Friday, February 26, 2010
Here is how you make a Wonderful Town out of a wonderful chaos. Last Thursday at around 11 a.m. in the CCHS auditorium, while everyone else was on vacation, a director on stage right ran a scene with actors in a small wagon set (a theatrical term for a set on wheels, with a back), representing a tiny New York basement apartment. The scene was repeated eight times to perfect the comic timing. Meanwhile, on stage left, a crew of three girls patiently sponged “bricks” onto a piece of scenery, measuring to keep the bricks level and to allow for a window.
Strewn across the stage were various half-painted set pieces, most small wheeled wagons that would revolve and move from side to side. In center stage, a boy was up on a ladder setting wiring, another was in a cherry picker adjusting a lighting instrument. The auditorium itself was lined with set pieces, ladders and wood. On the left, three students were constructing parts of the set and checking cues.
The student director walked purposefully between the stage, the light booth, and various techies all over the auditorium, giving a message here, a note there. Sneezes and coughs resounded in the room, as students worked through their February colds. Lights went on and off as students in the booth tested and focused them. Offstage in the corridors were more set pieces, students moving in and out of the costume room for fittings, instrument cases lining the hallway. The orchestra rehearsed close by.
Students work to make magic happen
Amid all this activity, a herd of about 25 students, looking as if they, too, had been rehearsing in the corridors, converged noisily on the auditorium to await direction. Many of the students in the room were dressed in jeans, but there were stylistic additions to this year’s rehearsal wardrobe: pajama pants, bathrobes, fuzzy slippers, and footed and hooded pajamas known as Snuggies. It was a day to be comfortable and this wardrobe was the more practical because it was warm and the heat was turned down in the building for vacation week. Interesting wardrobe choices were not limited to the students. Music Director Al Dentino was wearing a black T-shirt that said “I’ve Got Rhythm” on the back.
Just before noon, Drama Director Carly Dwyer dismissed all the actors to “a nice long lunch. Relax, get some fuel, and come back ready. It’s going to be a long afternoon. Before you come back, report to the costume room. I want to run the show this afternoon with as much costuming as possible.” The set crew worked through the actors’ lunch, power tools in hand, hammering and drilling. Sitting cross-legged with her laptop, Dwyer had a consultation about show cards to be displayed on sandwich boards and printing tickets. She fielded questions from students, directing them to the people who could answer them or advising them, “You’ll have to think about that and solve it.”
What was evident throughout this hive of activity was that there was real education going on here: students were taking on responsibility, solving problems, learning skills, organization and teamwork, and producing something of their own of which they can be justly proud.
The orchestra, 35 students strong, entered the auditorium shortly after noon and set up for the afternoon’s run-through. At just before 1 p.m., the power tools silenced and the imaginative set rolled into place for the opening number. Dwyer called “Places! ‘Tourists’ in place; actors ready in place for ‘Christopher Street.’” The lights dimmed, Dentino raised his baton, the overture sounded, and, like magic, the busy chaos became Wonderful Town.
Wonderful Town’s history
Wonderful Town is the musical version of the play, My Sister Eileen, based on a series of autobiographical stories by Ruth McKenney. The play opened on Broadway in 1940, and in 1942 Rosalind Russell starred in the film version as Ruth, opposite Janet Blair as Eileen, an Ohioan sister duo recently arrived in New York to make their fortunes. In 1946 the two took their roles to the airwaves in a half-hour radio adaptation of the play, and in 1953 the musical, with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and music by Leonard Bernstein, opened with Russell on Broadway.
Russell won a Tony award for her performance as Ruth, an aspiring writer trying to get published. Eileen, an aspiring actress trying to get a break and by far the more naïve of the two, gets the sisters into one harebrained scrape after another until the inevitable happy ending. Eileen finds a life in the theater and Ruth publishes the stories she writes that are, as the old adage goes, based on what she knows: “My Sister Eileen.”
Wonderful Town is early Bernstein, and not as sophisticated as his later masterpieces like West Side Story and Candide. However, the Bernstein style and stamp are already present in the syncopated rhythms, imaginative juxtapositions of notes and key changes, and the animated tempi of its big production numbers. The book and lyrics are clever and wry, and the story is riotous, loaded with eccentric characters, and silly enough to ring with autobiographical truth- no one could make this stuff up.
CCHS makes it sparkle
This is American musical theater at the beginning of its heyday, full of heart and hilarity. This show works particularly well with high school students, who really are the embodiment of Ruth and Eileen: indomitable spirits just striking out on their own to chart their paths in the world. The costumes and set decorations place the action in the late 1930s, and the sparkling CCHS performers show us how times may change, but people are the same at heart. Their snappy, tongue-in-cheek choreography (by Rebecca Robichaud) is some of the best yet seen on the CCHS stage, and their impressive acting “chops” and mastery of the music vocally (coached by Deb LeBrun) and orchestrally (directed by Dentino) will make for a truly exciting, not-to-be-missed opening night tonight. ∆
Tickets are on sale at the Concord Carlisle Patrons of Performing Students (CCPOPS) website: ccpops.org or by calling 1-978-341-2490 ext 7210, for performances tonight, February 26, and tomorrow, February 27, at 7:30 p.m., and February 28 at 2:30 p.m.; and March 5 and 6 at 7:30 p.m. and March 7 at 2:30 p.m.
© 2010 The Carlisle Mosquito