Bamberg, Aviano top ’04 Toppers

Army 1st Lt. Anne Henderson of the Stable Theatre in Bamberg, Germany, comes to the stage Saturday to accept her Topper for best military performance in a musical at the annual Tournament of Plays awards ceremony at the Village Pavilion at Patrick Henry Village in Heidelberg. Henderson played Ida in the theater's production of "Honk."


By CHARLIE COON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 27, 2004

HEIDELBERG, Germany — One day last December, Louis Gasper was chasing a girl at the teen center at Aviano Air Base, Italy, when he stumbled into the auditions for “Grease.”

The director, Kim Carr, took one look at the boy and saw her leading man.

“She told me that if I could sing, I’m in,” Gasper said. “She literally pulled me in from off the streets.”

Gasper took home one of 72 Toppers awarded Saturday night at the annual U.S. Army Europe Tournament of Plays ceremony at the Village Pavilion ballroom at Patrick Henry Village.

Top winners were “Honk,” by the Stable Theatre of Bamberg, with eight awards, followed by “The Secret Garden” by the Darmstadt Performing Arts Center and Aviano’s “Grease,” which each won six Toppers — the Tournament of Plays’ version of the Oscars.

“Honk,” a modern version of the Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling,” won for best musical; “The Lilies of the Field” by Wiesbaden’s Amelia Earhart Playhouse won for best comedy; and “Another Antigone” by Giessen’s The Keller Theatre won for best drama.

Gasper was just 17, living alone in a two-room apartment near Aviano and “going nowhere” when he was roped into the role of Danny Zuko, the greaser made famous by John Travolta in the movie version of “Grease.”

“I had no direction, absolutely none,” said Gasper, now 18 and a senior at Aviano High School. “Now I want to go apply myself and do something with my life.”

Gasper’s mother is a Lockheed-Martin retiree who lives several hours’ drive south of Aviano. His father lives in Utah. Gasper attends Aviano High School because it is the closest American school to his mother’s home.

Carr and her husband, Army Staff Sgt. Dan Carr, the show’s stage designer, took Gasper under their wing after the youngster got involved with “Grease.”

“We saw a good-looking kid who with a little help would make a foundation for himself,” Dan Carr said. “And he has.”

Twenty-five productions, the most ever, were entered in this year’s competition, representing 20 U.S. military communities in Germany, England, Belgium and Italy. Judging was done by three industry professionals hired by USAREUR to view and critique the shows, according to USAREUR entertainment director Jim Sohre.

The ballroom was overflowing with more than 600 guests, and some people had to be seated in the upstairs balcony.

They helped themselves to a buffet dinner before the three-hour show, and during the show they drank wine, beer and soft drinks as performers performed and awards were announced. Most of the men were dressed in suits or tuxedos while the women wore gowns.

The show began when the 23-member Tournament Singers and Band whipped through a medley of Broadway tunes they called “28 Songs in 14 Minutes.” The pace stayed brisk as acceptance speeches were not allowed; winners came onto the stage, received their trophy and returned to their tables to the hugs and kisses of their parties.

Gasper said he was never motivated by math, science or English, and he didn’t know he could sing until Kim Carr asked him to try out for the show. Five months later, after helping cast and crew bring “Grease” to life, Gasper said his own life is more in focus.

Gasper said he wants to attend the Florida School of the Arts, which is where the Carrs went to college to study theater.

“Every single day we were in there [rehearsing] for six hours until we got it down perfectly,” Gasper said. “This brought something out of me that I didn’t know I had.”

From left, Sr. Airman Nicholas Kurtz, Airman 1st Class Josh Kelleher, Louis Gasper and David Vega from Aviano Air Base, Italy, pose Saturday after winning for Best Ensemble in a Comedy, Musical or Drama at the annual Tournament of Plays competition at the Village Pavilion at Patrick Henry Village in Heidelberg, Germany. Missing was Air Force Master Sgt. Chris Diamond, who also won but was unable to attend. The group was part of the "Grease" cast from the Aviano Community Theatre.