East meets West: MN West instructor to direct musical ‘Nine’

When Eric Parrish, theater and music instructor at Minnesota West Community and Technical College, chose the cast for an upcoming production of "Nine," a musical he is directing this summer in southeast Minnesota -- the region where he grew up --...

Whitney Place (from left), Eric Parrish and Sydney Place-Sallstrom pose for a photo. Submitted photo by Ed Brown

When Eric Parrish, theater and music instructor at Minnesota West Community and Technical College, chose the cast for an upcoming production of “Nine,” a musical he is directing this summer in southeast Minnesota - the region where he grew up - he didn’t realize that he was hiring two women from southwest Minnesota - the region where he now lives. 

“We grew up in Heron Lake, doing musical theater with our family every summer, and now my sister Whitney and I both live in the Cities and do musical theater in Faribault,” explained Sydney Place-Sallstrom. “And Eric grew up working with the Merlin Players, and now he’s in Worthington.”

“It’s like we switched communities,” laughed Parrish.
The Merlin Players are a semi-professional community theater company that performs at the historic Paradise Theater for the Arts in Faribault. Parrish has worked with them since he was a teenager - backstage, on stage and as a director. This spring, when auditioning actors for the cast of “Nine,” 40 women tried out, Whitney Place and Sydney among them. This may seem like a large number of women trying out for one show, but with a cast of 23 women, four boys and one man, it makes a little more sense.
“Since we had so many try out, I was able to be picky,” Parrish said. “When it came down to deciding, I made Whitney a nun, and Sydney (is) Guido’s wife.”
For those who may wonder about the title, “Nine” is based on the book “Nine,” by Arthur Kopit, and acts as a sort of “next step,” according to Parrish, after the semi-autobiographical 1963 film “8 ½”, written and directed by famed filmmaker Federico Fellini.
“Nine is the story of Guido Contini, a screenwriter and director, and his obsession with women,” Parrish explained. “The show goes in and out of five levels of time, dealing with Guido’s memories of the many women in his life.”
If this sounds a little confusing, that’s because it is, Sydney admits, “a complex show.” But they all hasten to explain that on stage it all plays out smoothly, through pre-filmed “flashback” scenes depicting Guido’s memories as well as a show-within-a-show featuring a fantastic cast of singers and actors.
“Guido is looking for a new muse because he has writer’s block, but he’s signed on to do this new movie, and he needs inspiration,” Parrish explained. “So he thinks through all of the women in his life, from the nuns when he was a boy to the women he’s known as an adult.”
“Basically, he has to choose between his wife, his mistress and his movie star,” agreed Sydney. “I, as his wife, am very supportive of his artistic process in the first act, and then in the second act I hit the breaking point. I’m trying to get him to be a good husband and stop being a philanderer, but I also want him to be good at what he does.”
“Luisa, his wife, sees that he’s in a crisis,” Parrish picked up the narration. “She calls Claudia, his favorite movie star, to come and inspire him. In the process of interacting with her she shows him his obsession with women, and ultimately he turns his own life into a Casanova story for his new film.”
“My job as director is to help the audience understand what is happening, because all of it can be confusing,” concluded Parrish. “I want them to be able to understand that it is artistic-driven, that it is using art itself as a metaphor.”
In the midst of Guido’s memories and musing, there are several large chorus-led musical numbers.
“There is a great show-stealing scene with a huge musical number,” said Whitney. “The music is so wonderful. We have amazing voices in the cast. Amazing. I’m having a blast singing with these fantastic women.”
Parrish agreed.
“At one point we have seven-part harmonies. We have five voice majors in the cast, and three music teachers.” he said.
Through this process of acting together again - this is the first play the sisters have done together in years - the Place sisters find themselves remembering fondly their years growing up in musical theater.
“I was in my first show at the age of 5,” laughed Sydney. “I was Greta in ‘The Sound of Music’ and Whitney was Marta. We grew up doing shows every summer with our whole family, through the Jackson County Arts Guild.”
They also remember the joy of interacting with fellow actors.
“I loved hanging out with so many eclectic people,” Whitney remembered, “to make something with all these different people, to learn from them and be friends with them. More recently I’ve been in a cast with an assistant attorney general and with a janitor, and they’re all great. It doesn’t matter your background, you can create amazing things together.”
“I remember idolizing the older cast members when I was a kid,” Sydney smiled. “They were like mentors, and now I’m able to help mentor the younger cast members, and that’s a really rewarding feeling. They’re so talented, these kids. The Merlin Players have a great internship program to train kids. Eric was the first to graduate from it, actually. They learn to do costumes, run lights, do all kinds of back stage things as well as to act.”
“It really takes a village to make it all happen,” Whitney agreed. “We have an amazing number of volunteers, and the whole production staff, music director Peter Webb and choreographer Mary Hahn, and of course, Eric as our director, are fantastic.”
“Eric is a gem for this community,” Sydney added. “I am so excited to be able to work with him.”
Nine marks the culmination of The Merlin Players’ 20th anniversary season.
“We’ve had a great 20-year history,” said Parrish. “We’re always open to new material and looking to engage new people. The Paradise Theater is driving the revitalization of Faribault’s downtown, and the caliber of this cast really speaks to the talent of the region and the community.”
The Place sisters are both thrilled to be a part of that talented cast, especially as it is likely to be the last time that they’ll act together - at least for a long time - as Sydney and her husband will move to Sioux Falls later this summer, leaving a Faribault commute out of the question.
Whitney, who plans to marry next summer, is not sure what the future holds for her acting, but one thing is certain: she will forever be an avid fan of musical theater.
“I love, love, love watching musical theater,” enthused Whitney. “I have to think my character through pretty long and hard when I’m acting.”
Sister Sydney agrees that “Nine” is a challenge, but also a delight.
“It is hard work,” admitted Sydney. “The show would not work without a cast and director up to the task, but it is a special cast. I think people will be very impressed. It is not your typical community theater.”
Whitney agreed.
“The seven principal characters are all wonderful. It will be very cool. There is over-the-top comedy and 17th-century opera and amazing voices and show-stealing numbers. The audience will know right away that they’re in for something fantastic.”

“Nine” performances are set for July 24, 25, 30, 31, and Aug. 1 at 7:30 p.m., and July 26 at 2 p.m. Tickets go on sale on Tuesday in Faribault. The box office is open from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays and noon to 8 p.m. Thursdays, as well as one hour before shows. The box office can be reached at (507) 332-7372.

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