Teamwork Key to Pulling off 'Grand Duke'

June 28, 2018

Thomas Nelson Community College is relying on a true community effort for the performance of its summer operetta. “The Grand Duke” cast consists of Thomas Nelson students as well as students from the Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk, Old Dominion University and local high schools. Community members, including Thomas Nelson alumni and semi-professional performers representing the Virginia Opera and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra Chorus, are also in the show.

Michael Sundblad, Performing Arts chair and an assistant professor at Thomas Nelson, said logistics make it necessary for all those groups to be involved.

“Operettas require more people on stage, in the orchestra pit,” he said. “It’s a bigger production, just in terms of human bodies.”

“The Grand Duke” will feature 33 people on stage and 21 in the orchestra. Add in backstage help, and Sundblad said there will be close to 75 on hand just to make it happen. Theater manager Torrie Sanders, who is also the College’s resident designer, said the spring production of “Blithe Spirit” totaled a staff of about 20.

It’s more than just a numbers game, though. Older members of the community are needed because “there are also some roles that you can only age an 18-year-old so much and have it be believable,” Sundblad said.

Having all those performers involved not only makes the show possible, but it really benefits the current students.

“They are learning from these people who have degrees they’re trying to get,” Sundblad said. “Some of the performers have degrees in music or theater. Some have advanced degrees in music or theater. And they’re working professionally, or semi-professionally, with Virginia Opera or some of the other companies. So our students are learning from their scene partners as much as they are from us, which is really great.”

Sundblad said when the College began doing musicals 10 years ago, he told the dean it wouldn’t be possible with just Thomas Nelson students.

“As we started building the academic program, (we began to) see what the needs are of our students. They need to be doing certain roles in certain repertoire when they are getting ready to transfer and leave us. That wouldn’t be possible with just our own students,” he said.

According to Sundblad, Thomas Nelson is the only community college in the state that performs an operetta, which is a short opera with a humorous theme. These productions also typically have more spoken dialogue than operas.

“It’s more of a challenge because it’s harder to tell a story with music than it is with people talking,” Sanders said. “I think it’s so much more powerful because music affects the emotions much deeper than dialogue does. It speaks to the soul more than just words.”

So why do Sundblad and Sanders do one every year?

Basically, it’s because they are both big Gilbert and Sullivan fans. Shortly after Sundblad and Sanders met about 10 years ago at Thomas Nelson, they knew they wanted to put on one of the performances by the famed duo.

“We thought we would do just one, but people loved it,” Sundblad said.

Added Sanders: “It was really successful. This is our sixth one.”

It didn’t take long for them to realize their personalities align with those of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, with Sundblad being more like Sullivan, the composer. Sanders admits she’s much more like Gilbert, who wrote the texts for their collaborations.

“There are all these weird parallels between their lives and ours, our working relationship and theirs,” Sundblad said.

“The Grand Duke” was Gilbert and Sullivan’s last work together, and it was the only one that didn’t do well financially.

“They were fighting when they wrote it,” Sundblad said. “They didn’t collaborate well, so it has a lot of problems.”

However, since the works are public domain, changes can be made. So Sundblad, Sanders, the stage director, and Jeff Joyner, a cast member who sings with the Virginia Opera and is a local musical educator, did just that.

“We can put our own stamp on it. That’s a lot of work, but it’s really fun,” said Sundblad, who also noted David Garrett, the technical director for the show, played an integral role in "bringing the production to life."

With the relationship and collaboration between Sundblad and Sanders much better than that of Gilbert and Sullivan at the time “The Grand Duke” was written, expect a much better showing from Thomas Nelson and the entire community.

“The Grand Duke” is scheduled for July 13-15 and 20-22 at the Hampton campus in Templin Hall’s Dr. Mary T. Christian Auditorium. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are available online at www.tncc.edu.

Thomas Nelson Performing Arts presents three shows a year including musicals, plays and operettas. Open auditions for these fully-staged productions allow students, faculty, staff and community members to showcase talents.