A Broadway career leads to the family feel of Upper Valley theater


For the Valley News

Published: 08-30-2019 10:00 PM

“The show must go on” is a tried-and-true slogan in show business, where all good things come to an end, and flops end even faster. For Dorothy Stanley, the shows have gone on and on. And there’s still more ahead.

Stanley, now in her 60s and settled in Vermont, recounts her life in shows, the way a baseball player might list teams or an architect buildings. Her memory carries her back to Broadway, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Chicago and, closer to home, Weston, Vt., New London, Enfield, White River Junction.

In all, she thinks, there were something like a dozen plays, more than 100 musicals. Among them were 17 Broadway shows.

Carol Dunne, producing artistic director at Northern Stage in White River Junction, calls Stanley “such a pro” and an inspiration. “She’s one of the most talented and experienced performers I’ve worked with,” Dunne said, “and yet she’s so humble.”

Some Broadway veterans who’ve come to Northern Stage have acted “as if they have something to teach us. They had an attitude,” Dunne said. But there’s none of that with Stanley. Dunne said she is “quirky, funny and fun.”

Stanley has never been headliner famous, but she has had plenty of work, a point of pride in a business where young actors often perform daily as food servers or bartenders. “I only waitressed once, in ’73,” she said.

Not bad for someone who hit the stage and belted out a solo tune, Oh, You Beautiful Doll, at age 4 in the ornate and very large Bushnell Theater in Hartford, Conn. “That’s what started it all,” she said with a flourish.

She had found her passion. “I love to perform,” said Stanley. Her parents approved of her desire, and she took all her electives in drama as an undergraduate at Ithaca College and a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, where she received an MFA in music. There were two summers as an intern with the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera company. Her first show as a pro was in Pittsburgh, and she was off to New York in 1977.

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Why did she think she could make it there? “I always wanted to do it since I was a little kid,” Stanley explained. “I felt like I could dance well enough to be on Broadway.”

She was a “triple threat,” by her account, a performer who could sing, dance and act. That gave her an edge over those who could sing and dance but couldn’t act a lick.

Her first Broadway appearance was in the ensemble of Sugar Babies, in 1980, which starred Ann Miller and Mickey Rooney, veteran stars of stage and screen who were still hoofing it decades after they started. (One account says Miller, in her mid-50s, “astounded” audiences with her belt-out-a-tune singing and high kicks.)

“There’s something about the theater that keeps people young,” Stanley said. She’s living proof of it now; it amused her to think she’s the age of older show-biz vets she appeared with years ago.

Stanley also worked in a run at Radio City Music Hall starring Liza Minelli, who was previewing a Broadway show. “She was delightful,” said Stanley. “She was so lovely to work with.”

Among her roles on the Great White Way were Lily St. Regis in Annie, Ellie in Show Boat, Peg in High Society and many more. She also took on a number of understudy and standby gigs; in the latter the performer waits in the wings in case a star is unable to continue.

As time went on, she made Vermont connections. She said she loves the state and believes it may even be good for your health. “There’s something in the air,” she said. Her parents bought a farm close to where she lives now, and Stanley appeared in shows at the Weston Playhouse. She also has performed at the New London Barn Playhouse, Shaker Bridge in Enfield and several times at Northern Stage.

Stanley, who goes by Dottie, lives in Mount Holly, not far from Okemo Mountain, about an hour from where interstates 89 and 91 crisscross in White River Junction. Though she still has an apartment in New York City, which she sublets out, it’s here where she makes her home.

This summer the feeling of home and family grew stronger when she had to pull out of the musical Once at Northern Stage when her husband died in mid-June, and her dog died soon after, both from brain tumors.

She said Carol Dunne and the company couldn’t have been more supportive; Dunne filled in for her for a handful of performances and paid her for them, and the other actors and staff sent notes and lovely flowers.

Stanley said Dunne creates a feeling of family among the cast and crew at Northern Stage: “It’s like she’s my younger sister.”

Dunne said helping out in a time of need was the thing to do. “Life’s troubles are real and the theater isn’t,” she said.

In an interview earlier this month at Stanley’s home in Mount Holly, the losses weighed heavily on her. She met her late husband, Reginald Vessey, when she was performing in Show Boat near Toronto. He was a production carpenter on the show. They were married 20 years.

Stanley said Vessey was a “go-getter,” the prime mover behind seven pretty gardens around their home that were featured in a local garden tour this summer. She’s more laid back, she said, “but when I go, I go.”

On the shelves and in nooks and crannies are many objects from their show biz careers. Posters inscribed with messages to Vessey from Patrick Stewart and Helen Mirren look out from the walls. There are paintings and drawings her late husband made, including pen and ink drawings of Broadway performers such as Matthew Broderick. Vessey was talented; his painting 911 on Vesey Street won him a posthumous award in AVA Gallery’s Summer Juried Exhibition in Lebanon. Stanley’s hobby is photography; two of her Vermont landscapes have been used for the cover on local calendars.

Stanley said she has many decisions ahead of her, but friends have advised her to wait a year before making major ones. She was relying on a personal spirituality that included “mind over matter” and a feeling that loved ones are never really gone.

The stage still beckons. Next week she will start rehearsals for the Paula Vogel play Indecent at Weston Playhouse’s new theater at Walker Farm. And she has just landed another role: She will play Sister Margaretta in The Sound of Music at Northern Stage in a production that runs through the holidays.

It will be another addition to her body of work, way, way off Broadway and some 250 miles from New York, but Stanley says it’s still a thrill.

Another opening, another show, as they say.

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. Contact him at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.