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Broadway Rose Theatre Company challenges Debbie Hunter to tap into spinster character



Photo Credit: SUBMITTED PHOTO: PAUL RICH - Hot on the trail of a killer in 'Whodunit ... the Musical' are (from left) Mike Dedarian as the detective; Debbie Hunter as Carrie Innes, the wealthy spinster who rents the summer cottage; and Jennifer Goldsmith as her cockney maid.Debbie Hunter is playing against type in the Broadway Rose Theatre Company production of “Whodunit ... the Musical,” in which she appears as a wealthy spinster, complete with a cockney maid, who rents a beautiful Connecticut summer home in 1931, where strange occurrences start to happen.

In reality, Hunter has a day job as an administrative assistant at Legacy Health, a husband and an impressive resume of acting credits with the major theater companies in the Portland area, including Broadway Rose, where she last appeared in the 2004 production of “The Gifts of the Magi.”

“I think I’ve been fortunate to have had a balance of singing and acting experiences plus a lot of opportunities to sing in musical theater,” Hunter said. “I love it — it’s been my life.”

Born and raised in the Chicago area, where her family still lives, Hunter started performing in community theater when she was in the sixth grade. “I also started taking dance classes, but I figured out I wasn’t going to be a prima ballerina,” she said.

Hunter’s fate was set when the first national tour of “Annie” came to town, and after seeing the show, she decided that was what she wanted to do. “I played the ‘Annie’ album over and over the way girls today play ‘Frozen,’” Hunter said. “I’m sure I drove my parents crazy.”

When her local community theater did a production of “A Christmas Carol,” Hunter auditioned and got a part in the chorus, “though I really wanted to pay Martha, but I got my chance much later when I played Martha in the Nebraska Theatre Caravan’s touring production,” she said. Martha is the oldest daughter of Bob, Scrooge's employee, and Tiny Tim's sister.

Hunter did theater in college, where she earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from Illinois Wesleyan University, and an early job was at Tommy Gunn’s Garage, which offered dinner theater in a 1920s’ speakeasy atmosphere.

“I auditioned for shows and was in ‘Phantom’ in Chicago for more than a year,” Hunter said. “I did theater all over the Midwest — Wisconsin, Nebraska and Ohio. In my 20s, Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals were popular, and they were a good vocal fit for me, although I like singing all styles of music. It’s important to be flexible.”Photo Credit: SUBMITTED PHOTO: PAUL RICH - Not sharing any secrets uncovered in their creepy rented summer cottage in 'Whodunit ... the Musical' are Debbie Hunter as Carrie Innes, the wealthy spinster, and Jennifer Goldsmith as Liddy Allen, the cockney maid.

Planting roots

While on tour with “A Christmas Carol,” Hunter met an actor, which led to a relationship, and “that got me to Portland in 1995,” she said.

Although the relationship didn’t last, Hunter stayed in Portland and eventually met her husband, Connor Kerns, who teaches acting at Portland Actors Conservatory, directs and has written a book about acting.

The couple, along with three other people, founded Quintessence Language and Imagination Theatre, where Hunter appeared in “Persuasion,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “Much Ado About Nothing” and several other Shakespearean plays.

“Connor and I have worked together a lot,” Hunter said. “When we founded the theater company, we planned to do one Shakespeare and one original piece each year. It worked for several years, until one person in the company got a job in Ashland and two others went to graduate school, so it was just the two of us.

“We did Shakespeare, but soon everyone was doing Shakespeare, so Connor adapted two of Jane Austen’s works the last couple of years. My husband is also a playwright, so we’re looking to produce one of his plays next.”

One of Hunter’s more unusual performance venues was on riverboats, including the Columbia Queen, Queen of the West and Empress of the North. “We would go aboard for the day, and there were some difficult logistics,” she said. “Every now and then, they would tell us they couldn’t let us off at our usual spot because of the current, and we would end up in Astoria.”

Hunter also was selected to participate in a two-week International Cabaret Conference at Yale University, noting, “I love that kind of work, so I saved my pennies and took the plunge. You tell stories through songs and learn how to craft them. There were amazing artists there, including Broadway veterans, and they were fantastic people to work with.

“I learned so much, although I still haven’t put together a full cabaret show of my own.

They are expensive to produce, and you need to work with a musical director, but I have some ideas.”

As for “Whodunit ... the Musical,” Hunter said “it takes a certain amount of time to delve into the character,” and added that the play is fairly new but has been performed a couple of times previously by other theater companies.

Although Hunter has been performing in metro-area theaters for nearly 20 years, she noted, “I haven’t worked with anyone in the cast before except one of them briefly.”

Unravel the mystery

The Broadway Rose Theatre Company continues its 2014 season of Brass ‘n’ Sass with a musical farce, “Whodunit ... the Musical,” playing at the Broadway Rose New Stage. The show is a tuneful, riotous romp that’s part mystery, part drawing room farce and all musical comedy.

Preview performance is today (Thursday) with opening night on Friday and performances continuing through Sunday, Oct. 19.

Evening performances are Thursday through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; matinees are at 2 p.m. on Sundays and the following Saturdays: Sept. 27 and Oct. 4, 11 and 18.Photo Credit: SUBMITTED PHOTO: PAUL RICH - 'Whodunit ... the Musical's' zany cast of characters includes (front) Mike Dedarian as Detective Jarvis; and (back row from left) Jennifer Goldsmith as Liddy Allen, the cockney maid; Debbie Hunter as Carrie Innes, the wealthy spinster; Thomas Slater as Thomas, the odd butler; Joy Martin as Carries niece, Sally Innes; and Sean Powell as Sallys fiancé, Jack Bailey.

Based on Mary Roberts Rinehart’s 1908 novel, “The Circular Staircase,” the musical begins with a wealthy spinster and her cockney maid taking a beautiful Connecticut summer home in 1931. When they arrive, all the help has quit except for a very odd butler who warns that something strange is going on. They are soon joined by the spinster’s niece who’s brought a friend, who turns out to be a young man. After a night of attempted break-ins, the sound of gunshots, and the discovery of a dead body, a detective arrives and things get really strange.

“Whodunit ... the Musical” was written by Ed Dixon, and Annie Kaiser will direct, with musical direction by Mont Chris Hubbard and choreography by Erin Shannon. The creative team also includes C. Murdock Lucas (scenic designer), Grace O’Malley (costume designer), Phil McBeth (lighting designer), Tim Richey (sound designer), Jeff Duncan (prop designer) and Jessica Downs (production stage manager).

The cast includes Laurie Mike Dederian, Debbie Hunter, Jennifer Goldsmith, Joy Martin, Sean Powell and Thomas Slater.

The New Stage is located at 12850 S.W. Grant Ave. in Tigard. Tickets start at $30 for adults, with discounts available for groups and youth. For a full listing of show performances or to order tickets, visit broadwayrose.org or call the box office at 503-620-5262.

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