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On stage or at church, she has a song for you

Actor is familiar presence at St. Philip the Deacon Lutheran.

On a typical weekend during the recent eleven-month run of “My Fair Lady” at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre, female lead Norah Long alternated her role as Eliza Doolittle with her responsibilities as cantor at St. Philip the Deacon Lutheran Church (ELCA), Plymouth, Minnesota.
She played the London flower peddler-turned-socialite at Chanhassen on Friday eve-ning and Saturday afternoon, transformed herself into St. Philip’s cantor for 5:30 p.m. worship Saturday, sang Eliza Saturday night, arrived home in Hopkins around 12:30 a.m. and was back at St. Philip’s to sing at 8:30 a.m. and 9:45 a.m. Sunday services with a 7:00 a.m. quartet rehearsal.
A Sunday evening performance at Chanhassen and an occasional fourth service at the church rounded out her weekends, with regular dinner theater performances during the week.
Born in Hollywood, California, Long grew up in Columbia, Missouri, and moved to the Twin Cities in 1986. She received her undergraduate degree in vocal performance from North Central Bible College and continued studying with private teachers. She has been a staff member of St. Philip the Deacon Lutheran Church for eight years.
Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe based “My Fair Lady” on George Bernard Shaw’s comedy of manners, “Pygmalion.” Says Long, “Often in musicals you will find rather two-dimensional characters, but not here. Eliza’s lines are primarily the words of Shaw with lyrics and music by Lerner and Loewe.
“The musical is a wonderful piece of theater for a number of reasons. On a philosophical and social level, it deals with questions of equality, with rules for deciding how human beings are treated, how we can fight against those rules and choose to treat people in a more equal way than we’ve been taught.
“As human beings and as Christians it is not our job to segregate people or to choose who is worthy and who is not,” Long continues. “Christ treated each person as being of inherent worth. He gave his life for all.
“Professor Henry Higgins [in “My Fair Lady”] observes that because people speak differently they are treated differently. But while he believes that if he can teach Eliza to speak differently it will solve her problems, her life is not foremost in his mind. He doesn’t see her as a human being as much as a linguistic experiment.
“But Higgins comes to realize his shortsightedness,” Long says. “Yes, Eliza changes externally, but, more importantly, he has to recognize the person behind the voices. He learns there is more to every human being than what we hear or see.
“Then, of course, beyond the wonderful story, the 1912 costumes are fantastic. The Ascot [race] scene gets comments every time, and part of the fun is looking and acting as shabby as possible at the beginning so that the transformation seems almost miraculous. It is really a tour de force.”
Metro area theater goers may remember Long in such roles as Roxane in “Cyrano” at Theatre de la Jeune Lune; Fanny in “On the Verge” at Jungle Theater; Diana Deveraux in “Of Thee I Sing” for Plymouth Music Series; Philia in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at the Ordway; Amalia Balash in “She Loves Me” at North Star Opera; and Jo March in “Little Women” with Children’s Theatre Company.
Until “My Fair Lady,” Long had not done dinner theater. “Our audiences were great,” she says. “It always surprised me that when we’d get to some of the more meaty, vulnerable scenes in the show, it would become absolutely silent in the house. And there are so many toys to play with in a dinner theater — knives, forks, glasses — that to have such focus is rather amazing and delightful.
“It also fascinates me that some audiences are clappers [after a song] and some aren’t, almost as if there’s a karma operating or something in the air. You’d think that with 500 people present, response would average out and be basically constant, but the differences from night to night are surprising. That being said, the response was really overwhelming for the entire run.”
In October 2001 Long took a short break from “My Fair Lady” for a concert tour in Europe, singing American music with an Italian piano accompanist, and she anticipates returning for another tour of the same material sometime in the near future.
“My Fair Lady,” which Long believes to be the best-selling show in Chanhasssen Dinner Theatre’s history, ended its run January 26, a decision that had been made in advance. Al-though Long misses “the best female role of its genre,” she has since been performing as Miss Julie in August Strindberg’s drama of that name with the Ten Thousand Things Theater Company and in March is rehearsing her part as Laverne Andrews in “Sisters of Swing,” opening April 13 at Great American History Theatre, St. Paul.
Ten Thousand Things The-ater Company is a theater without permanent walls. Under the leadership of its artistic director, Michelle Hensley, Ten Thousand Things brings classics of the stage — Shakespeare, Strindberg, Becket and Brecht, as well as Greek drama — to residents of homeless shelters, prisons, nursing homes and low-income housing. Actors help move the portable set to each new location. Last year, in her first experience with Ten Thousand Things, Long played Imogen in Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline.”
“Sisters of Swing,” two local writers’ musical exploration of the career and relationship of the three Andrews sisters, premieres in April and runs through May 25 at Great American History Theatre. Long is then slated to take the role of Maritza in “Countess Maritza” at North Star Opera, St. Paul.
When Metro Lutheran asked Long what qualities it takes to play such a variety of roles, she replied, “I guess it just takes desire. I’m interested in a variety of roles because one of my main goals as actor and performer is to continue growing, to stretch myself to be as good as I can be, always smarter and more flexible. That is also one of my main goals in life. If I can always grow, learn and stay flexible, I’ll be very happy — and I hope those around me will be happy, too.”