“Greater Tuna,” which debuted in 1981 in Austin, is back and better than ever with a new cast and production. The new tour will make its island debut in its “new” look/format at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at The Grand 1894 Opera House, 2020 Postoffice St., in Galveston.
The comedic hit production focusing on residents of Tuna — Texas’ third smallest town — will feature more up-to-date issues and popular characters such as Vera Carp, Elmer Watkins and Pearl Burras. Jaston Williams, co-creator and director, will direct the new tour starring Ryan Bailey, Tim Leavon and Will Mercer.
Bailey, who plays Watkins, Hank Bumiller, Arles Struvie, Didi Snavely, Petey Fisk, Chad Hartford and Coach Raymond Chassie, grew up terrified of speaking in front of people. However, after his first play during his freshman year of college, he’s been hooked ever since on the adrenaline rush he feels every time he steps on a stage.
“As the years passed and I got involved in more shows at local theaters, gaining more experience, I found a confidence in myself I never had as a kid,” Bailey said. “I began to hope this was something I could end up doing in a more official capacity. I felt I’d found what I’ve been meant to do all along. I guess the hardest part has been pursuing that dream all these years in a community theater environment. I’m very grateful for the abundance of roles I’ve been able to play, but it’s all been limited to considerable time spent in the evenings after working all the day jobs I’ve had over the years. It makes me all the more thankful to Jaston Williams for finding me and offering me the opportunity for this to ‘be’ my day job.”
Playing many different roles in one production, Bailey says it actually comes naturally to him; however, difficulty does come during the preparation, he says.
“It’s considerable work to find the voices, mannerisms, and all the nuances that make each character distinct and unique, which is followed by abundant rehearsal to perfect all those elements,” Bailey said. “Once that work is done and combined with the costumes, playing the parts onstage is just fun.”
Part two of the trio of characters, Leavon plays the roles of Carp, Ronnie Pert, Harold Dean Lattimer, Jody, Stanley and Charlene Bumiller, and Phinas Blye.
Leavon, who has also appeared in former productions of “Greater Tuna” and “Tuna Does Vegas,” has had lead roles in films “Roomies,” “Shepard,” “You Have Arrived” and “Halloween Hell House.”
“My characters are my children and I love them all equally,” Leavon said. “I find it an exciting challenge to be a part of this production because the work goes into the preparation. If I can’t find a way to genuinely connect, then my work isn’t complete. Once prepared you can allow the muses to take over and go along for the rip-roaring ride.”
Rounding out the cast is Mercer, who grew up playing the piano and singing in church. Along with playing Burras, Mercer plays Thurston Wheelis, Bertha Bumiller, R.R. Snavely, Reverend Spikes, Sheriff Givens, Yippy and Leonard Childers.
Mercer, who left the corporate world after 25 years to pursue his true passion of acting, first met the characters of “Greater Tuna” as an audience member at the Paramount Theatre in 1985 in Austin. Mercer has gone on to play roles in “Sordid Lives,” “Young Frankenstein the Musical” and “Who’s in Bed with the Butler.” Mercer also won the 2015 Best Leading Actor in a Play (Comedy) from BroadwayWorld Austin.
“It is certainly a challenge to play so many characters,” Mercer said. “It is important to me that each character have their own voice and body language so that they are distinct. But, it is incredibly fun to change clothes and gender and walk back out on the stage as a different person. My favorite character to play is Aunt Pearl. She is such an iconic character from Tuna and it is incredibly fun to bring her to life. She also reminds me of a great aunt of mine who terrified me and enthralled me at the same time. I really want the audience to love her while being a little afraid of her too! My goal is to pay tribute to Joe Sears’ performance, while also putting my own stamp on the character as well.”
After each performance, Williams will lead a Q&A session, which has been said to be almost as hilarious as the production.
“What began as a sketch at a Sixth Street cabaret in Austin in 1981, has now been running in one form or another for more than 30 years,” Williams said. “With new sets, new special effects and two new characters along with updated satire, this is a great time to be a satirist. Expect to be entertained by our giving an old show a fresh approach. The play has some new faces and lots of new life and some new laughs along with the ones you remember. We hope it will be like seeing an old friend after a time away.”