Renaissance Entrepreneur


HE'S ALMOST a Renaissance man. Starting out at 26 as the president of an Ohio bank. Charlie Kirkwood has since worked as a publisher of a newspaper in Bangkok, a gandy dancer on the Alaskan railroad, a war-time reporter in Pakistan and Vietnam, and the founder of a prestigious law firm in Thailand. But now the man who describes himself as "an entrepreneur by nature" is back doing what he most enjoys--producing a revival of the hit musical Godspell, playing this month at the Charles Playhouse in Boston.

"The first time I saw the show I fell in love with it," Kirkwood says. "It's a show with a message that still escapes being heavy. It's very visual and fast-moving, and it rivets your attention" for over two and a half hours.

Having lived much of his adult life in Asia, Kirkwood wanted badly to send his five children to school back in Eastern Pennsylvania, in the Pocono Mountain region where he was born. Returning to the United States in 1974, he and his wife Ginny purchased an old resort hotel in the area, restoring the neglected building to its historic g1randeur. The inn had a large theatre in the back, and before long Kirkwood had reopened it as the Shawnee Playhouse, which has hosted as many as 14 musicals in the last two seasons. Kirkwood produces all the shows locally, but casting is done in New York, where a larger pool of aspiring actors are available to audition.

All it took to fall in love with Godspell was seeing it once in New York. After producing the show--a celebration of the life of Christ based on the Gospel of St. Matthew--at the Shawnee Playhouse, the show first opened in 1971 for a spectacular 86-week run. A man who says he often acts on first impulses. Kirkwood began to pull strings. He bought the rights to the Broadway production, asked his old friend Stephen de Angels, the Artistic Director of the Shawnee Playhouse and an actor in the original national tour of Godspell to direct and held Equity auditions in New York.

The turnout was tremendous--more than 1700 actors showed up to audition for 12 parts. "I was really able to pick and choose for Godspell Kirkwood says. The president cast was the best New York had to offer.

The revival relies largely on the original script, and employs costumes and stage settings almost identical to those of the Broadway production. But Kirkwood says he felt it was important to "bring the show up to date," so the actors were encouraged to ad lib in rehearsals and to "try different characters on for size," according to Harvey Zuckerman, a member of the cast.

The result is a newer, more topical Godspell and one Kirkwood says he enjoys watching as much as producing. "That show just does something to its audience," he marvels. "When you walk out of the theater you can't help feeling terrific. Jean E. Engelmayer