It’s not surprising that a boy born in Broadway, a small town located off U.S. Route 11 just north of Harrisonburg, would hoof his way to becoming one of the most inventive, driven and ubiquitous forces in Richmond dance and theater history.
Randy Strawderman, a dancer, choreographer, director and playwright whose productions lit up area stages, bringing rapturous audiences to their feet for three decades, died Aug. 5 after a long illness. He was 71.
Although his work never made it to the Big Apple, his bold yet highly sensitive interpretations of major Broadway musicals were his trademark. For these, and for “Red, Hot & Cole,” an ambitious theater piece he conceived, directed and choreographed at Barksdale Theatre in 1977, would have earned him a star on Richmond’s performing arts Walk of Fame, if we had such a sidewalk.
Reared on a Powhatan County farm, at 5 years old the hyperactive Strawderman was already displaying performance chops. His father encouraged him to study dance and the child frequently directed his two brothers, Dennis and Sydney, and anyone else he’d corral, in household theatricals. Strong and athletic in his teens, he danced with Norfolk’s Tidewater Ballet as well as the Richmond Ballet during its formative years. He often partnered with local ballerina Earle Elaine Bass.
In 1971, Strawderman graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University where he’d studied drama education. As a college senior he directed “Oh, What a Lovely War” when controversy was raging over the Vietnam conflict on campuses nationwide. The production caught the attention of three influential figures in professional theater here, Muriel McAuley, Nancy Kilgore and David Kilgore. These co-directors of Barksdale Theatre at Hanover Courthouse presented Strawderman’s production on their stage. Eschewing dance, Strawderman soon began a storied, albeit often volatile, decades-long partnership with the highly respected company that is now part of Virginia Repertory Theatre.
In 1972, Strawderman made his professional directing debut at Barksdale directing the brassy and bittersweet Broadway musical “Gypsy.” Many observers thought the complex classic would be impossible to mount on the theater’s tiny stage. But he made it work. Three years later, he upped his game when he directed and choreographed “Godspell,” a rock musical. One Richmond theater reviewer called his production “inspired.” Tough-as-nails critic Roy Proctor of the Richmond News Leader couldn’t contain his enthusiasm for Strawderman’s work: “I rediscovered my humanity.”
In 1977, now acclaimed locally as a whiz kid, Strawderman began work on a musical of his own creation, “Red, Hot & Cole.” It incorporated the biography and songs of Cole Porter. Strawderman co-wrote the book with McAuley and directed and choreographed the ensemble piece. With Washington Post critic Richard Coe calling the piece “sparkling,” Barksdale aimed to take the show to New York. But the budget was huge and the timing bad: The show closed after pre-Broadway tryouts in Los Angeles due to a severe nationwide gasoline shortage.
Back at Barksdale, Strawderman went on to direct “Man of La Mancha” and “Sweeney Todd” among other hits. Soon afterwards came “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” perhaps the freshest of his career triumphs. Its box office success paved the way for a national tour.
“Randy was a force of nature,” says Richmond actor Robert Albertia, 85, cast as Jacob in “Joseph.” “He loved rehearsing and was quite a stickler. Some directors are not as intuitive as he was.” But Albertia also saw what other colleagues had experienced, Strawderman was high-strung and mercurial. “One time during a rehearsal of the play ‘The Middle Ages,’ I had some words with him,” Albertia says. “‘Can’t you go a little easier on the cast?’ He took my advice.”
In 1997, Strawderman conceived, directed and raised major funding for another original musical, “Red Badge of Courage” based on the Stephen Crane Civil War novel. Robin Thompson and Carlos Chafin composed the music. It was produced in association with the Virginia Military Institute and had a brief and expensive run in Lexington.
But perhaps the greatest number of theatergoers experienced Strawderman’s magic at the Byrd Theatre in Carytown watching the Byrdettes perform high kicks. The Rockettes-inspired dance line was the core of Christmas and Easter extravaganzas that Strawderman produced and directed at the movie palace for several years. Lin Lunde, the popular Richmond organist who played the theater’s Wurlitzer for the productions, says he was amazed at how much activity Strawderman could squeeze onto a shallow stage not designed for live shows. “He really worked the cast hard,” says Lunde. At one rehearsal an exasperated Strawderman shouted: “There will be no show,” as he stormed out of the auditorium, “That got their attention.”
More recently Strawderman taught theater at the Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk. Many of his students there, like other thespians with whom he worked, remember him fondly for his knowledge and encouragement.
“Randy was a true artist’s artist,” wrote native Richmonder Jack Cummings III, now a successful director in New York. “[He had] endless curiosity and compassion for the human experience.”
Emily Skinner, a Richmonder and Tony Award-nominated New York actor, said Strawderman “was filled with passion for the stage and unmatched creativity. … [He was] a unique visionary, I loved him for that.”