By Connie Morrison — Local performer Ashley Aigner Antunes’ life could be the script for a Broadway show.
Dance training led her to Virginia Ballet Theatre, the Richmond Ballet, Interlochen, the Governor’s School for The Visual and Performing Arts, and American Dance Festival, New York.
She lived in Vermont, fell in love, and moved to Brazil for a time. When she, her husband, Lucas, and daughter, Tulipa, moved back to the states, they wanted to be close to family, so they chose the Eastern Shore.
To her surprise, she was able to fulfill her professional aspirations here. Like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” she found everything she needed in the place she started.
She says things have changed between the time she left for college in 2004 and when she moved back to Locustville full time in 2011. Specifically, there is a new, healthy vibe in the arts community. “There are professional opportunities for performers here on the Shore,” she said. “Paying opportunities.”
“I’m lucky enough to have found jobs that support my passion and (allow me) to be close to home,” she said.
Antunes is assistant director of Eastern Shore’s Own Arts Center, better known as ESO, in Belle Haven and also teaches there and at North Street Playhouse. And when the Onancock theater mounts a large-scale production, Antunes is there either in a lead role, as with the upcoming “Dames at Sea,” or as part of the ensemble cast, as she was with “Young Frankenstein” and “Rent.”
It’s what she and fellow artist Mary Stiegelbauer dreamed of as young dancers. “When we were kids, this is what we were trying to do. It’s great to be ‘playing with Mary,’” said Antunes.
“Ashley was in the very first ballet I ever choreographed at North Street,” said Stiegelbauer, who was 11 years old at the time. Antunes was 13 years old.
“So when I say, ‘I’m home,’” Antunes gestures toward the stage and Stiegelbauer as if to say, “I’m home.”
Now the two are working together professionally on “Dames at Sea,” a musical comedy set in the 1930s.
“It’s all laughs, light entertainment (with) 30s style musical songs,” said director Sally Stuart. “This is a very funny take on that era. … Lots of big numbers brilliantly staged by Emily.” Staging and choreography are by Emily Price.
In this homage to musicals of the Depression era, fresh-faced Ruby from Utah comes to Broadway to make it big. But she is just a chorus girl and the show’s diva, Mona, isn’t going anywhere. When the theater is torn down hours before showtime, a new venue must be found. Dick, a sailor and wannabe songwriter, just might have the answer but the solution brings its own set of complications that could give Ruby her big break.
“It’s a huge tap show,” added associate producer and production stage manager Stiegelbauer. “These musicals in the 30s (were) a way to escape the Depression.”
“The tap dancing is going to blow people’s minds,” said Price. “You don’t get to see tap dancing anymore.”
An avowed tap dance fiend, Price began teaching North Street Playhouse interns last summer when she was part of the cast for “Kiss Me, Kate.” That extra attention is paying dividends as three of the interns – Nate Downing, Katie Higgins, and Meg Morrison – are building on their earlier tap experience to fill ensemble cast roles. Another intern, Nikki Drewer, is gaining experience as assistant stage manager.
Antunes will take the stage as diva Mona Kent. “I’m so grateful to be here and to be playing a lead role,” she said. “That’s something I haven’t done in a long time.” The character has an elaborate period-appropriate wardrobe. “That’s challenging in itself. I have seven or eight costume changes.”
Other actors include North Street newcomers Lauren Rathbun (native of Utah, currently residing in New York City) in the role of Joan and also serving as dance captain, and Sean Michael Jaenicke (of Raleigh, N.C.) as Lucky. Audience members will recognize North Street veterans Jimmy Wencel (as Dick), Graham Shadow Boxer (in the roles of Hennessy and the Captain), and Cat Yudain (as Ruby).
“I never saw myself living on the Shore as an adult,” said Antunes. “Things have changed. Maybe just a new generation has come through and is keeping this thing alive,” she said.
Part of that change she attributes to imagination and resilience, and a community that steps up to support the arts. “There’s this great opportunity to create your own opportunity on the Shore,” she said. “The community is so supportive. I haven’t been in a single show that hasn’t sold out every single night. I have to tell my family ‘Buy your tickets in advance.’
“We initially thought of it as a jumping off point,” she said, but now, “we’re just making our lives here.”
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