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Music alumna moonlights as music/voice director; next up 'Funny Thing . . .'


"Funny Thing . . . " will be Mariana Wolff's 11th musical direction gig on CSUEB campus. (Photo: Ray Christensen)

  • February 7, 2011

By day, Marianna Wolff is secretary for the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders at Cal State East Bay. But when evening and weekends roll around, she morphs into her alter ego: Marianna Wolff, voice director, music director, associate director, assistant director or conductor of scores of theatrical performances both on campus and in town.

It took her a while to graduate magna cum laude with a bachelor of arts degree in music, earn a single-subject preliminary credential in music, and a certificate in theatre production basics, primarily because her family initially discouraged what they considered a career with no real economic future.

Once she decided to forge ahead, she has had no regrets.

Her first plunge into musical/voice direction was when a favorite professor, the late Edgardo de la Cruz, invited her to work on, “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off,” in fall 2000, when an earlier director fell ill. This winter’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” will be her 11th on-campus production. In between, she’s worked with the Douglas Morrison Theatre in Hayward on five musicals, with Moreau Catholic High School on two, and taught, acted, and done costume, sets, sound and lighting design on many others.

“Forum” will be the second time Wolff works with Marc Jacobs, assistant professor of theatre and dance and show director, and the first time she directs the music with her husband, Ray Christensen, who will play the role of Marcus Lycus, and whom she met in the University’s Opera Workshop.

“Theater, at its best, is a learning, evolving, creative process,” she said. She’s thrilled to be working with Jacobs and choreographer Laura Elaine Ellis on “Forum,” because experience tells her it’s a good match.

Jacobs agrees.

“Marianna is very knowledgeable about vocal production and I know I can always count on her to protect the students' vocal health first," Jacobs said. "She also is a wonderful musical director with a real sense of how the songs need to move the story forward and be character-driven in a musical. The longer I am in the business, the more I look for people who are a pleasure to work with and who can make my job as director easier. She really knows her game and always adds something important to the production.”

The Fremont native and Alameda resident started her music career in grade school when she learned the tonette, a miniature, plastic recorder, followed by the clarinet.

She loves the intricacies of music, and the opportunity to match voice and instrumentation to the script’s meaning and movement.

Particularly with university performances, she wants everyone – including herself – to learn with each show. She also wants to give opportunities to CSUEB students and alumni.

Step one for each show is becoming familiar with the score, followed by hiring the orchestra – the toughest part because she seeks the very best on a shoestring. Steps three through 20 are working with performers, musicians, directors and choreographers singularly, then together.

It took her a few shows to relax. There’s no need to panic when early on the components are in disarray, she said. According to Wolff, typically all will have a good feel by that last, "crazy week" before opening.

"You have to go with the flow; be there in the here and now,” she said.

She’s had actors skip the middle of songs, jump to dialogue ahead of a musical number, and, of course, deliver the wrong line before a song, all necessitating split second decisions on her part.

When she did musical direction for CSUEB’s “Urinetown” in 2008, director Jacobs envisioned a multi-layer set in the small, black box theater. That put the already small orchestra in a urinal, behind a screen, making it next to impossible for her to know what was happening on stage.

When she stepped into the pit one night for Douglas Morrison’s “Sullivan and Gilbert,” all the musicians were wearing fake mustaches.

In the case of “Forum,” she’s grappling with a handwritten, collapsed score that includes mistakes, dissident cords, and very complex musical structure. 

“Sondheim really pushes my ear to find all of the complexities,” said Wolff. 

Still, she loves the fact that the production will introduce many young people to Sondheim for the first time, or, at least this comedic piece with ridiculous songs done in a conversational, character style. 

“Forum” will be performed at 8 p.m. March 4, 5, 11 and 12 and at 2 p.m. March 13 in the University Theatre on Cal State East Bay's Hayward Campus, 25800 Carlos Bee Blvd. Tickets at $20 for general admission; $15 for youth (3-18), seniors (55+), and alumni; and $10 for CSUEB students may be purchased at the University Book Store, or reserved online at or by calling 510-885-3118.

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