"A Married couple gives new life to Bram's Stoker's
Classic tale at the Stonington Opera House"
Kevin Gray and Dodie Pettit fell in love when they were both performing
in the Broadway production of “Phantom of the Opera”. Sometime
between that musical and being in the national touring production of “Titanic”,
they got married. All along, they were thinking about writing a script
and score for “Dracula”, Bram Stoker’s Gothic romance
about a vampire in Transylvania.
“We had been together a long time, noodging each other to do something
creative,” said Pettit, a songwriter. “I wanted to write
music for something theatrical. I always thought: I love my husband dearly
and someone should create a role for him. But that ain’t going
to happen. One of us brought up the idea of ‘Dracula’ and
we thought: Let’s go for it. I wrote two songs right off the bat.”
“Dracula…The Covenant”, which Gray wrote and Pettit
scored, will have its world premiere July 11 with additional performances
July 12 and 13 at the Stongington Opera House.
It may sound as if “Dracula” is an eerie professional engagement.
Certainly, a production in Stonington, a town with Gothic architecture,
will emphasize the scariness of the original horror story on which the
creators based the script. But Gray and Pettit, reached last month by
phone at their home in Westport, Conn. are nearly the antitheses of creepiness.
She’s spunky and witty. He’s tempering and smart. The dynamic
is charming, vivacious and complementary.
“We tiptoed into this because who both knew it was uncharted territory,” said
Pettit, who had worked with her husband onstage many times but never
with a personally driven creative project. “Kevin had always kept
his distance from my music writing but when we got to this, we said:
Now or never. And we did OK. It didn’t ruin our marriage.”
Gray, who recently left the cast of “Miss Saigon,” agreed.
“It was like the birth of a child that is coming out of your mind
and imagination,” he said.
Pettit grew up in Princeton, NJ and played in rock bands throughout
her 20’s. In the 1980’s, she landed a role in “Cats” and
launched a Broadway career as a dancer and singer. Gray started a career
path in law but veered toward acting when he realized the only part of
law he liked was litigation. That is, the performance part. He studied
at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York and quickly-even
before graduation- was cast in a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s”Pacific
Overtures”. The show eventually went to Broadway. And as Gray likes
to say: He just kept on going.
If this couple had a collective resume, it would read like a history
of musical hits in the latter half of the 20th century. Next month, they
will be in a summer stock production of “A Chorus Line” in
New Jersey. Pettit joked that while the “Chorus Line” gig
will be her first lead role she’s playing the older dancer Cassie),
it’s usually Gray who gets the leads. And besides, if she had been
given a lead role instead of an understudy position in the last show
they did together, she wouldn’t have had the backstage time to
sit at the piano in the rehearsal room and write songs for “Dracula”,
almost all of which she wrote while being an understudy for “Titanic”.
With such a youza background on Broadway, what’s the appeal of
taking a new show to a remote location where it’s unlikely that
too many theater producers might pick it up as the next big hit on Broadway?
The couple has a shared appreciation for small venues that produce theater,
and, in particular, for the Stonington Opera House, where Pettit and
Gray presented musical numbers from “Dracula” in an evening
of song last summer.
“We wrote ‘Dracula’ as a chamber piece, small enough
for regional theaters,” explained Gray. “Given the location
of Stonington, I have no idea if anyone ( from New York) will see. It.
But that doesn’t matter. It’s important to experience the
next life of this work. And it’s always important that your work
has been done. That’s a basic requirement for moving on. If we
took the time and trouble, risked life, limb and marriage for this, I
want it to be heard.”
While it may seem like an easier sell, a small venue is, indeed, more
difficult to play, Gray added.
It’s far more intimate, closer to the audience and therefore vulnerable
to more meticulous scrutiny.
Carol Estey, who is directing “Dracula” and is on the executive
committee at the Opera House, has roots in Stonington that intersect
with Pettit’s early years as a dancer in New Jersey. As a young
ballet dancer (she started dancing at age 4) , Estey visited the island
with her parents who taught ballet in Princeton and brought their skills
each summer to Les Chalets Francais, a French camp. Eventually, the Esteys
bought a house in Stonington.
Pettit, who studied dance with Estey’s parents and was a pricipal
dancer with the company for 15 years, sometimes visited the family in
Maine. When Estey, whose discerning eye for theater was nurtured by an
artistic family and her own dance work on Broadway, invited Pettit and
Gray to mount “Dracula”, the two knew the invitation came
from more than an old friendship.
“Having been in theater my whole life, I used to sit on the deck
and dream about bringing all my theater friends here to work on plays
and to make theater. ‘Dracula’ feels like the dream,” said
Estey, who now lives in the Catskills.
The camp no longer exists and the house is no longer in the Estey family.
Nevertheless, Estey has found her way back to Stongington in the summer.
Pettit and Gray each emphasized the importance of the production to
them as artists and the gratitude they felt toward the director and producers.
“We will find out if it works, if the audience gets it, and whether
or not what we imagine win our heads can be done physically and people
will enjoy it,” said Pettit. “If people can feel emotion
by listening to my music, that would be so satisfying to me.