Ballroom Operetta: 'Hank and Rita' return, this time with dinner

Oct. 30—When Joe Tougas and Ann Fee agreed to revive their uber popular — and profoundly tragic — "Hank and Rita" show, they decided it would be a good idea to sit down and actually watch a recording of it.

"The Best of Hank and Rita: A Barroom Operetta" had a heckuva run. Nearly 30 performances around the Midwest. Rave reviews. Tears in the audience. Applause.

And when it was over, sometime around 2018, both Tougas and Fee were ready to move on.

But when a pair of local impresarios recently implored them to revive it, they immediately said yes. (Tickets are on sale now for the Nov. 18-19 shows at the Kato Ballroom.)

As part of their preparation, Tougas and Fee thought watching the show together would get them in the right headspace — the proper vibe — to resurrect those memorable characters.

It worked.

"It took us a couple of times to get through it because it was just ... it was just too much," Fee said. "It was intense."

The show's premise is made clear in a heartbreaking opening monologue by Rita. She intends to leave Hank after this, their final show. The songs that follow, as well as the mostly ad-libbed and improvised dialogue on stage between them, serve as a sort of musical biography of their marriage.

Tougas and Fee have always had an undeniable on-stage chemistry. They've performed together hundreds of times as The Frye, Joe & Ann, or Joe Tougas and Associates. But the "Hank and Rita" collaboration was one that allowed them to shine artistically in both music and drama.

The show even led this writer to opine in a 2016 Free Press article: "The dialogue between them as they exchange personal song requests is supremely entertaining, emotional, and heart-breaking. 'Hank and Rita' is a creative triumph, and the kind of show I've frankly never seen around here."

When the initial run of "Hank and Rita" was over, the pair was ready for new creative challenges.

"When it was done, we were done," Tougas said.

They may have been done. But the memories of the show weren't fading, at least not for a pair of gentlemen who both love going to shows and love producing them.

Tim Berry and Pat Ryan have worked together producing shows for years, including several iterations of "Tony & Tina's Wedding," the audience-interactive dinner-theater show about Italian nuptials, and "The Buddy Holly Story."

The local pair got together and wondered: Could "Hank and Rita" be the kind of show that has a longer shelf life, the kind that returns regularly to, say, Des Moines or Duluth or St. James in the same way "Tony & Tina's Wedding" or "Church Basement Ladies" does?

They believe it can. And they're hoping these November revival performances are the start of something bigger and broader for "Hank and Rita."

"I think that it will fill a niche," Berry said.

Theater groups and arts organizations typically scout for new shows to add to a season of theatrical offerings. Berry and Ryan have a hunch that if people from those organizations see this show, there's a good chance they'd add it to their season. That would mean the story of "Hank & Rita" would continue on for as long as people want to see it.

Tougas and Fee said agreed to bring the show back, but not before some initial wariness.

"Where the hesitancy came from is we really had it out of our minds," Tougas said. "After the last time we did it, we'd use a song or two from the show when we would play gigs as the two of us, but that was about it."

Getting back into it, Tougas said, required some work. The melodies came right back, but he had to brush up on the lyrics.

"There were a couple that were hilariously gone," said Tougas, who wrote all the songs. "I thought, 'Well, you wrote these things, they should be easy to remember.' But I'd say half of them required going back and listening and being like, 'OK, those are the words, those are the chords.'

"A song like 'About Me,' which is a really simple song, I had no idea where that went. A second song in the show called 'Without a Home,' which is a really happy upbeat tune, I had no idea how that went."

In addition to "Hank & Rita" being something that could sell, Berry and Ryan just really liked the show and thought it was worth investing in.

"It truly is a really great piece," Ryan said. "It reminds you of 'A Delicate Balance' by Edward Albee, or 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.' It's something other than 'You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

"I can't figure out why Branson hasn't picked it up. When I saw it I thought, 'This thing has legs. It could sell. It's just a matter of somebody from Branson having to see it and take a risk."

Fee said the fact Berry and Ryan saw this as a business opportunity speaks highly of the show's quality. People who watch it and are moved by it are wonderful for the ego, she said. But if someone thinks enough of it to take a financial risk? Even better.

"I didn't want to keep doing it just because it was fun to do. I don't think I would have said yes to this if it wasn't because they thought it was a good business risk, and if Tanya Cordes at the Kato didn't think it was a good business move. I love that," Fee said. "It doesn't feel like a favor for a friend or something like that."