2016-08-05 / Community

Bringing Broadway to your backyard

Saco choreographer uses career in show business to educate, entertain the public
By Molly Lovell-Keely
Managing Editor

Deb Lombard passes out feather boas to the children’s group at a recent rehearsal at her home in Saco. Lombard has a large collection of costumes and accessories. The strangest place she’s gotten costumes? The mother superior at the former convent at Bayview had a friend with a bridal shop that was closing. Lombard went to the convent and picked up about 70 gowns from the nun. All of The Dance Company’s tuxes came from Lee’s Formal, which used to operate in Biddeford. (Molly Lovell-Keely photo) Deb Lombard passes out feather boas to the children’s group at a recent rehearsal at her home in Saco. Lombard has a large collection of costumes and accessories. The strangest place she’s gotten costumes? The mother superior at the former convent at Bayview had a friend with a bridal shop that was closing. Lombard went to the convent and picked up about 70 gowns from the nun. All of The Dance Company’s tuxes came from Lee’s Formal, which used to operate in Biddeford. (Molly Lovell-Keely photo) SACO – The Dance Company once again prepares to put on another production of “The Best of Broadway”– it’s 24th annual show – so the Courier sat down with its director and choreographer to talk about her show business credentials. “I’ve been doing this for 37 years,” said Saco resident Deb Lombard. “There’s so many of what I call umbrellas of what I do or what I’ve done, professionally, personally. I have that side of having done movies, TV commercials, TV shows. Then there’s the other professional side of going to New York City to perform at shows or Newport (Rhode Island) or to Boston doing performances.”

Lombard has also been an educator, both locally and for professional shows.

“I have taught at so many schools – Notre Dame, St. James, Thornton Academy,” she said. “I’ve taught for adult ed programs, the National Guard and then there’s going to The Pines and working with the elders, they’re my silver fox Rockettes.”

Lombard said she likes the pace of being a choreographer for professional shows.

“You’re not teaching them to dance, you’re just giving them the choreography, whereas doing choreography for a middle school production, you have to teach them how to dance. I love it all, it’s just different levels,” she said.

Introducing dance to children in middle or high school can be a special thing, Lombard said.

“That’s where you grab them and it sparks in their life,” she said. “I love teaching high school kids because I teach them on a professional level, yet they are still beginners. I treat them as a professional because I want them to work at their highest potential. If you approach them as if they’re beginners, you’re going to get beginner level work. You can really pull some great stuff out of kids who have never danced before.”

David Moses, 18, just graduated from Thornton Academy and will attend Fordham University for theater. Home-schooled most of his life, he has been with The Dance Company for two years.

“He got the bug,” Lombard said.

Aja Sobus, another 2016 Thornton graduate, will attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City for performing arts. She will be enrolled in its integrated major, which is dance, theater and voice, and said being a member of The Dance Company has prepared her for college in so many ways.

“My repertoire of musical theater shows has greatly improved and I love how Deb has shown me how much more there is to theater than just the shows that everyone is currently talking about,” Sobus said.

Her technique has also improved.

“Deb works with us not only on the dance number itself but how to correctly portray a move,” Sobus said. “I’ve been part of the company since my freshman year in high school and I really regret not joining before then because this experience has been amazing. Deb is such an amazing person and an outstanding choreographer.”

Sobus had danced with other companies, but said The Dance Company is the first where she truly felt she was learning something she would take with her beyond high school. She also admires the professional manner in which Lombard runs a show.

In addition, Sobus appreciates Lombard’s interactions with even the company’s youngest members.

“She treats each and every one of us with respect and even treats the kids like they are adults, which I think is amazing because then they are taught truly how show business is run. I’ve loved my four years with ‘The Best of Broadway’ and I’m definitely coming back.”

Emilee Wermenchuk started dancing with the company when she was at the former Notre Dame School in Saco. Next year she’ll attend Marymount Manhattan College, with a double major in communication arts and theater production/stage management.

“Even at a young age I was able was able to see how all the components of a show work and come together,” she said.

Though it’s sort of an unofficial title, Lombard named Wermenchuk a dance captain once she transitioned from the children’s group to the teen/adult group. Part of her role included keeping track of choreography, helping lead and asking questions.

Lombard didn’t get into dance until she was 23, but said it was always in her, and took to it easily. She said teaching the members of Dance Company who are there just to have fun is the most fun for her.

“It’s a venue for people who have a love for it, who may not have a place to do it because they’re not going to be professionals,” she said. “They’re everyday people. They can be on a high level of dance ability or have no level of dance ability and come together and have fun. That’s what it’s about: Having fun, entertaining and educating the public.”

That, however, doesn’t mean Lombard doesn’t hold a professional show. The list of people she’s worked with and learned from include Ray Chew, Diana Ross, the Jersey Boys, Harold “Stumpy” Cromer. She’s also worked closely with Carl Schmehl, creative director of Shackman Events, a management and event company in New York City, and artistic director of the nonprofit Nantucket based theater group On The Isle. The two met in the 1980s when he came up to Maine to direct a show for Webber Hospital, now Southern Maine Health Care, where Lombard was on the auxiliary board.

“I have learned so much from (Schmehl),” Lombard said. “Like when he was producing at Radio City, I was back stage with the Rockettes – I was on that stage. It just takes you to another place.”

“To be in their costume room, just seeing the work that goes into that . . . seeing their feet that are blistered and bleeding after rehearsing – it’s all just amazing,” she said. “When you go as an audience member and you see the Christmas Spectacular and you see technically, how it’s done, you have to see it so many times because maybe one I watch it as the production, another time I’m watching it technically, another time I’m watching the choreography.

“To see how the pit – the orchestra – will come up and travel across the stage, then go into the belly of the theater, and then to see the hydraulics that make that all work. Or to be up on the cat walk 60 feet above the stage, to see how the entire fly system works – it’s incredible. I’m always in awe of it. It never gets old for me.”

Lombard has been asked to travel to New York City to watch professional shows, with their producers, because when she put on the show in Maine, it couldn't differ from the original piece.

“It ends up being the same thing for our ‘Best of Broadway’ show. Maybe not the budget or the spectacular theater that you’re in, but it’s still every safety pin, every bobby pin, every program, every curtain, everything about lighting design, costuming, sound – it all comes from these years of experience, being back stage at ‘When Pigs Fly’ and seeing it run so many times, being in the Douglas Fairbanks Theater, going to the national auditions of ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.’”

“It’s a learning experience all the time,” she added. “Even though it’s been 37 years in the business, I still take every single professional gig that I go to, and I use it.”

While Lombard holds it all close, some moments throughout her career stand out.

Schmehl directed a silent film and held a premier on Nantucket that Lombard danced for and even costumed.

“The streets are lined with cottages and flowers, they’re like carriage trails. The whole town came out. I brought so many costumes down there, pieces that (Schmehl) wasn’t able to bring up from New York, and we costumed the whole town in things like fringe dresses and period clothes,” she said. “It was grand.”

Lombard had recently finished a run of “Annie” at Schoolhouse Arts Center in Standish, and in attendance at the Nantucket event was Thomas Meehan, the writer of “Annie.”

“These greats, they’re all in their 80s now, to still get the chance to meet them is amazing, people who I’ve admired for so long,” she added.

Another memory Lombard won’t soon forget is dancing on The Intrepid, a military ship that’s now a museum in New York City, with Dance Company alum Jeb Knight. Knight, by the way, is one of about 30 former students that Lombard estimates have gone on to have a career in show business.

“It was one show and it was a million dollar production,” she said. “He just got done on the production end of ‘Allegiance,’ with George Takei, so when he came up at Christmastime we spent three hours in my living room choreographing a dance to ‘Sing, Sing, Sing.’”

When it came time for the show in February, the duo boarded the Intrepid and were told they were expected to perform a full 15 minutes.

“So we rehearsed with the band, which was another big wheel in the business, and I wanted to speak to Dean, just ask him about the tempo of ‘Sing, Sing, Sing,’ when I hear him on the headset: ‘Yep, Deb, she’s right here, OK.’ He goes, ‘You’re going on.’”

Lombard said 700 guests on the ship started entering the performance space and the next thing she knew: “All I remember is that opening drum of ‘Sing, Sing, Sing,’ boom, boom boom, boom, badoom, boom boom.”

The pair doesn’t know what is next or what they’ll do, so they wing it.

“I’m like, ‘Jeb, this is great for the Shim Sham.’ So we did the Shim Sham. After that, I said, we’re going to do a little swing, then we’re going to get people up from the audience to dance with us – and they loved it,” she said.

“That’s what I mean about stepping up your professional level. When you’re told you’ve got to cover 15 minutes and you don’t know what the music is, you fill it.”

“I’ll never forget the joy that comes from taking a kid that started with me when he was 15 years old at Bonny Eagle High School, doing his first show, to getting to do that with him.”

This year’s show will be held at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 9 at The Temple in Ocean Park.

What some may not know is that the terms “Broadway” and “off Broadway” doesn’t only refer to a location. The way a Broadway house is determined is by the number of seats it holds. Broadway 500-plus, off Broadway, 100 to 499; off off Broadway is 99 and below. If The Temple, where “The Best of Broadway” is held, was to be categorized, it would be a Broadway house equivalent.

“I just look at all the experiences I’ve had and bring that all together for this show, it is an incredible amount of work that all comes together and that I am so grateful for.”

See the show

The Best of Broadway will be held at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 9 At The Temple, 50 Temple Ave., Ocean Park. Doors open at 7 p.m. and tickets are $12 for adults, $8 for 12 and younger. A portion of proceeds benefit the Education Bureau of Ocean Park.

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