CENTER STAGE Palumbo’s juggling act

By Milan Paurich

Sunday, October 5, 2008

By Milan Paurich

As chef-owner of Selah restaurant in Struthers and president of Top Hat, one of the area’s most well-respected theater companies, Brian Palumbo is a force of nature unto himself.

In a wide-ranging recent interview, the Struthers native sat down to discuss the various hats he wears within the community (impresario; restaurateur; entrepreneur), as well as Top Hat’s upcoming production of Elton John and Tim Rice’s musical “Aida.”

Q. What came first? Your theater bug or your love of cooking?

A. A lot of my fondest memories growing up happened around the kitchen. My grandparents had a simple way of cooking, using fresh ingredients and making almost everything from scratch. It always amazed me how they were able to create meals with multiple levels of flavor. Even today, I’ll catch a hint of an aroma that I used to smell when they cooked, stirred a pot or rolled out dough. It instantly takes me back to my childhood; it’s like having them in my kitchen with me. As you grow older, it’s interesting to observe how your family — and the way they do things — becomes a part of you.

My family likes to say that I’ve been singing since the age of 2, so I think that music really came before theater for me. Once you’re on stage and realize that you have something to share — and that people actually want to hear you — it’s easy to get hooked. I was a senior in high school when I began to use my voice in ministry, and that forever changed the way I look at the arts. I remember the first time I went to sing at a prison with “Lost Than Found Ministries.” I sang songs with a message, and the prisoners came up to me afterwards and told me how much the words had meant to them. It was then that I realized professional theater wasn’t the direction for me.

Q. How long have Top Hat and Selah been in existence?

A. In 1992 I was asked to direct a show at Youngstown’s Princeton Junior High. A group of us began working with 70 students and put on a show at the end of the year. It was one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. There was a real lack of arts programming at the time, so we decided to continue doing youth workshops.

The next thing you know, we were contacted by a church in Conneaut to create a Passion Play for all of the local churches to participate in. We wrote “The Earth Trembled,” and the first production had over 90 cast members.

Through the help of “Lost Then Found Ministries” we became a nonprofit corporation and — thanks to a donated Mack truck — an official bus-and-truck theater company. The productions continued, and we decided that all of the money we made would go back into programming.

Top Hat runs on private donations, grants and ticket sales with a 100 percent volunteer staff. Five years ago we were offered a permanent venue in the Fairview Arts and Outreach center. Through a collaboration with Neighborhood Ministries and The American Baptist Association we were able to take an old church and turn it into a theater.

Selah began in Canfield as a paperie selling handmade papers and leather bound journals from all over the world. We quickly outgrew that location and moved into the Old Stone Tavern in Poland where we added a sandwich/ coffee counter, and offered weekly jazz and dinner theater. Eventually we purchased an historic bank building in (downtown) Struthers with a restaurant, banquet rooms and a stage for entertainment and dinner theater. People really seem to love the environment, as well as the menu.

Q. How would you describe your cooking style?

A. I think the menu at Selah is an extension of my personality and my style.

Some of the dishes are traditional with a contemporary twist. When we first opened, we set out to create a French/European feel. I originally said that I would never have a red sauce on my menu.

I love Italian cuisine and grew up with it, but I also knew that there were a lot of Italian restaurants in the area and I wanted to offer something different. I eventually gave in to the pressure for red sauce items, and we now offer an additional menu with eight different pasta dishes. We do a hand-rolled ricotta gnocchi served in an asiago alfredo sauce that’s one of our top sellers. And people love our steaks and salmon. We regularly change our menu to keep things fresh.

Q. You have a performance space above Selah. What type of work(s) have you staged there, and how frequently is it used?

A. We have jazz as well as live vocalists, but I think that our dinner theater has created the most excitement. Some of the shows we’ve produced have included “Divas, Song of the Spirit” and “Steel Magnolias.”

“Bella Cuccina” has been our longest running event: It’s staged as if the entire dining experience is taking place in an Italian kitchen. Six courses are prepared in front of you and passed around family style. The evening is filled with stories of growing up Italian, classical guitar by Brian Quinn, singing and great food and wine. We do “Bella Cuccina” on a bimonthly basis, and it’s a sell-out every time.

Q. You’ve referred to Top Hat as a “Christian Theater Company.” What does that mean to you?

A. Top Hat does both Christian and secular productions. Everyone is welcome, and we believe that theater is all about the experience.

There’s a lot of ministry that comes into play while working on a production. We strive for excellence in everything we do, but it’s understood that it’s really about the person on stage and the experience they have while preparing for a show. It doesn’t take long for Top Hat newcomers to feel that they’re part of the family. We always go out after rehearsals, and spend a lot of time laughing, sharing and enjoying each others’ company. If you focus on the person and what God may have in store for their life — or what they might be going through at that time — you

can’t help but have a great performance because you know that everyone has your back.

Q. “Aida” has never been performed locally before. Could you give us a brief summary of the show for readers who might be unfamiliar with the story/characters?

A. When I first saw “Aida” on Broadway I knew that it was a show I wanted to direct some day. The storyline is very close to the traditional opera version.

What makes this “Aida” special is Elton John. His music is beautiful to listen to, and the phrasing of Tim Rice’s lyrics is both poetic and meaningful.

The play opens with the capture of a tribe from the island of Nubia. The man in charge of the voyage falls in love with Aida who’s one of the slaves. The problem is that Radames is already betrothed to the princess of Egypt. As their love grows, so does the story. Will Aida follow her heart, or will she

sacrifice true love for her eople?

Q. Top Hat is known for having some of the best singing voices on the Youngstown-area community theater scene. Who will be singing — and acting — in “Aida”?

A. We’ve been blessed with a lot of amazing vocal talent. Top Hat veterans Rachell Joy and Julie Palumbo will be playing the female leads. Their vocal ability and stage presence continually astound me, and it’s always a joy to direct them. Robert Noble plays the villainous Zozier; Angel Febres is Mereb, the conduit between Aida and her people; and I’m playing Radames.

The show is written in such a way that all of the chorus members sing, have major dance numbers and play multiple roles.

We knew that a production of this size would be a challenge, and it has been. The costume team has been working for eight months on custom gowns and head pieces. A new floor — complete with tracking systems — had to be installed, as well as a separate lighting system for special effects lighting.