By Tanner Kent
---- — MANKATO -- Almost a decade ago, Paul Hustoles remembers being impressed with the boundless optimism and energy of a "gypsy" stage performer fresh off a long performance career.
That performer was Paul Finocchiaro, a Boston native who graduated from the Boston Conservatory, where he excelled in musical theatre and dance. After earning a master's degree at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Finocchiaro lived the unsettled, wayfaring life of a stage performer. From national tours of "West Side Story" to regular gigs performing for a production show at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino on the Las Vegas Strip, Finocchiaro developed an impressive and versatile resume over the course of 17 years in the business.
But Hustoles hired Finocchiaro for more than his resume -- knowing even then that the day would would come when the gypsy performer would leave again.
"He had this energy, this positivity that was exactly what our program was looking for," said Hustoles, chair of Minnesota State University's Department of Theatre and Dance, who added that it will take seven part-time staff positions to fill Finocchiaro's role in the department while looking for a full-time replacement. "We knew we'd have him, but we didn't know for how long."
The answer to that question became apparent when Finocchiaro accepted a position with the University of Tampa's theatre department in February.
But don’t think for a moment that the Minnesota State University Department of Theatre and Dance would let the popular and well-liked instructor walk away that easily. Before he leaves, Finocchiaro will direct a pair of Highland Summer Theatre productions – including “A Grand Night for Singing,” a Rodgers and Hammerstein revue that opens Wednesday, and Neil Simon's comedic drama "I Ought to be in Pictures" later this month.
Finocchiaro said he's been waiting to direct a revue-style show since 2008's "Smoky Joe's Cafe."
In this case, he said, "A Grand Night for Singing" will include Rodgers and Hammerstein standards from shows such as "The Sound of Music," "The Kind and I," "Oklahoma!" and "South Pacific," as well as lesser-known numbers. Altogether the production consists of 37 songs, all of which will be documented on a marquee near the stage with the name of the musical from which it originated.
The show includes live orchestration and arrangements that audience members might find unfamiliar.
"People are going to hear classic songs," Finocchiaro said, "but not in the way they've been done."
As for his new position, Finocchiaro said it will include expanding the institution's theatre program and focusing more on practical musical theatre instruction. His first production will be "Thoroughly Modern Millie" -- a musical Finocchiaro directed in 2008 at MSU and one that colleague Nicholas Wayne remembers well.
Finocchiaro and Wayne were hired the same year, the latter as a musical director who has worked alongside Finocchiaro on almost every musical MSU has produced since. Along the way, Wayne said he has found Finocchiaro to be a caring and empathetic instructor -- last week, for instance, he brought snacks and energy bars to his exhausted cast during back-to-back days of eight-hour rehearsals -- as well as a valued friend.
Five years ago, when Wayne's daughter was born during the thick of the rehearsal schedule for MSU's "Thoroughly Modern Millie," Wayne said his friend re-organized the schedule to allow him more time with his new family.
"I was impressed because I really felt like he cared," Wayne said. "It gave me so much more appreciation for who he is."
During his MSU career, Finocchiaro taught a variety of classes and directed many productions, but many who know him singled out "Rent" as Finocchiaro's pinnacle achievement.
Hustoles praised the "extraordinary" job he did with the dramatic rock musical. Wayne called it his "greatest triumph."
For his part, Finocchiaro said he officially starts his new job on Aug. 1 and will remember fondly his time in Mankato.
"I've been really blessed to be here for nine years," Finocchiaro said. "To move on with my career, it felt like the time to go in a new direction."
If You Go What "A Grand Night for Singing" Where Ted Paul Theatre of the Earley Center for Performing Arts Performances 7:30 p.m. on June 12-15 Tickets Available at MSUTheatre.com or by calling or stopping by the Theatre & Dance Box Office 4-6 p.m., Monday-Friday. Call 507-389-6661. Cost is $22 for regular, $19 for discounted (available through the box office only) and $15 for current MSU students.