Engeman Theater’s Hidden Orchestra Ignites The Stage

By Janee Law

jlaw@longislandergroup.com

The John Engeman Theater’s live, six-member orchestra stays hidden underneath the stage in what is known as the pit. Pictured above is Russell Brown, back left; Josh Endlich, back right; Joe Boardman, center; Frank Hall, front left; and Bob Dalpiaz, front right.

The John Engeman Theater’s live, six-member orchestra stays hidden underneath the stage in what is known as the pit. Pictured above is Russell Brown, back left; Josh Endlich, back right; Joe Boardman, center; Frank Hall, front left; and Bob Dalpiaz, front right.

Theater and film wouldn’t be the same without the music that ignites the scene. With talented musicians, music sparks an emotional response with audience members and although it may go unnoticed since the sound itself cannot be seen, it plays a major role in any production.

At the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport Village, its powerful orchestra is hidden ever so subtly underneath the 875-square-foot stage in what is known as the pit.

At 250 square feet, the pit is decked out in curtains and wedge foam acoustic panels for “sound dampening,” Russell Brown, who plays the bass, said. “It would be so loud in here so it absorbs the sound and keeps more control down here.” 

Without seeing the performers on stage, Richard Dolce, managing director, said the musicians and actors stay on cue with each other by overlooking the monitors. With two 20-inch monitors hanging off to the sides in the audience and two monitors off to the side on stage, the actors can see what the instructor is doing down in pit. In the same respect, the music instructor has a monitor, as well, which depicts what the actors are doing on stage. The orchestra follows the instructor’s lead. 

“Usually once the show’s been running a couple of times everyone is pretty much on autopilot,” Dolce said. “So they know when to come in and when not to.”

The orchestra usually consists of six members. For the recent “Mary Poppins” production, the orchestra featured Michael Hopewell as the conductor and on keyboards; Frank Hall on trombone; Bob Dalpiaz on reeds; Josh Endlich on drums; Brown on bass; and Joe Boardman on trumpet.

Brown, who has been performing with the theater for three years, said shows that are originally orchestrated for 23 members can be written for a six-member orchestra.

“What happens is all the players start picking up all these extra parts so we have to work a little harder to cover all those different voices,” Brown, of West Islip said. “It does add a level of difficulty but it’s expected of the musicians now to double on their parts.” 

Musicians doubling on their parts are Dalpiaz, who covers six instruments; Brown, who covers two instruments; Boardman, who covers three instruments; and Endlich, who covers percussion instruments. 

With microphones set up in the pit, the sound goes through to Laura Shubert, the sound supervisor and sound engineer, who keeps the sound levels in check for the audience.

However, Dolce said that there are times when there’s a miscue during a performance but both performers and musicians are professionals at getting back on track. 

Brown added that the benefit to performing live is being able to compensate for a miscue.

“That’s one of the pluses for always having live musicians,” he added. “When things do go wrong we are ready to jump on it and make the corrections as they happen.”

With every production, musicians typically receive the music two weeks before the first rehearsal. The orchestra has a total of four rehearsals, including two rehearsals with the cast, and each consists of four to five hours.

In regards to the audience members, Brown said theatergoers are surprised to learn that the production was performed with live music because of the quality of the sound.

“Performing at such a high caliber with great musicians is always self satisfying so it’s always a rewarding experience,” Brown said. “Plus, getting a reaction from the audience, putting smiles on their faces, is always a positive reinforcement for us as well.”