BY CARY GINELL
At twenty-eight, Blythe Renay is amazingly close to the character she portrays in the Conejo Players’ production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” Attractive, spunky, and eminently talented, Blythe has a sense of idealism and chutzpah that has propelled her across the country to seek her dream. Like Millie, Blythe uprooted herself from Kansas five months ago to come to the big city and is looking to satisfy her craving for performing in community theater with this, her first show in Ventura County. As we reported in this week’s edition of the Acorn (http://www.theacorn.com/news/2014-03-20/On_the_Town/Throwback_musical_pleases_the_crowd.html), Blythe has made a splendid debut and we look forward to seeing more of her in the near future on our stages. I met with Blythe at a Starbucks recently to talk about her journey.
VCOS: So what convinced you to come to California?
BLYTHE: Well, I spent the last four years in Oklahoma, working a corporate day job in accounting. I had moved there and was trying to get into musical theater, and I went on about three auditions, got callbacks for lead roles and didn’t even get cast in their chorus for any of them. So I gave up. And after about four years of not doing musical theater, I couldn’t take it anymore. I realized I was completely miserable and I made the decision that I had to get out really quickly. I was afraid that I was going to wake up and another four years would have passed, so I just picked a date about three months down the line, packed up my car, and left.
VCOS: That took a lot of guts.
BLYTHE: That’s what people keep telling me. I don’t see it that way, honestly!
VCOS: How did it all start for you?
BLYTHE: I started dancing when I was two years old. I come from a family of dancers. My grandma actually teaches dance to this day. So when I was two, I was already spending time in the studio. I potty-trained myself because I couldn’t go to dance class until I got out of diapers. Then they realized that I had a knack for singing so when I was eight, I auditioned for my first musical. It was a high school production of Annie so I was cast as Molly. All the main roles were cast for the high school kids, but the ancillary orphans came from elementary schools. I loved it and did really well with it, so my next audition was for a dinner theater in Kansas City that I was told later was one of the largest dinner theaters in the country. I got cast in Fiddler on the Roof in a summer production. I did eighty-eight performances and the show was double-cast, so I wound up doing forty-four productions when I was eight years old. I found my voice teacher there; he was the music director, so I stuck with him for ten years and started doing musicals once per year outside of school.
VCOS: What drives you? Do you have an outgoing personality?
BLYTHE: Yes, especially as a kid. I was definitely outgoing. Very much a social butterfly.
VCOS: Did you like to pretend?
BLYTHE: Yes. I was an only child, so I think that was a driving force. A lot of playing when I was a kid was on my own and I had to make up my own things. I would make up my own productions and sing. I grew up on musicals. My grandma showed me all the movie musicals when I was a kid.
VCOS: Where did she perform?
BLYTHE: She started teaching dance when she was fourteen and never stopped. She opened her own studio for a while and her sister is also a dance teacher. She has a fifty-plus program now in Kansas City. It’s adorable. I’m flying her out on the third weekend to see me in Millie because there are not a lot of roles like this. At all. Millie is a HUGE role. My grandma got me into dance, she got me into musicals, she took me to all my auditions, she let me go to all the cast parties, she took me to rehearsals, she was just always there. And standing back. She wasn’t a stage mom, she was great, and stood back and let me do what I was going to do. She never pushed me, she was just the facilitator. It was always something that I wanted to do.
VCOS: What about school?
BLYTHE: I finished high school and had very little desire to go on to college, so I didn’t. I went into the work force after high school and just continued doing musicals on the side in community theater productions. It just wasn’t something I was ready to pursue as a career. Now, I am thinking about a career. I like stability, though, and performing careers are not terribly stable.
VCOS: Neither is packing up and moving halfway across the country!
BLYTHE: (laughs) Right! That’s true! But I’ve been focusing on the most stable kind of performing careers that one can have. I’ve been auditioning for cruise lines, Disney, Universal, those sorts of things. So I’m looking at that as an option.
VCOS: How are you like Millie?
BLYTHE: Well, we were both born and raised in Kansas, for starters. I spent the last four years in Oklahoma but I would never call it my home. I love Kansas. I imagine that if I ever leave California, it’ll probably be to go back to Kansas.
VCOS: How much time are you giving yourself?
BLYTHE: I’m not putting any limits on it. I don’t think it’s smart. It happens differently for everyone. And I’m happy here. I’m not ready to go back to Kansas just yet.
VCOS: Is this your first show here?
BLYTHE: Yes. This is my first show in five years.
VCOS: Tell me about your audition. You must have blown them away.
BLYTHE: I needed that audition so badly! Sutton Foster originated the role of Millie so I walked in singing a different Sutton Foster musical song, “Astonishing,” from Little Women. And I had a really great audition. Sutton is a belter but they wanted me to sing something pretty as well, which is always a good sign. So I sang “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” from Sweeney Todd. Then we did the dance part and I felt really great about that. Then we tapped, and it had been a long time since I had tapped with any regularity, but I was nailing EVERYTHING. When I walked out of that audition, I didn’t care if I didn’t get anything. That audition was one of the best auditions I have had in my entire life. And it felt so good! I was just so happy with what I did. Right here. And I didn’t even care. It didn’t matter. It’s unusual to walk into a community like this, you know, where everyone knows everyone else, and still walk away with a lead role. I was legitimately shocked when I got the email. I had no idea. I had already called people and told them I wasn’t going to get this one.
VCOS: How has it been working with the cast?
BLYTHE: I don’t think I could ask for a better cast. Community theater is wonderful. But it can be hit or miss. But this is one of the most solid casts I’ve ever worked with. Talent-wise, they’re fantastic. And then, as far as personalities go, everyone gets along really well, everyone is so nice, and so supportive, every aspect of it, I just couldn’t ask for better people.
VCOS: Tell me about working with Becca Peyton. She has this big, round, huge, opera kind of voice and you have this classic Broadway voice. How do you mesh with her, with you two having such different voices?
BLYTHE: Becca blows me away every time she opens her mouth. Becca and I actually auditioned together. When I saw her audition, I said to myself, “That’s Miss Dorothy. She’s it.” Then we read together as Millie and Dorothy. I was the only girl they asked to read for Millie that day. So we read together, and I said to myself, “I love this!” We just immediately clicked and immediately hit it off, and, I don’t know, everyone in the cast thought that we’d known each other coming into the show! That day, we just jived. I feel that that’s how it’s been with our voices. They’re so different, but there’s something about them that just complements each other. I love singing with her and she’s so talented and so sweet.
VCOS: Tell me about “The Speed Test.” Had you done any Gilbert and Sullivan before?
BLYTHE: I did Pirates of Penzance seven or eight years ago so I knew the song. Thoroughly Modern Millie is one of my favorite musicals and I have a really difficult time picking musicals that are my favorites. But this is one that I always come back to, probably because the role of Millie is so strong and so singable for me. The first time I saw Millie, I can tell you it was at the Starlight Theater in Kansas City. I remember it very vividly. I remember hearing “Gimme Gimme” and my jaw dropping to the ground. I fell in love that night, got the soundtrack the next day, and have been in love with that musical ever since. So I knew “The Speed Test” frontwards, backwards, sideways, walking in here. I wore that soundtrack out.
VCOS: So what’s next for you?
BLYTHE: The support of everyone here has been so good for me. I’ve been so starved for this. I’ve been doing other creative things, but this is what I love. Musical theater is my home. And I was not doing musical theater. Honestly, I’d be happy if I stayed in community theater. I’m trying for more and I would like to continue trying for more for a while, but I suspect I will be doing community theater for the rest of my life. I had never even heard of Conejo Players before my audition, but I fell into it, and I lucked out. I love it here.
Thoroughly Modern Millie plays at the Conejo Players Theatre through April 13. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.