Director Jaime Donegan is on stage at the Capitol Theatre during Memorial Follies rehearsal yelling, “Turn! Pow! Turn! Pow!” as he demonstrates proper dance technique to a group that a month or so ago was just regular folk.
Now, more than three weeks into rehearsal, they’re turning and powing and turning again like they were born to do it. It’s really kind of amazing. These people are not professional dancers. They are people who live right next to us, who sell us insurance and make our meals at restaurants. In repose only a few of them — young or old, man or woman — have the lithe bodies and graceful bearing of real dancers. Most of them look, well, they look like they sell insurance or cook meals at restaurants. Still, here they are dancing. All of them. There are tap dancers in the mix, swing dancers, guys in the back on risers doing some kind of jazz-hands thing. It’s all choreographed by Donegan and it all seems to somehow fit.
“Turn! Pow! Turn! Pow!” he yells, raising his hands to demonstrate the proper pow technique to the guys in back. “If you want to do your pow up, I would like that.”
Donegan, who has been directing the Memorial Follies since the late 1990s, whips casts like this into shape for a living. Based out of New York, Donegan is a community variety show director for hire, working throughout the country on shows like the follies. This year in Yakima, he’s tasked with creating a Broadway-style revue featuring 120 cast members. It includes specialty music acts and a whole bunch of solos and duets as well as two show-stopping, full-cast numbers. It’s a fundraiser for Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital’s pediatric services, but it’s also a big-time community event.
I’m there on the night they start running through the big show-stoppers, and the stage is full of dancers, elbow-to-elbow. Donegan is trying to get the dancers to cut loose and stop worrying about their proximity to each other.
“Tappers!” he yells. “You got to take it up a notch, really. You cannot kick or get hands up high enough. Hit someone. It’s fun.”
Nobody, as far as I can see, actually does hit anybody else. But the tappers do kick it up a notch.
“It’s fun,” Donegan tells me. (“It’s fun” is like a mantra for him.) “I love to watch the personal transformations people have — through the first rehearsals, through the breakdowns and the breakthroughs, through the performance where they get the high from performing.”
The key to the Follies’ success under Donegan is that he is organized and works fast and that he understands people’s strengths and limitations, says Tony Akin, who is on his fifth or sixth follies. Akin, who owns Akin Center Theatre and performs throughout the year, is one of the Follies’ ringers along with his wife, Amy.
“He takes people who don’t really perform, and he has a talent for making them look good,” Akin says. “He’s able to fit the choreography around them and pull them up to the level where they feel really good about performing. It’s fun seeing your plumber or your electrician or your nurse from the hospital getting up and performing, and Jaime makes it safe for them to do that.”
Indeed, the collegial atmosphere at rehearsal is a big reason that participants say they enjoy the Follies and keep auditioning year after year. (Auditioning is, perhaps, the wrong word; people audition for the show’s solos, but anyone can be a cast member.) Donegan is direct, and he asks a lot of his performers, but he is never brusque or overly demanding. There’s an esprit de corps among the cast, forged by the fact they share a goal and don’t have much time to reach it.
“The Follies is special in its camaraderie,” says Mark Myers, the Memorial employee in charge of the show. “We start with 120 strangers and in four weeks we have 120 friends.”
Plus, he says, where else can a bunch of working stiffs get their groove on like they do in the follies?
“It’s important in today’s society to take a moment and play,” Myers says. “It’s one of those rare instances when adults get a chance to play.”
So that’s why the cast likes the Follies. The audience, well, the audience likes the show because it really is a showcase for talented performers you’d never have guessed have those talents. Every time he puts on a show like this, Donegan finds people with real chops as dancers or singers.
“You just think, ‘What are you doing HERE?’” he says. “Why aren’t you in New York?”
• Pat Muir can be reached at 509-577-7693 or firstname.lastname@example.org.