West Potomac and Mount Vernon High Schools will be putting on very different performances this Spring, but both have something in common: they are significant departures from what the school’s drama groups have been doing for the past several seasons.
“In the past [the audience] has been little kids and the elderly,” said Emily Balliew, a cast-member and student at Mount Vernon, “this year we wanted the middle.” Mount Vernon will perform “Smokey Joe’s Café,” a revue-style show made up of a collage of 50’s and 60’s era rock and roll classics.
West Potomac High School will be staging, “The Boyfriend,” a spoof of 1920’s era musicals set in a French boarding school on the Riviera packed with English girls, all pining for one thing.
KATHIE MCCORMALLY, director of “The Boyfriend” and drama teacher at West Potomac, said that the students had been performing “heavy” musicals with “rather foreboding endings” such as “Les Miserables,” “Titanic,” and “Man of La Mancha,” all “big productions but not specifically dance numbers.”
“The kids were asking, ‘Can’t we do something lighter and funny?’” she said. In addition, McCormally felt that the school had gotten too “far away from any show that required much dancing.” She said that it’s important to equip students with all elements required in drama. The school brought in a professional choreographer for “The Boyfriend.”
The show may be set in only the second decade of the twentieth century, but for West Potomac, this was still a significant step towards the present day. “We never do anything in the 1900’s,” McCormally said.
“You can see we’re sort of overdoing it, tongue in cheek,” she commented as the cast rehearsed Act One. Within 40 seconds of the start of the play, fifteen girls were singing “what perfect young ladies we are …” in pert British accents. And the breaks between numbers were rarely much longer.
Although the musical may be lighter, that the does not mean it is less difficult to perform. Intricately choreographed dance routines involving 30 or more people broke out frequently, and during this early period of rehearsals the cast was still stumbling over their steps in the complex whirl of people. And ccasionally they would also stumble over the French lines that were slipped into the dialogue.
Kristen Merck, a Mount Vernon senior and stage manager for “The Boyfriend,” said, “I think it was time for a change” after seven years of serious, dramatic musicals. This is “something everyone can just have a good time with … the atmosphere is so great here. It’s fun and free and everyone just wants to be at rehearsal. It’s a nice show to go out on.”
Taylor Mertins, who plays Marcel, and Bailey Disselkoen, the co-president of the Thespian Honors society, who plays a maid, agree. “There is a lot more dancing,” said Disselkoen, “It’s a lot happier and more upbeat.” This is partly because of the cast, she added. With only 45 people, it is a more intimate group.
“The Boyfriend” is also “less focused on individual vocals,” said Mertins. The ensemble format of the songs and dances “brings everyone together.”
MOUNT VERNON made its change to “Smokey’s Joe Café,” even more abruptly than West Potomac. Director and drama teacher David Schmidt had originally planned a staging of “Carousel,” a classic musical written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, perhaps the two most famous song-writers ever on Broadway. But the students at Mount Vernon felt that the traditional musicals the school had been performing (last year it was “South Pacific,” the year before, “Peter Pan”) required too many cast members, particularly two many white cast members, a racial make-up that did not reflect the diversity of the school.
So Schmidt and the class consulted, and after an informal vote, “Smokey Joe’s Café” was selected as a replacement. This may not have been as radical a departure as it appears. Although it is a rock and roll show that contains no dialogue and only the vaguest of plots, all of its songs, such as “Yakety Yak” and “Hound Dog,” were written by the team of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, a legendary rock and roll writing team that often draws comparisons to Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Because the play relies more on singing and dance than traditional acting, Schmidt stepped back and let Vicki Woltz, a first year teacher of Special Education who earned her Bachelor’s degree in dance, craft the performance. Woltz says this show emphasizes the students’ strengths. The cast contains many choral students, and their “talent is singing.”
“Smokey Joe’s Café” is a series of bittersweet reminiscences. The performers look back on their lives beginning with childhood and progressing through major landmarks in a typical American life, each represented by a different song. There are 24 songs in the production, and only 18 cast members. “No one is really the lead,” Woltz says “but there are four or five soloists.”
Because of this ensemble format, “Smokey Joe’s” “showcases more people’s talents,” said stage manager Jasmine Roberts.
“Usually we do more big-name productions,” said cast-member Emily Balliew. “This year we wanted to make it simple and fun and more accessible to the community. Everyone loves the 50’s and 60’s.”
Another cast member, Jonathon Faircloth, says that the different approach has interested a wider selection of the student body in participating in this year’s show, as well as in attending it. “You see more people in the production, different people you wouldn’t think would do this kind of show.”
The rock music “sets the mood for the night. It gives everyone the feeling they can get into the music,” says Stacey Mckenna.
Kelly Hale agrees, “Everyone gets into it, and at the end we actually go out into the house.”
In keeping with the nightclub feel of “Smokey Joe’s” the show will be presented as a dinner theatre, with drinks and deserts provided by enthusiastic parents for sale in the lobby. It will also have one performance scheduled at 10 p.m. conspicuously later than most high school performances.
Woltz, who had only worked with elementary schools before, said “I’ve never [choreographed] with so much talent. So this is a challenge for me.” But “these young people want to do what they do well. And their enthusiasm is off the wall. They all say, I can do it, I can do it.”
From its inception, the cast has embraced “Smokey Joe’s Café.” And they expect audiences, young, old and especially everyone in between, to do so as well.