Metro Weekly

The iconic Sunrize Highway is resurrected for a good cause

Rep Stage's Joseph Ritsch is bringing out his drag alter-ego to help battle food insecurity for HCC students

Ritsch & Sunrize
Ritsch & Sunrize

“I recently posted some old Sunrize photo that came up in a memory,” says Joseph Ritsch. “And someone in development asked, ‘Would you ever perform again?'”

Ritsch, the producing artistic director of Rep Stage, hasn’t performed in drag as Sunrize Highway in many years. Nonetheless, the development officer at Howard Community College, where Rep Stage is based, didn’t have to ask him twice.

Next weekend, he’ll resurrect Sunrize for a good cause. “A large amount of the proceeds from ticket sales are going to the food pantry to help battle food insecurity for HCC students,” he says.

Ritsch originally conceived of Sunrize in New York City during the late ’90s as a way to combine “my work and training as an actor, and my interest in drag, and really explore a specific character. And the genre I was interested in is what I call the grand dames of Broadway and Vegas — the Liza Minnellis and the Shirley MacLaines and the Joey Heathertons, who had these one-woman shows that interspersed songs with stories about their life.

“Being born and raised in Long Island, New York, I also wanted to incorporate some of my own autobiography into the character.” Hence, Sunrize Highway, named after a landmark east-west artery on the island.

Roughly two decades ago, Sunrize was a fixture in Manhattan along with Joey Arias and Sherry Vine, performing a cabaret show around town and occasionally around the country, with stops in Canada and Mexico, and a seasonal run in Provincetown. Yet Ritsch retired the character after moving to Baltimore a decade ago to pursue work in theater as a director and producer.

“What’s kind of great about the show [is] it’s pretty timeless,” he says. “I’m going to switch out a couple of jokes to have some modern reference, but there aren’t a big chunk of rewrites.”

One of the biggest challenges has been getting back into the swing of singing. “I’ve been running through the songs a couple of times a week just to kind of get that back in my body,” he says.

“One of the things folks really find endearing about Sunrize is her naivete,” Ritsch says. “She thinks she’s quite a star. But her claim to fame is touring Howard Johnson’s cocktail lounges and really tiny motels in Vegas. So it’s kind of a commentary on showbiz life and what that world is.”

Sunrize “With A Z” is Friday, Nov. 19, and Saturday, Nov. 20, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Nov. 21, at 2 p.m. at The Horowitz Center’s Studio Theatre, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, in Columbia, Md. Tickets are $20 to $35, or $100 for a front-row VIP Table for two. Call 443-518-1500 or visit www.repstage.org.

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