“Few local arts leaders can work a room — or get things done — like Larry Hembree.” — Free Times, June 25, 2014
These words come from Larry Hembree’s capsule bio five years ago in this paper’s Power List, which catalogs the Top 50 movers and shakers in the Capital City. He still has the same charming, ebullient, inimitable style, summed up above in his when he meets Free Times in 2019 at a Five Points watering hole. Within five minutes, he has delved into the bartender’s past and knows his interests, the schools and colleges he attended, his major and many of his influences. Then Hembree turns his focus to his most recent creative endeavor, a cabaret-style fundraiser for the Columbia Children’s Theatre, where he has served since 2016 as development director.
Entitled Larry’s Second Coming: A Musical Cabaret About Life and Death, the production represents the sixth installment in the Larry series, a campy chronicle of the creator’s semi-fictitious life that simultaneously parodies his own upbringing in the rural, conservative South, and affords the chance for Hembree to write material for and perform with some of his closest friends and colleagues. Previous titles have included Larry’s Family Reunion, Larry’s Big Fat Gay Redneck Wedding Extravaganza, and Larry’s Last Laugh, in which ever-so-slightly fictionalized versions of his own family — including a twin sister named Loreen DeMint, played by Hembree in drag — gathered to eulogize their departed loved one in song. Second Coming will depict his resurrection, providing commentary on life and death via song, dance and adult-themed sketch comedy.
The veteran actor and director explains that he creates his increasingly outrageous special events as fundraisers for wherever he’s working at the time beginning — starting with an all-male revue for the Fine Arts Center of Kershaw County in the ’90s, featuring local celebrities dressed as women. During his tenure as performing arts director at the South Carolina Arts Commission, he revived the concept, eventually developing it into the Vista Queen pageant for local stage company Trustus Theatre, where Hembree later spent three years as executive director. Hembree originally devised the Larry series during the years he spent leading the Nickelodeon Theatre, Columbia’s lone arthouse cinema.
He’s quite happy to bring the concept to the Children’s Theatre, as Artistic Director and Co-Founder Jerry Stevenson was on the board that first hired him in Kershaw.
Proceeds from this week’s event will go to support operations of the Children’s Theatre, as it prepares for a major capital campaign in anticipation of securing a permanent performance space.
The new show is a ridiculous send-up of down-home family traditions — which extends to attendees, who are encouraged to bring their own covered dishes and alcohol, and to dress in “heavenly attire” — but Hembree assembled an all-star cast of live performers. The production will feature cellist Claire Bryant (who has played in the orchestra for Broadway shows such as Moulin Rouge), guitarist Jeremy Polley, operatic mezzo-soprano Janet Hopkins (an associate professor of voice at the University of South Carolina), award-winning dancer and choreographer Terrance Henderson, vocalists Toni Moore, Katrina Blanding and Mark Ziegler, as well as City of Columbia Poet Laureate Ed Madden, who is writing a custom obituary to be auctioned off to the highest bidder.
Hembree also promises a return appearance by the ultra-religious, ultra-conservative Loreen, though he won’t go so far as to say that the character is based on his own real-life twin sister.
“Let’s just say she was inspired by a relative.” he responds, pausing with an impish grin, “OK, a very close sibling.
“One who shared a womb with me.”
Also in the works are a silent auction of intangible items, such as the chance to take Hembree out to dinner, as well as “a lesson in proper funeral burial etiquette, a little drag, and maybe some hula hooping,” Hembree says.
The music performed will be songs by “beloved singers and songwriters who are no longer with us,” he says of the show, “such as Prince, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse.”
Although the tone of the evening will be decidedly tongue-in-cheek, Hembree stresses that there is a serious goal beyond raising funds for a local nonprofit.
“Act One will be a crazy narrative,” Hembree reveals, “but Act Two will be poignant, as we celebrate our loved ones. It ends on a note of celebration of life.”
Attendees are invited to send photographs of such cherished individuals to Hembree in advance to be honored during the performance.
Writing and producing events such as this has been a rewarding and therapeutic creative outlet, especially during periods where his main career duties have leaned more into finance and promotion.
“This is free therapy for me,” he says, “a form of psychotherapy in which patients act out events from their past.”
What: Larry’s Second Coming: A Musical Cabaret About Life and Death
When: Thursday, Aug. 15, 6 p.m.
Where: Columbia Children’s Theatre, 3400 Forest Dr. (inside Richland Mall)
Price: $25 (21-plus only)
More: 803-691-4548, columbiachildrenstheatre.com