The combination of his son’s sudden illness and his own severe shoulder problems in June 2013 forced Wilkins to take a leave of absence from the Playhouse. But after recovering from surgery last year, he took a solo piano gig one afternoon a week at the Grove Park Inn, rebuilding his technique and endurance. He felt up for a return to the stage this month, serving as musical director for Barbra & Frank: The Christmas Concert That Never Was (about a fictional dream show pairing icons Streisand and Sinatra).
Bold Life: You’ve been conspicuously absent from the Playhouse.
George Wilkins: I didn’t take any jobs for a long time because I didn’t trust my arms to make it through a run. Long rehearsals and then a daily routine of runs — after all those years, I know what that involves. But a couple of months ago [managing director] Lisa Bryant called and asked if I would do this Barbra and Frank show, and I said, “Sure.” So here I go again. I must say I am looking forward to getting back under the lights and working with the singers.
You can’t turn the page in musical theater without talking to four people first. It’s really collaborative, and I’ve missed that, so it’ll be fun. I haven’t missed the 14-hour days, I promise you.
The playhouse has new leadership since you last performed there.
Well, Lisa was 19 when she came on board, and she’s learned an overview of the whole theater process. She’s always been really creative, she’s written and directed, and I always loved her acting. She sang for me on a lot of shows, and it’s good to have somebody at the helm that I actually get along with.
I could say a word about Vincent [Marini]. Vincent did help prepare Lisa, and he certainly did push me in a direction that forced me to grow. Different music, from country to semi-classical, Andrew Lloyd Weber, and Rodgers & Hammerstein. It wasn’t easy, and I wasn’t going to tell Vincent, “No I can’t play that.” [Despite difficulties], I did respect him, and he did get some good work out of me.
I think the best thing that resulted from Vincent being here was big live bands. He didn’t want recordings, he didn’t want sequenced stuff. So we expanded the band loft … and I’d have like 15, 16 people on big shows, three or four times a year.
Are you a fan of Barbra and Frank?
I’ve always been a sucker for Barbra Streisand, if you want to know the truth. I remember in high school listening to her and thinking “My God, what a voice.” Just going, “Wow.” My cousin Gene was a Sinatra freak, so I learned a lot of songs from him and got to know his style. I remember running up against the original versions of songs and thinking, “Well this is wrong, because Frank sings it right.” He was authoritative, and he was singing it Frank’s way.
Barbra & Frank: The Christmas Concert That Never Was, starring Sharon Owens and Sebastian Anzaldo, runs at Flat Rock Playhouse Downtown (125 S. Main Street, Hendersonville) December 10-20. Tickets are $15-$25. 828-693-0731. www.flatrockplayhouse.org.