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The Observer: Hometown Pepper adds spice at N’port theater of his youth

The Observer

July 28, 2016

David Ambro

 

While it has become a playhouse of the stars – “Where Broadway Meets Main Street” its mantra – the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport has deeper history for Christopher Hlinka.

In Mamma Mia!, which opened at the Engeman last week, Mr. Hlinka plays Pepper, a flirtatious young Greek isle hotel worker who brings acrobatic elements to the part. While his castmates coo at the charm and intimacy of the Engeman and the quaint Northport Village where it is located, Mr. Hlinka recalls the days when it was a second-run 99-cent movie theater where your feet stuck to the floor and the price of admission included a bag of popcorn. He calls Northport home.

Mr. Hlinka, 25, a 2009 graduate of Northport High School, recalls the days a decade ago before 250 Main Street was overhauled into the Engeman Theater. During his tenure at Northport High School, Mr. Hlinka was a member of the Powdered Wigs theatrical troupe – he played Cliff Bradshaw in Cabaret – and he sang with the storied Northport Tour Choir. He also attended the elite Long Island High School for the Arts in Syosset. He credits his high school experience with launching him into a career in theater.

After high school, Mr. Hlinka attended Marymount College in Manhattan, graduating in 2013 with a bachelor of arts degree in theater. The summer after he graduated he was selected as one of the rising young stars to perform at City Center on Broadway. The year after graduation, in 2014, he joined the cast of the Broadway  National Tour of Mamma Mia!, performing as Pepper and as the understudy for Eddy, another of the young flirts at the island hotel where the love story unfolds. He spent three months in the role in San Francisco, toured the country, and then traveled with the show to a landmark performance in Bogota, Colombia.

Last July he ended his run with Mamma Mia!. Mr. Hlinka said since that time he has been performing in concerts, taking dance classes and voice lessons to improve as an actor. Then, when he heard that Mamma Mia! was going to be performed at the professional theater in his hometown he wanted to audition and he landed his old role as Pepper.

“It’s been full circle for sure,” he said during an interview in the Engeman lobby Saturday, July 23.

Mr. Hlinka said his parents, Cathy and Jan Hlinka, who still reside in Northport, are regulars at the Engeman but that he has only been there once before, to see West Side Story. “I remember when it was a movie theater,” he said. “What they have done with it is beautiful. I have seen a lot of regional theater around the country and this is a wonderful theater.”

As for Mamma Mia! at the Engeman, Mr. Hlinka said working with director/choreographer Antoinette DiPietropolo has brought a new vision to his role as Pepper. “Working with Antoinette has been a dream,” he said. “She has allowed everyone to have a little bit of their own spin on their roles.”

“She has done a really great job of re-imagining the show,” Mr. Hlinka said. “Mamma Mia! played on Broadway for 14 years and when you get a role it is like being plugged into a machine and you have to play it just the way they want you to, which is wonderful and fun, but here with Antoinette we can take more liberties with our character choices.”

Mr. Hlinka said he has tried to bring a more “badass” version of Pepper to the Engeman show, with tattoos and an attitude. “It’s been a lot of fun.”

When he was performing in the national tour, Mr. Hlinka said his parents traveled to Chicago to see him on stage. He admitted to being a little more nervous when they are in the house and disclosed that they were at the show on opening night last week, although having performed the part hundreds of times now the nerves are far less.

Mr. Hlinka is excited to perform in front of a hometown audience at the Engeman. “Every night there are people here I know, and I look forward to seeing them after the show,” he said.

His older [brother] Jonathan, a member of the United States Coast Guard stationed in Baltimore, was in town last weekend for a bachelorette party and he got a chance to go see the show before he had to go home.

As a member of the Powdered Wigs, Mr. Hlinka said he performed in a show his freshman year with actress Ashley Flanagan, another Northport High School graduate who has starred on the Engeman stage. “I looked up to her a lot. Then I saw her here in West Side Story, which was inspirational,” he said.

Mr. Hlinka said Northport High School and the Long Island High School for the Arts provided him with the foundation to become a professional actor. “Without the stepping stones that Northport High School provided, I definitely would not be where I am today,” he said. “It does take a lot of luck and good fortune and you have to be in the right place at the right time, and each stepping stone is about who you know to make it big, but I’m working on it.”

During an interview this week, Ms. Hlinka, a teaching assistant in the Northport-East Northport School District, said she grew up in Manhattan and has always loved the theater, so she has been taking her two sons to shows since they were young children. She said that Christopher has been on stage since he was six years old, but she is still “very nervous” while she watches him perform.

“I’m nervous and I always shed a tear, more than one usually,” Ms. Hlinka said about watching her son perform. “I don’t have the kind of stamina that he does. It is very emotional to watch and the energy that he puts into every performance is amazing.”

She said the schedule at the Engeman is especially grueling, with shows on back-to-back days and two a day sometimes. “He works very hard. He has to stay in great shape.”

When she saw her son perform as Pepper in the Broadway tour version in Chicago, Ms. Hlinka said the theater and the stage were much larger, the musical numbers were grander, the budget much greater, so the costumes and sets were more extravagant. But, she said, overall the show at the Engeman is just the same.

“You always know that when you go to the Engeman Theater you are going to have an excellent show,” Ms. Hlinka said. “The show quality overall, I think is awesome.”

“Christopher is living his dream,” Ms. Hlinka concluded. “He is living his dream every day and not many people get to do that. That is one of the things we say together all the time he and I – he is living his dream.”

 

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