How to say goodbye with style

Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017 6:58 PM
The ensemble singing “Seasons of Love” from “Rent” during Theresa Carson’s farewell party at the Durango Arts Center.
Doug Gonzalez sings “Willkommen” from “Cabaret” to open the show on Wednesday night.

The Durango Arts Center knows how to throw a party. Especially a surprise farewell party.

On Wednesday night, cast members from musicals and plays Theresa Carson has directed over the last five and a half years gathered to put on a one-of-a-kind show. Titled a “Surprise Cabaret,” the 90-minute song, dance and remembrance program played to an audience of about 50 in the DAC Theatre.

And no one seemed more surprised than the center of attention, Theresa Carson.

Eric Bulrice, the mastermind behind the showbiz love-in, is DAC’s technical director and facilities manager. From inception through dozens of calls, emails, surreptitious announcements and old-fashioned cajoling, Bulrice steered the enterprise. Near showtime, he ran a loose rehearsal for singers, speakers and techies.

“I think we can pull this off,” Bulrice said on the phone early in the process. “The plan is for friends to take Theresa out for dinner at Cyprus Café. She’ll get a phone call that there’s an emergency at a pickup rehearsal for ‘Annie.’ When she enters the doors at DAC, we’ll be ready to start.”

At a little after 7 p.m., Doug Gonzalez poked his head through the stage curtain, smiled and began singing “Willkommen” from “Cabaret.” Simultaneously, and somewhat miraculously, Carson entered, thinking, she said later, that there was a costume emergency. By the time she took her seat at a special table, a cast of 25 had filled the stage belting out “welcome” in a multitude of languages.

Carson burst into tears, alternately covered her eyes with disbelief, and finally accepted the reality of a big, bright, warm farewell party.

Durango Telegraph writer Stew Mosberg sauntered on stage as the first of several speakers who paid tribute to Carson’s contributions as actor, director and manager of the DAC theater program. He was followed by Jeannie Wheeldon, Beth Drum, yours truly, and toward the end of the program, actor/singers Geoff Johnson and Ben Mattson.

Throughout the entire evening, pianist Paula Millar and bassist Evan Suiter provided stalwart accompaniment and kept the show moving.

Bulrice showed videos by key colleagues whom he knew would be out of town. Mona Wood Patterson highlighted all the collaborations between DAC and Merely Players, reminding the audience of Carson’s tremendous range as an actor. A comic video from Traci Lyn Thomas and Laurne Berkman, shot apparently in a Brooklyn Subway, poked fun at Carsonisms to actors like, “What is your journey?”

The cast, Carson’s army, ambled on stage for songs from “Cabaret,” “Always Patsy Cline,” “Rock of Ages” and “Rent.” Toward the end, each singer stepped to a microphone and gave a short tribute to Carson. And for a finale, the ensemble sang “Seasons of Love” from “Rent.”

Mattson, director of the Durango High School Drama Program and former student of Carson at Minnesota State University, delivered a personal account of how the young Professor Carson changed his life 17 years ago.

“With her fierce heart,” Mattson said, “Theresa encouraged me to become part of something bigger than myself. Thank you for being my constant mentor.”

In an earlier interview, Carson commented on her decision to turn the page. “It’s simply time for a change.”

In January, Carson will be teaching full time at Fort Lewis College. Her next directorial challenge will be Bertolt Brecht’s “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.” It’s set to open Feb. 16, 2018.

Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theater Critics Association.