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Theater or Sports?

Some kids prefer the stage to baseball, football, or golf. You got a problem with that, buddy?

Jamie McGonnigal
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
I wish that Chad Crow could meet Jamie McGonnigal and Brad Parks. This occurred to me when my girlfriend, a literary agent, had me watch Trading Spouses. It featured her client Silvana Clark, who spent a week with the Crow family while Mrs. Crow went to Silvana's house. Silvana found that she wasn't simpatico with Dave Crow, though he was an excellent father to his teenage son -- because the kid loved to play golf with him. But Dave took no interest in his other son, 11-year-old Chad. He wouldn't even take the lad golfing with him until Silvana insisted that he do so. Of course, Chad didn't do well his first time out, so Dave called him a "girl" and a "sissy."

Silvana brought Chad to an improvisational theater class. Chad started off slowly but soon got into it. He went home and excitedly told Dave, but his dad refused to enroll him in classes, ostensibly for monetary reasons. Luckily, Trading Spouses gives each family $50,000 -- and the visiting wife decides how the money will be spent. Silvana set some of it aside for Chad's classes.

Yeah, but you know that Dave will still call Chad "a girl" and "a sissy" for being interested in theater. So I hope someone tells him about Jamie McGonnigal. He's 30 now, but he remembers when he was Chad's age. "I tried sports and stunk at it," he says. "But my father kept pushing me, and made me feel bad I wasn't succeeding. I hated my life -- though I did like singing in the school chorus. My teacher saw that, and suggested I audition for Evita at a community theater. I fell in love with it; though when they called a dress rehearsal, I thought it meant I had to dress in my best clothes -- which I did."

Director Donald Capen didn't hold that gaffe against McGonnigal, but encouraged him to appear in other community theater productions. "Suddenly I'm liking my life -- especially with Don's young people's summer theater. He loved flop musicals, and while I'm still sad that I joined just after he did Merrily We Roll Along, I did get into It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman, Bring Back Birdie, and 70, Girls, 70 -- with kids."

McGonnigal set out to be an actor, but soon after he moved to New York, he met Kate Shindle, who told him she always wanted to play Yonah in Children of Eden. He decided to make her dream come true by staging a benefit. "I didn't have a penny," says McGonnigal, "but I went to Riverside Cathedral, and when I heard it'd cost $20,000 for the night, I said, 'Fine,' even though I had no idea where I'd get the money. I went looking for sponsorships -- and found them. And 15 days after Children of Eden, I did another benefit, and, in the past 2 1/2 years, I've done many others, for victims of Hurricane Katrina, World AIDS Day, and others. Now I just go up to people and say, 'Hey, do you want to perform in my benefit?' And when I'm not producing, I make a living doing cartoon voice-overs." Hey, Chad -- have you have heard him on some Pokemon or other Japanese anime show?

This coming Sunday, McGonnigal will produce and direct Flopz 2: The Best Songs from Egregiously Overlooked Shows at 7 pm, followed by Cutz! Songs You Don't Know From Shows You Love at 9 pm, both at Joe's Pub. John Cariani, Laura Benanti, Alexander Gemignani, and other stars will appear in one or both shows. The proceeds will support The Joey DiPaolo AIDS Foundation and CAMP TLC. I wish Chad could be there.

Brad Parks
Brad Parks's youth was slightly different from McGonnigal's. During high school, he played Mayor Shinn in The Music Man in his sophomore year, Roger in Grease in junior year, and Billy Crocker in Anything Goes in senior year. But he loved sports, too, and he covered high school athletics for his weekly hometown paper. He attended Dartmouth, where he didn't do theater but did sing with an a capella group.

After he graduated, Brad was hired by the Washington Post to cover high school sports. In 1998, he became my colleague at the Star-Ledger, in the sports department. "But I felt frustrated because I couldn't do community theater," he says. "Rehearsals are at night, and so were the games I had to cover. Every time I saw a show, on Broadway or in my neighborhood, I wanted to be performing. I missed the interaction with the audience -- wondering if they'd like my next joke, my next song."

Parks became disillusioned with sports. "Look," he says, "someone gets to be a professional athlete not because he's a wonderful person or because he has something to say, but because he's good at his sport and single-minded. Frankly, athletes aren't the most interesting or wonderful people. I'd rather have dinner with virtually anyone other than a sports star, who is often a narcissistic ass with nothing to offer in conversation. And there I was, part of the machine that glorifies these jackasses."

So, when his boss moved from sports to news and suggested that Parks come along, he seized the opportunity. Then, when he went to see the Maplewood Strollers' production of The Wiz, he decided to audition for the company's next show: Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp. He was cast as Aladdin's father and a genie, which meant wearing a huge costume. "It also meant rehearsing four nights a week, two to three hours a night," he says. What did his fellow sportswriters think of that? "The idea of entertaining children is foreign to them," he says matter-of-factly. ""Some of the guys aren't far removed from cavemen. But I find these audiences delightful." (Brad, do you want to see what a real caveman is like? Meet Dave Crow.)

"There are so many similarities between theater and sports," Parks comments. "Both are performances, both require concentration, both involve 'getting in the zone,' both involve rehearsed movements, and both exhaust you. But I'm going to continue doing theater." And, I hope, so will Chad Crow.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]


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