How do two best friends of almost 40 years celebrate the holidays together? They mount a simple little two-person show for their friends and family. Except it also happens to be the most requested show and biggest hit in Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre’s 15-year history. A Tuna Christmas, Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard’s sequel to their legendary hit Greater Tuna, running through December 18th at the Freede Little Theatre in Oklahoma City’s Civic Center Music Hall, stars the indefatigable duo of impassioned thespian gents, Donald Jordan (CityRep’s Founding Artistic Director) and Jonathan Beck Reed (CityRep Co-founding Artist).
How and when did all this theatrical fun begin?
“Don and I have collaborated on nearly 50 productions over the years, which includes being in each other’s weddings!” exclaims Jonathan Beck Reed. He met Donald Jordan at Oklahoma City University, when he transferred in as a theatre major in 1979 when he headed off to an audition for OCU’s The House at Pooh Corner, a production led by world-renowned OCU Children’s Theatre faculty member Claire Jones. “I met this big guy in blue overalls, Don Jordan, crossing the street. He led me to the auditions, and it was like we had been life-long friends. More than 35 years later, we have never lost that close friendship.”
Jordan played God and Reed played the Devil in OCU’s JB, and they shared the stage in My 3 Angels before Jordan went on to Music Theatre of Wichita, then Missouri’s famed Mule Barn Theater and finally, the Dallas Theater Center. Their careers as full-time professional actors and singers launched, but the friends worked to maintain contact via post cards, phone calls and the occasional lunch, in an era prior to the ubiquity of cell phone and internet communication. Ten years passed, and both had begun working in New York, Jordan with a leading role Off-Broadway and Reed in multiple National tours.
While artists racked up impressive resumes for performance in prominent professional shows and tours, they only worked together once in that period, on a production of Guys and Dolls at Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma in the 1983. Then divine intervention stepped in. Reed recalls fondly, “After I appeared in the national revival of The Music Man as Harold Hill I moved on to 42nd Street. An actor cast in a key comic role in the show backed out at the last minute, leaving the show on pause and its director furious for the costly, brief notice. I arrived in his office for a meeting just as he received the news. He snapped at me, “Do you know anybody who can play this role well, not just a buddy, but someone who can REALLY play it?” I knew exactly who to recommend: that same big guy who led me across OCU campus to my first audition a decade earlier, Donald Jordan. During 1988-1989 we performed together in the Broadway tour of 42nd Street, logging hundreds of performances across the US, Canada and even touring to Israel. The next year we did Big River together in New York and then again at the Golden Apple Theater in Florida.”
Out on the road they shared many dressing rooms and late night high carb diner meals, talking non-stop about their dreams. They envisioned starting their own professional Equity theatre company that would represent the arts well, where they could apply the craft and professionalism they had honed in their experience in New York, regional theatre and touring. They dreamed of opening this company in Oklahoma City, as a way to give something back to the city that they felt had given them so much. Time passed with many more shows, as well as an increasing array of awards and honors for both artists. They never gave up their dream of giving back to the city and university that launched their respective careers. On January 1, 1998 at a New Year’s Day brunch, they decided to try and make that dream become a reality.
“Pick your friends wisely in college because they will haunt you the rest of your life, “quips Jordan. After planning, getting their nonprofit status and fundraising, they launched CityRep in 2002-2003 with a tight, appealing season of three Oklahoma premieres: The Leading Ladies, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change and the original social commentary one man show, I Am A Teacher. Since that time, it’s been a carefully orchestrated and sensibly developed process of merging artistic value with audience appeal, always with a fastidiously tended budget. CityRep has racked up unique national honors for Oklahoma since 2002 as their seasons have expanded and attendance has increased due to continuing high caliber work. Recognition includes winning the Oklahoma Governor’s Arts Award, a national award from the American Theatre Wing (the organization that produces the Tony Awards) and special Proclamations from both the Actors’ Equity Association and Theatre Communications Group for artistic excellence and professional production. In 2014 PBS/ Oklahoma Educational Television Authority (OETA) produced the documentary “Back in Time”, commemorating the 75th anniversary of Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, which featured the CityRep/OCU co-production of the stage adaptation. In 2015 the OETA documentary won an Emmy Award in the “Arts/ Entertainment – Program/Series/Special” category.
Donald Jordan reflects on their mutual aspirations: “Collaboration was a concept Jonathan and I brought to the company from the very first, along with our other founding company members. As we left Oklahoma after college to work at a wide array of professional theatrical endeavors, we experienced the benefits of artistic collaboration and wanted to share them with Oklahoma City’s creative community via our fledgling dream enterprise. That dream was to have a year-round professional company based in central Oklahoma, a (continuing) challenge to support at the level we envisioned. We wanted to give back to Oklahoma City University as partners. We felt it would be good stewardship and use of resources to incorporate collaborative projects with the school. In addition, we opened our doors as a fully professional Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) affiliate, with the endorsement of long-term national professionals who knew us well. AEA took a chance on us as a start-up, trusting our determination to produce national-caliber work in our region. We now have a diverse, growing Equity community in which CityRep thrives.” There were no full-time opportunities for Equity artists in Oklahoma until CityRep emerged, other than summer stock with Lyric Theatre. Collaboration with CityRep has had a positive ripple effect over the years. Collaborating companies have begun using guest artist contracts, and some have joined AEA in their own right after co-producing with CityRep. Professional theatre artists who choose to live in Oklahoma can maintain a sustainable lifestyle. Native Oklahomans who have made prominent, national careers for themselves (artists Kristin Chenoweth, Kelli O’Hara, Ron Raines, Lara Teeter, Teri Bibb and CityRep company member Stacey Logan, to name just a few of their fellow OCU alumni and friends) all come home to perform occasionally. As a result, the state of the arts has been elevated in Oklahoma, and Oklahoma audiences get to experience more regional productions performed at a highly professional level.
Spend Christmas in the third smallest town in Texas! What sets A Tuna Christmas apart from its predecessor Greater Tuna? Jordan: “It is a character driven piece, sharply satirical and often broadly comic without stretching its credibility. It has more developed, deeper character arcs to follow. And it really pays off in its final moments.” Precision and endurance are the name of the game in performing A Tuna Christmas. Jordan explains, “We each play ten different people, and have more than twenty costume changes a piece in the show. It’s about three shows worth of work. If you were playing a normal Broadway show you might have thirty pages of dialogue. In A Tuna Christmas we each have fifty pages, single-spaced, just to memorize, plus all those costume changes. Jonathan Beck Reed adds, “You only have fifteen seconds to totally transform yourself from being a little kid into an old woman. It takes three times as many people backstage to make this play work for the two of us onstage.”
What gives the show its lasting appeal? Jordan exclaims, “It has a Christmas spirit, but it’s still laugh-out-loud funny. So it’s a wonderful holiday treat, without any pretension, and, especially in this part of the country, we all know and recognize these people!” He adds, “Together and separately, Jonathan and I have done fifteen different productions of the different ‘Tuna’ plays all over the country. It was one of the first big hits of my career, at that wonderful Fort Worth Theatre, Stage West. And at the same time that I was doing it and won awards for it, Jonathan was doing the first production of it in Oklahoma to great acclaim.” For Donald Jordan and Jonathan Beck Reed, playing the homespun, hilarious characters in A Tuna Christmas feels like coming home for the holidays. A Tuna Christmas is directed byCityRep Development Director Steve Emerson.
Need a splendid, unique Stocking Stuffer? How about an evening with Broadway star Audra MacDonald Sunday, April 2, 2017? Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre proudly present six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald in a one-night only Broadway Concert event, in Ms. McDonald’s Oklahoma premiere at the Visual and Performing Arts Center Theater on the campus of Oklahoma City Community College, 7777 South May Avenue Oklahoma City, OK. One night only, Sunday April 2nd 2016, 8pm. Tickets range from $50 to $200.
City Rep A Tuna Christmas photos courtesy of Mutz Photography
For more information and tickets for either event, please visit www.cityrep.com or call (405) 848-3761