It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that life has changed dramatically in 2020 for Vanessa Leuck and Ethan Popp.
Of course, everyone’s life has been altered this year by COVID-19, but for the husband and wife theater professionals — he’s a Broadway arranger, musical coordinator, orchestrator and conductor, while she’s a costume designer — the pandemic not only brought a temporary relocation from New York City to the North Fork, but also a reimagining of what they could do in their field on a local level.
It all began last spring when the couple and their 4-year-old son, Aldrin (named for astronaut Buzz Aldrin), were on vacation in Mexico. Learning that the pandemic was taking hold in the United States, they hurried home, packed up much of their place in Queens and, like many denizens of the city, moved to their second home in Greenport to ride it out.
“We have space and a yard so we built Aldrin a play set,” Leuck explained. “We’re two blocks from the beach and able to walk. In Queens, it was cramped and so scary in the beginning, so it’s a total blessing to have this space.”
While it’s been a blessing for the family to be able to retreat to the North Fork for the duration, what’s been more difficult for Leuck and Popp to replicate is the amount of work they had in the pipeline when the pandemic shut down the theater world.
Brought to an abrupt end were all the projects they had a hand in, including their Off-Broadway production of “Emojiland,” which the couple produced together, and for which Leuck was honored with an Outer Critics Circle Award and a 2020 Drama Desk Award nomination for costume design; the Broadway production of “Mrs. Doubtfire,” with musical supervision by Popp, which closed just two previews into its run; and two productions for which Popp was orchestrator — “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” which was running in theaters in the U.K. and Germany had been scheduled to open on Broadway this year, and a stage adaptation of “Back To the Future” in Manchester, U.K., which was shut down by the pandemic after just seven performances.
“We were working on nine or 10 productions around the world,” explained Popp, who is, himself, a two-time Tony Award nominee. “The messaging from Broadway was it would shut down for a month, then it went to three months, then six, and then nine.
“Now they’re talking about fall 2021.”
With more than one vaccine on the horizon, Leuck and Popp realize their respective careers will resume at some point. But as has been true for many people in 2020, in the meantime, the tragedy of the pandemic and the forced pause has also brought opportunity.
“We had talked for about three years about wanting to produce our own work,” said Leuck. “We travel and spend so much time away from each other, we felt it would be wonderful to do our own work and create a company.”
Enter, stage right, Broadway on the North Fork — Leuck and Popp’s new theatrical venture which is currently producing an all-new, one-man adaptation of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” now playing in an immersive, socially-distanced format at Greenport’s First and South Restaurant & Bar through December 20.
The three-hour outdoor dinner theater experience plays to an audience of 20 and stars actor Scott H. Severance as the show’s Storyteller. Severance is well cast, as he has been starring as Scrooge in the national tour of “A Christmas Carol” for the last six years.
Based on the classic Dickens novel, this version features a book by Severance with additional material by Leuck and Popp. The festive holiday production combines a three-course meal with one man’s singular retelling of a tale he’s intimately familiar with, 50 years to the day after Ebenezer Scrooge’s holiday redemption.
“This is a different version of ‘A Christmas Carol,’” explained Leuck. “I love big Broadway shows, but this is immersive theater, where you’re experiencing something and having dinner. I definitely wanted to incorporate the idea of food and drink where you’re not just watching but having an experience. You’re at this house for an annual Christmas party and it’s one man telling of an event.”
“You’re having food and drink with him and he gets caught up in the moment and wants to share a story that changed his life,” added Popp, explaining that the play is divided into two acts with the starter served prior to the first act, the entrée at intermission and dessert following the end of the story.
“It’s the spirit of Christmas, a ghost story and magic, set in Victorian England,” said Leuck. “The story is from a different perspective, we’ve edited it down and added in our own narration and language, including everyone at the party and the narrator speaking from his heart and his mind. It’s a little holiday magic to get us all in the spirit of things.
“Because of his intimate knowledge, the Storyteller isn’t Scrooge, but he knows Scrooge,” she adds.
Leuck and Popp first met in the theater 13 years ago when they worked on the same show, and have often found themselves going in separate directions ever since. Bringing professional theater to the North Fork as a team has been a longstanding goal for the couple, who originally considered the idea of merging a winery with a theater on the North Fork.
“We love the wineries … but didn’t realize how much wineries cost,” laughed Leuck. “Last spring, we were sitting on our back deck having a bottle of wine and said, ‘Why don’t we do a show in our backyard?’ Then the idea grew from there — we could do Broadway on the North Fork.”
Earlier this year, Leuck and Popp spent several months talking with producers in New York and contacting North Fork wineries and hotels with the idea of doing a full-scale musical in the fall. They raised money to pay for PPE, testing and a quarantine house for their actors. But when the state liquor authority shut down all musical events where alcohol was served, they realized they were not going to be able to sell tickets, much less break even on the venture.
“We were devastated,” said Leuck. “We had worked so much on it and had raised $4,000 on GoFundMe. So we wanted to do what we said and bring safe theater to the North Fork.”
“Then six or seven weeks ago, we were sitting around another bottle of wine looking for a way we could bring some theatrical culture to the East End,” said Popp. “That night, we said, ‘Why not call Scott and see if we can develop a one-man telling of this classic story?’”
Next, Leuck and Popp reached out to Sarah Loth, owner of First and South Restaurant & Bar, a venue known for creating unique themed events, to see if she’d be interested in collaborating on the creation of this immersive theatrical event at her venue.
She did, so the plan came to fruition.
“It’s 20 reserved seats per night, socially distanced with masks required and a prix fixe menu with a starter, entrée and dessert, with wine pairings and festive cocktails available,” said Popp.
“It’s beautifully decorated for the holidays with all the COVID safety standards,” added Leuck. “And it’s one of our favorite restaurants out here.”
In terms of the theatrical set-up, Popp explains that the restaurant’s wrap-around porch serves as the stage for the Severance as the Storyteller. Four steps down from the porch is a brick patio where the audience sits at tables. The area is fully tented.
“They’ve done an incredible job of incorporating heat lamps, supplying blankets and decorating the brick patio in Victorian décor,” said Popp.
Rather than fighting the seasonal elements, this production is about embracing the ambiance — weather included — to create an all-encompassing Victorian-themed winter experience.
“They’re also serving warm holiday drinks and two soup appetizers, making it very warm for the holidays,” said Leuck. “We are doing a lengthier intermission — 25 minutes — so all have a while to use the restrooms, order a drink and take a break.”
Though this is a theatrical production, décor for the show is on the simple side — LED candles and Christmas lights, but no real lighting plot.
“Everything is basic and the idea is of telling a story organically with the elements around you,” said Leuck. “Scott discovers items on the porch and uses them in storytelling.”
“Even the fact you’re coming to the Storyteller’s home,” said Popp. “We didn’t want it to feel overly theatrical, but just like any holiday party in 1893 — it’s just the lanterns he put on the porch, the Christmas décor and the magic created by what’s around him.”
Now that they’ve gotten their dream off the ground, Leuck and Popp are looking forward to what else they might be able to do on the North Fork down the road.
“We’d like to do one show in summer, one in fall, one in winter next year,” said Leuck. “We’re starting small with this one-man show, hoping we can do something bigger over summer and fall.
“We’re always crazy busy and wandering around, traveling and working long hours,” she added. “It’s been wonderful to sit tight and work on this dream we’ve had for so many years.”
“As freelancers, you take the work as it comes,” Popp added. “Having this luxury of time since March, we figured now was the time.
“Vanessa and I had talked about wanting to do something in the region and bring our passion to the North Fork,” he added. “What a great way to bring it to here. I can’t say it’s perfect, but it’s the right time and the thing right for us to do.”
In the true spirit of the holidays, the production will be partnering with Community Action Southold Town (CAST) to collect new, unwrapped toys, clothing and monetary donations for North Fork families in need at performances through December 17, and non-perishable food items at performances on December 18 and 20.
“A Christmas Carol” is offered Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays at 5:30 p.m. with brunch performances on Fridays and Sundays at 11:30 a.m. at First and South Bar & Restaurant, 100 South Street, Greenport. The show runs through December 20. Tickets are $105 per person and include the show and a three-course menu. Wine and cocktails are extra. The show is presented in a tented, socially distant outdoor setting and adheres to COVID-19 prevention guidelines. Tickets and information are available at firstandsouth.com and broadwayonthenorthfork.com.