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Amphibious Assault 

Here we are sailing into 2006 and yet every story seems still to be, in some way, a Katrina story. Take Brandt Blocker and his latest musical production, the family-oriented musical A Year With Frog and Toad. Before Katrina struck, the show was scheduled to open at Six Flags amusement park, where Blocker did a snazzy, groundbreaking Seussical The Musical last January. But the big wind blew, Blocker hightailed it to Austin, Texas, and when he came back, Six Flags' eastern New Orleans location was closed indefinitely.

Well, the plucky Mr. B.B. was determined to be part of the artistic recovery effort. So he reassembled his cast, and A Year With Frog and Toad opens this weekend at the Solomon Theater in St. Martin's Episcopal School -- which Blocker touts as "one of the city's hidden gems."

But there were still more Katrina complications. The rehearsal studio that Blocker customarily uses was a hurricane casualty. So was his apartment. Blocker rented a new house, and he took to rehearsing there. The main rehearsal hall was, in fact, Blocker's bedroom -- or rather, bedroom-to-be. For the room was empty, except for a carpet and a ceiling fan -- unless you count one small boom-box as furniture.

When I dropped by to watch a rehearsal, Casey Lee Thompson was operating the boom-box. Thompson is a petite, attractive blonde who is choreographing the show. She's actually a former student of Blocker's from Immaculata High School. Now, you might think a barren, improvised rehearsal hall would be a dreary place, but the room rang with incessant laughter. Not that the level of effort suffered; Thompson was precise and demanding -- in a good-natured way. And Blocker leapt into action whenever he saw a way to tighten up a scene by changing a gesture or inflection. Details mattered. But so did fun.

Those two aspects -- details and fun -- sum up the special magic of a Brandt Blocker show. For example, Thompson told me that Blocker (who has no dance training) once noticed a finger movement in a dance. A finger movement! How's that for a detail!

"Brandt thought maybe it should be bigger," Thompson remembers. "But, he didn't change the movement. He just wanted to talk it over with me. After all, I was the choreographer."

By now, of course, we've seen enough Brandt Blocker shows to expect a high level of proficiency in a tight but inventive entertainment -- slickness without slickness (if you'll pardon a Zen-like description). Although Blocker does it all: produce, direct and promote a show. His background is actually in music (which he studied at Loyola University). Paradoxically, though, he first caught the theater bug as an actor.

"I was dragooned into performing by the Loreto Sisters of Ireland," he says, with a laugh, "They were doing The Sound of Music. And they wanted me in the show. That was my seventh grade year in St. Penilde elementary school in Metairie, where I grew up.

"I said, 'No way!' Look, I have three brothers. One is a football coach. One is in the Army. No way I was going to let myself get ribbed by them for singing in public. But you know those nuns. They don't take 'no' for an answer.

"Well, I liked performing," Blocker continues. "I spent the next four years as an actor, performing all over. I picked up a little something from each director I worked with. But my real education in musical theater came from my mother. She loved the old Hollywood musicals. She had a huge collection of videos. We watched them and watched them."

Gradually, Blocker decided he didn't belong in front of the spotlights, but behind them. He served as resident musical director for Rivertown Rep from 1994 to 1998. While there, He won a Big Easy Entertainment Award as Best Musical Director for The Will Rogers Follies. Then, Sonny Borey, who had taken over as the kingpin of Le Petit Theatre, asked Blocker to come aboard as director of their Children's Corner. Blocker's productions of Snoopy, Honk and You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown and (among many others) were smash hits. Meanwhile, on the main stage, Five Guys Named Moe and Grease showed that Blocker's directorial chops were not limited to the wee set. In fact, his sensational Smokey Joe's CafŽ at The Jefferson Performing Arts Society garnered him another Big Easy Entertainment Award for Best Musical.

Now, Blocker is forging ahead once again with a new show. And it's likely to prove a hit. After all, A Year With Frog and Toad (music by Robert Reale, book and lyrics by Willie Reale) was nominated for three Tony Awards, including Best Musical, after its 2003 Broadway run. The musical is based on Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad children's books, using a 1930s-era jazz-influenced score to present a story about the power of friendship through the eyes of some very animated amphibians.

And Blocker's cast of local luminaries for this outing -- Jimmy Murphy, "Uncle Wayne" Daigrepont, Scott Sauber and Liz Argus -- will no doubt get the details right and lay on the fun as well.

click to enlarge Musical director Brandt Blocker (right) puts Jimmy - Murphy (left) and "Uncle Wayne" Daigrepont through the - paces during a rehearsal for the upcoming production of - A Year With Frog and Toad, which opens this - weekend at St. Martin';s Episcopal School in Metairie. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Musical director Brandt Blocker (right) puts Jimmy Murphy (left) and "Uncle Wayne" Daigrepont through the paces during a rehearsal for the upcoming production of A Year With Frog and Toad, which opens this weekend at St. Martin';s Episcopal School in Metairie.
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