Calling All Madonna Wannabes: The Making of Closer to Heaven (Part 2)

The Cast of Closer to Heaven

The 80’s were packed with iconic personalities, and it’s no different with this perfectly primed cast of MMP veterans. Returning to our company to let out their inner Madonnas, simulate a spectacular Sonny Crockett, or just bring out their own personal Jessica Fletcher, this cast has like totally embraced the crazy and colorful decade to bring Closer to Heaven to Moe’s Music. But it takes more than eighty gallons of Aqua Net, legwarmers, and a killer smile to create a character. So let’s let these bitchin’ beauties (and beasts) tell you more about crafting their characters in this latest behind-the-velvet-rope blog post!

CALLING ALL MADONNA WANNABES: The Making of Closer to Heaven (Part 2)

Part-owner/proprietor of the Closer to Heaven nightclub, Dawn Schuyler is a shrewd, practical businesswoman behind the new wave fashion. Her goal was to build a haven for the lost, the lonely, the outcast in a world of color and light and music. She is known to give her employees stock in the nightclub to earn from the club’s profits as co-owners in addition to their pay. She’s famously “The One Who Got Away” from the serial murderer, the Half-Moon Killer, an encounter which left a crescent moon scar on her cheek.

Leslie Blake is an award-winning, accomplished Master Mystery Productions veteran who made her debut as Agent Paxton in Anonymous in August 2017, her hard work on the production as a whole recognized with the Skeleton Key Award for Service Above and Beyond. In September 2018, she won the coveted Diamond Mask Award for Excellence in Performance for her role as emotionally damaged movie star Kim Hyatt in What Happens at Sundown. Additional work and rolls include Foley Artist for The Silent City, Marie Antoinette in Eat Cake, Heather Violette in Foul Play, Ensemble in Lenore Nevermore, Dramaturg for Woman in the Walls, and Ms. Squeak in Who’s Who?.

“I see Dawn as someone who cares too much. No matter what that looks like. Be that gentle help or a swift kick in the rear. She’s someone who is the best friend but also, a fierce protector of those she loves. Instead of her brush with death defining her completely, and making her angry and bitter she uses her scar as a strength. She’s a powerful character, and requires a very delicate balance between care taker and boss.”

Erin Rochester is a celebrity body double paid to appear as Madonna whenever the need calls for it, such as to drum up business at Closer to Heaven by making patrons believe celebrities party there. One of the investor’s little insertions to Dawn’s haven, Dawn nonetheless welcomes Erin once she learns the woman’s painful past.

Heather McGaha has dazzled audiences with a huge list of stage credits and accolades. She made her MMP debut in Bury Me in Paris in Spring 2017 as closing night Chantal, where her outstanding work earned her the Skeleton Key Award. She has won two Diamond Mask Awards for her stellar acting and singing as Donatella Violetta in our murder mystery opera Exit Prima Donna (Spring 2018) and as Brigitte the Bawd in Eat Cake (Spring 2019), both at Amargosa Opera House. Additional roles for MMP include Willow in Femme Fatales, Moll Flint in Mutiny on the Sea Witch, and Madeline Conrad in Close Encounters of the Hairy Kind.

“Erin Rochester hasn’t had an easy life. For most of her childhood, her mother was the only real family that she had. They were inseparable. So she took it especially hard when her mother passed away when she was only a teen. Erin was left to pick up the pieces of her shattered world and forced to find her way all on her own. At a time when she really needed help getting back on her feet, Erin was presented with a business proposition to play the part of a Madonna impersonator at a local nightclub. Desperate for a job, she took it. The job itself was not all that it was cracked up to be. Instead of finding herself, she was being forced to lose more and more of her identity as time goes on. Despite the demanding aspects of her new job, Erin settles in with the rest of the women that work at the club and finds herself in the closet thing to a home that she has had in years. For a brief moment, things seem to finally be looking up for her. That is until the Half Moon Killer emerges and starts to come after her new family, and Erin finds herself, yet again, simply just trying to survive.”

Stella Spencer is a starry-eyed wannabe starlet who moved from Big Sky country to the smog-choked skylines of Los Angeles to try and find her fortunes on the silver screen. She’s the newest hire at Closer to Heaven to make enough money to survive between casting calls. A sprinkle of preppy and Princess Diana fashion sense keeps this fish firmly out of the water.

Janis Kunz is a new inductee into the Master Mystery Productions’ Hall of Fame whose career and artistry in the company has earned her numerous awards and accolades. She debuted in Mutiny on the Sea Witch in November 2018 as Polly the Parrot, a crowd darling that won her the Diamond Mask Award. Her work behind-the-scenes on that production earned her the Blood, Sweat, and Tears Award from Ridgecrest Community Theatre Troupe. In 2019, she won the Skeleton Key Award for Eat Cake, the Diamond Mask Award for the role of Captain Wallis in Close Encounters of the Hairy Kind, and the Founder’s Award for the 2019 season. Additional credits include starring as Emma Emerson in Regions Beyond, Althea Drummond in Mum’s the Word, and Georgina Georgson in Who’s Who?.

“Each time I get to play a new character, I find it so much fun to delve into who they are and figure out how to portray that. With Stella Spencer it was no different. She and I share several similarities, but at the same time she has a backstory that gives me a challenge in how to express that for her emotionally. One way I’m approaching that is to picture what she went through and how it changes her and how it leads her to where she begins in the story and let that come out naturally as we rehearse the scenes.

I’ve played the ‘straight woman’ a couple times now (and enjoy doing so!). The voice-of-reason Captain Wallis to the not-so-bright Officer Dixon. The not-as-crazy Georgina to the oh-so-crazy-it’s-delicious Georgia. Stella could be another character in the same vein, but as the director pointed out to me, she is unsure and not as in command of her own self as those previous roles and that makes her interesting and exciting to play. 

Another cool aspect to her is she is the audience’s surrogate, the one who is introduced to the nightclub staff and the seeming madness just as the audience will be. In that way she follows in the classic tradition that authors like Jules Verne and H.G Wells used: having a character who is not from the extraordinary situation coming into the situation and gets to speak for the audience/reader. This makes it fun because I can react to all the goings-on in various ways depending on if it should be shock, confusion, discomfort, etc. It also means Stella has a character arc throughout the play that will be nice to portray as she experiences just who the other players are.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to flesh out her character and I like to think that this could be Stella’s diary entry before she reaches the Closer to Heaven nightclub:

Dear Diary, I am on the bus out of Helena. Wow…! I’m pretty scared but also really excited. Hollywood! Finally! I know it’s going to be rough at the beginning. New place, new people… But I’m not going to let my past define me anymore, I’m going to make a fresh start! I’m going to do this and become an actress! Maybe. I hope so. I’m going to try! I wish my family understood why I need to do this. They just don’t get it. They think it’s an ‘acting bug’ and I’ll get over it. Well that’s not gonna happen! I know I can find dreams in L.A. I just hope I find them without finding nightmares… Oh, and one of the first places I’m going to visit is the Hollywood Walk of Fame! I’ve brought my camera, of course, and I’m going to take some photos to send back to Dad. I know he’ll get a kick out of seeing Dolly Parton‘s star, she’s one of his favorite singers.

So omigod, like, Crystal Cunningham is like totally a Valley Girl with a passion for fashion and slashin’. The number of slasher horror flicks she’s seen is bigger than the number of teens who bite it at a cursed summer camp. Like omigod, if Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, and Jason Voorhees started a bitchin’ new band, she’d totally be first in line for all their concerts and the president of their fan club.

Nicole Johnson is a three-time Diamond Mask winning actress and audience favorite who has claimed the award for stellar roles as Miriam Lancaster in Ode to Agatha, Leonora in Exit Prima Donna, and Big Red in Close Encounters of the Hairy Kind. Her dedication and hard work in Ode to Agatha earned her the Skeleton Key Award for the production, making her the second person to claim both the Skeleton Key and a Diamond Mask for the same show. Additional credits include the voice of Zahra Bitar in The Silent City, Marianne in Eat Cake, and numerous voice roles in Regions Beyond, our paranormal investigation radio mysteries on YouTube.

“When Daniel Stallings announced he was doing an 80’s show, I was all in! After all, I started the 80’s in elementary school, survived middle school and high school and became an adult all before the 80’s even ended. When I auditioned, I instantly loved Crystal. She was so much like me when I was younger.  Of course she wears more make up than I was allowed to get away with. And she has more hair and, may I say cooler hair than I had in the 80’s. But the Valley Girl lingo and the love of horror movies (which I still love to this day!) is so totally me! And the fact that Crystal’s name comes straight from Friday the 13th! Crystal for Camp Crystal Lake. And Cunningham is for Sean Cunningham, one of the creators of Friday the 13th. I can still remember watching it with my friends and the next day at school we walked around saying, “It’s got a death curse!” Like the old man I’m beginning of the movie.  Fun times indeed! I really hope everyone enjoys my portray of Crystal. She really is near and dear to my heart.”

Hallie Sheppard is an aerobics instructor and fitness model by day, a spokes-shill for the terrifyingly, unnaturally neon-colored energy drink known as Roidorade by night. Peppy, zippy, and always on the move, Hallie is an overcaffeinated lightning storm of a woman whose big, bright smile belies a “take no prisoners” jackhammer of a personality. She is a fervent disciple of the Book of Jane Fonda: “No pain, no gain.”

Olivia Holm is a MMP Hall of Fame Artist and multiple award-winning performer and makeup artist whose work is legendary at Master Mystery Productions. She has won the Diamond Mask three times for her roles as Honey Boudin in Close Encounters of the Hairy Kind, Eliza in Woman in the Walls, and Mercedes Van Chrysler in Who’s Who?. Her makeup design artistry has been seen with burn scars in What Happens at Sundown, where her dedication was rewarded with the Skeleton Key Award, aging and Bigfoot makeup in Close Encounters of the Hairy Kind, and the iconic Pallas Athena statue full body paint for Lenore Nevermore. Closer to Heaven will feature her most ambitious makeup designs for Dawn’s scar and Gabriel’s full zombie makeup.

“Hallie is, by far, the craziest character I’ve played in a long while. She is fun, energetic, and all around a badass character to play. To build up Hallie as a character I really had to push myself out of my typical comfort zone. There is a certain vibe that Hallie gives off that is so interesting but has so many layers that really pushes and challenges me as an actor. While I did start off with my usual creation of a playlist of songs that I feel fit those layers of Hallie’s character. However, since I was not born in the 80s, and my knowledge of 80s pop culture references are limited to the two iconic high school movies: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club. But the playlist I crafted fits more within her heavily caffeinated aerobics crazed headspace, rather than specific 80s songs. These songs include: “16 Shots” by Stefflon Don, “Boss Bitch” by Doja Cat, “Daisy” by Ashnikko, as well as “Alcoholic Friends” by Dresden Dolls and “The Beer” by Kimya Dawson. The last two songs specifically correlated to her battle with alcoholism, that Dawn has been helping her deal with since she started at Closer to Heaven. Overall, Hallie is such a fun and interesting character and I am so pumped to get this onstage with all the amazing atmosphere, spectacular costumes, and beautiful makeup looks.”

Lucas Carrington is the yuppie poster child of the Greed Is Good ethics of the 80’s and a major investor in the Closer to Heaven nightclub. He is not a fan of Dawn’s personal philosophies regarding the club and has been stealthily trying to slither into power by trying to buy Dawn out, inserting unwelcome ideas and staff into the mix, and cold-bloodedly stooping to more dangerous tactics to gain control.

Sam Johnson returns to Master Mystery Productions after wowing audiences as Agent Sly in Anonymous in August 2017 and Auguste Dupin in Lenore Nevermore in October 2019, both of which earned him the Diamond Mask Award for Excellence in Performance. His work behind-the-scenes as Assistant Director for Lenore Nevermore also earned him the Skeleton Key Award for the show, the third person to win both the Skeleton Key and a Diamond Mask for the same production. Additional credits include the voices of the Podcaster and the Creature in The Silent City and Adam O’Neill in Famous Last Words.

Ever since I first read American Psycho, I knew one day I would love to portray a character just like Patrick Bateman.  The ruthlessness, the insane pursuit of perfection in the materialist world of the 80’s. Lucas Carrington could be Patrick Bateman’s protege.  They both have the animalistic personalities and they both firmly believe the ends justify the means. I am honored to play Lucas.  He’s incredibly interesting to portray and I welcome the challenge to get into his skin and find out just what makes him tick.  As an actor, that is one of my favorite parts of bringing a character to life.”

Angel Archer is a Miami Vice devotee and Sonny Crockett superfan, who has a penchant for pastels and pricey, flashy accessories. He’s hoping to land a major TV contract himself one day. Behind the flashy exterior, he’s actually a classically trained Shakespearean actor who would rather trade in his doublet onstage for double the salary he’d get in network television. He’s been hired as a bouncer at the Closer to Heaven nightclub.

Calvin Johnson is currently the most decorated performer in MMP history, having won the Diamond Mask Award for Excellence in Performance a record-shattering five times for Henri in Eat Cake, Rusty Clementine in Foul Play, Dr. John Forsythe in Woman in the Walls, Basil Bremerton in Mum’s the Word, and Bernard St. Bernard in Who’s Who?, as well as winning the Skeleton Key for Ex Luna and, most recently, the Founder’s Award for 2021. For his record-breaking work, he was inducted in 2021 to the MMP Hall of Fame. He is also the winner of the 2020 Carol Venturi Award from the Community Light Opera and Theater Association. His voice acting can be heard on our ongoing digital series, Regions Beyond, on YouTube.

“When people first meet Angel Archer, their first impression of him might be to think that he’s over-confident and a bit self-absorbed. For the most part, this couldn’t be further from the truth. A lot of what could be perceived as arrogance from Angel is really just him trying to mask some pretty heavy insecurities. He wants to try and be the next big star, whether it’s on TV, or on the stage, but one of his biggest fears is that he’ll never get his shot, and that does affect him deeply. He feels that he suffers deeply, and wants to make sure that the angels at Closer to Heaven don’t have to suffer. It’s thanks to Dawn that he’s in the position he’s in, and he feels sincere gratitude, and he’d do anything to make sure that she, the club, and all who work there are okay.”

Gabriel Baker is an aspiring SFX makeup artist who loves to bring his work everywhere with him. Literally. He loves to wear his horror makeups—from cuts and bruises to zombie flesh to full werewolf face—to nightclubs as a kind of litmus test of how scary, effective, and realistic his work is. Works as a bouncer at the Closer to Heaven nightclub because his often-frightening makeups are pretty effective at warding off troublemakers. He’s hoping his fake scars and bruises will distract from other…telltale ones he might have.

Writer/Director, MMP Founder, and Hall of Fame Artist Daniel Stallings returns to the stage after performing as Simon Pritchard in Goodbye Hollywood, General Major in The Last Garden Party, Edgar Giraud in Bury Me in Paris, Tobias Davenport in Ode to Agatha, Dr. Alan Fleming in Anonymous, Elijah Samson in What Happens at Sundown, James “Fudge” Ferguson in Close Encounters of the Hairy Kind, and as a guest voice artist for Regions Beyond. He has penned twenty-seven of MMP’s current twenty-nine shows, directed twenty-eight of them, and produced them all. He is also a published mystery novelist with two books in the Li Johnson Murder Mysteries released and the winner of the 2015 Jack London Award from the East Sierra Branch of the California Writers Club.

“Gabriel is a bit like a turtle in some ways. Around him, he has built this protective shell to shield the rather tender parts of his soul. He’s a survivor like the others at the club, but he is one in an even more literal sense. His makeup work performs like a suit of armor; It’s a barrier between him and others. While outwardly he calls it practice, inwardly, Gabriel uses his impressive SFX makeup as a form of protection–It’s there to keep him safe from others. His closest relationship is with Dawn, who has survived much in her life and understands, more intimately, just what Gabriel has gone through. And his closest rivalry is with Angel Archer, a sort of light frenemy situation. Gabe sees Angel as a friend, but he is envious of Angel’s seeming confidence, swagger, and ability to speak openly with others without the gnawing doubts Gabe himself suffers from. This jealousy rears up early in the show in a way that is super fun to play.”

Ariel is a daydreamer whose dreams don’t tend to revolve around being stuck in the back office where she works as Dawn’s assistant. Her dreams are a bit mysterious though. Are they fun and wholesome? Are they megalomaniacal in intent? Ariel keeps her thoughts tightly locked away behind that sweet, self-satisfied smile.

Libby Mitchell first joined MMP in 2021 in Who’s Who?, in the role of Understudy Georgina Georgson and in various backstage positions. Closer to Heaven marks her stage debut for the company in the role of Ariel and the voice of a News Anchor. Outside of Master Mystery Productions, Libby performs cello in orchestra, with the Immanuel Kids Chorus, Calvary VBS Drama, and in improv at homeschool conferences.

Ariel is Dawn’s young, ambitious, and BRIGHT assistant. She is a bit jealous that all the other girls have ownership in the club and get to party while she is stuck in the office. Will this envy get the better of her?”

These characters are killer (in more ways than one), but let’s talk about the radical wardrobe they’re wearing. Superstar MMP Hall of Fame Artist Janis Kunz marks this show as her first foray as Lead Costume Designer, and she will be joining us as a guest blogger for our upcoming behind-the-velvet-rope post, Day-Glo Dress Code: The Making of Closer to Heaven (Part 3). Like omigod, we’re so excited!

And we’re also excited about this show, which opens in one month from today! Be sure to snatch your tickets soon.

–Master Mystery Productions

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