director whose credits include “Titanic,” “Oklahoma!” and “Nine” with Antonio Banderas.

With music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb (of “Chicago” and “Cabaret” fame), “Steel Pier” is set in a 1933 Atlantic City ballroom, where a crowd has gathered to compete for a $2,000 prize and a shot at showbiz fame. The story follows aging celebrity Rita Racine as she embarks on her last dance marathon, surrounded by a cast of partners, contestants and evolving relationships. Described as an American fable in two acts and 20 scenes and nominated for 11 Tony Awards, “Steel Pier” Lindy hops its way, by turns dark and hopeful, across the dance floor.

“This production is a big deal,” said Pelty. “It’s exciting for the students, and it takes a lot of chutzpah and stamina. It’s fast-moving, yet involves a lot of heavy drama.”

The play’s themes revolve around both the excitement and energy of a dance contest, explained Pelty, but also the desperation of the Depression era and self-reflection of a woman coming to terms with her life choices.

“It’s about a heroine who has reached her own hell on earth and needs to be lifted out of that,” he said.

Pelty said preparation and rehearsals for the CCU production required students to step into the environment of the 1930s dance culture and to undertake a physically and artistically challenging task. The cast dances throughout the entire performance.

“Marathon dancing was a brutal undertaking,” said Pelty. “It was a test of endurance. It was like today’s reality television, in the ‘Survivor’ category – these people were dancing for three weeks, 24/7, with just 15-minute breaks every hour.

“It’s all ballroom dancing. You’ve got to learn numerous dances – the fox trot, the waltz, the tango, the rhumba, the polka – and each dance has 20 different versions. You’re working with your partner very closely. It’s a unique undertaking and an exercise in acting.”

Junior musical theatre major Chloe Belongilot said the interdependency of couples dancing added another unique challenge.

“It’s not just about getting the steps,” said Belongilot. “It’s about that partnership – you kind of have to be there for each other. If you mess up, you can’t just go home and work on it by yourself. You have to stop and talk it out, and see where the issues are coming from. So, it’s taught us a lot about communication and how to work as an ensemble and really respect each other.”

Belongilot added that having Pelty’s and Stites’ Broadway chops in the directing roles required the cast to step up their game.

“There’s a lot of added pressure – good pressure – to perform well and be professional backstage. We’re not getting away with anything; if there’s a missed cutoff or the notes are wonky, it’s not going to fly. They drill it until it’s perfect.”

The cast includes Emma VandeVelde as Rita Racine; Kaleb Jenkins as Bill Kelly; Hank Santos as Mick Hamilton; Hannah Coffman as Shelby Stevens; Jason Skibinski as Buddy Becker; Maria Boissenault as Bette Becker; Jake Lopez as Happy McGuire; Tessa Belonia as Precious McGuire; Jack Shanahan as Johnny Adel; Drake Cunningham as Walker; Madi Fiely as Dora Foster; Noah Pelty as Luke Adams; Chloe Belongilot as Mick’s Pick #1; Sophie Goron as Mick’s Pick #2; and Grainger Russell as Mick’s Pick #3. Other cast members include Collin David Beach, Amelia Dobbs, Allison Edwards, Caroline Gilmore, Zach Green, Ashton Harris, Lindsay Hoffpauir, Caitlin Holst, Kenley Juback, Drake King, Jervon Monroe, Zackery Olds, Dara Potts, Bryce Ridley-Williams, Susannah Rion, Christian Ruiz and Will Shafer.

Performance dates are as follows: Thursday, Feb. 21, through Saturday, Feb. 23, at 7:30 p.m.; Wednesday, Feb. 27, through Friday, March 1, at 7:30 p.m.; and Saturday, March 2, at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

General admission is $25. Senior citizens, OLLI members, CCU alumni, teens, and CCU/HGTC faculty and staff may purchase tickets for $16, and CCU/HGTC students and children’s tickets are $7. To reserve a ticket, call the Box Office at 843-349-ARTS (2787) or visit between 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Monday through Friday.

Additional information:

coastal.edu/theatre

coastal.edu/culturalarts

Wheelwright Auditorium is located at 108 Spadoni Park Circle in Conway.