The Bangor Daily News

Friday July 11, 2003

"Dracula's Return"

By Alicia Anstead
Photos by Linda Coan O'Kresik

"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.