The multipurpose room at St. John Neumann’s Church in Reston is currently earning its name as the resident Theatre Ministry gears up for its production of “Over the Boardwalk,” an original musical about a New Jersey boardwalk amusement pier under threat of demolition from a hungry development company. And as opening night approaches, some redevelopment is being undertaken in the multipurpose room as a lifeguard stand, pizza parlor and boardwalk are among the set decorations being erected to recreate this once popular, iconic vacation spot.
“I love beach boardwalks and I went to Coney Island as a kid and Jenkinson’s in New Jersey, which this was loosely based off of,” said Lu Ann Behan, of Oak Hill, author of “Over the Boardwalk” and chief coordinator of the St. John Neumann Theatre Ministry. “These are places where people who don’t have a lot of money can go and relax with their family. This show is real life in the sense that boardwalks are being threatened.”
Once a center point for family entertainment, many of the older beachside amusement parks are now the center point of a redevelopment debate, including the recent, and highly publicized, issue surrounding proposed changes at New York City’s Coney Island.
“This show deals with that,” said Behan. “A fictitious boardwalk is facing foreclosure with this ruthless developer. Three generations of women are figuring out how to deal with this.”
And Behan isn’t the only person in the production who has ties to beachside amusement parks. Ensemble member Tony DeBenedittis, a Herndon resident since 1968 and father of the town’s mayor, Steve DeBenedittis, remembers visiting these types of parks as child. And in an ironic twist, he has a brother currently involved in litigation for the redevelopment of Coney Island.
“I remember Wildwood as a child,” he said of the New Jersey park. “We use to go there all the time. When my kids were growing up we used to go to Ocean City and you hate to see that these are going away.”
SET IN 1963, “Over the Boardwalk,” tells the tale of Ferguson’s Boardwalk Amusement Pier, a family-run business for 50 years that’s facing the end of its lifespan as a “ruthless developer” is determined to tear it down. The event brings together a community of characters, including three generations of Ferguson women, who gear up for one last fight to keep the business and family lifestyle alive. Not all grim, the musical, which includes 15 original songs, is an “evening of music and fun,” said Fairfax resident Bill Tuohy, who plays the pizza parlor owner, Big Al.
“It’s delightful,” he said. “It’s a delightful fun era. There are many shows that use this era because its appeal to all age groups. It’s got all the little pieces that appeal to all people.”
A Fairfax County born-and-raised resident, and veteran of the Hayfield High School theater department, Tuohy has been enjoying his involvement in the show, which began rehearsals in May.
“There’s a lot of hat sharing,” he said. “The talent we have managing the production, I think, is outstanding.”
Chris Cummings, of Manassas, is also enjoying his time in the show. Joined by his wife, Barbara, and daughter, Emilyann, “Over the Boardwalk” auditions caught his eye because it “seemed like a family show.”
“It’s a fun thing to do together,” he said of the family involvement. “This way if one is going to rehearsal, everybody is.”
Cummings also believes the show is a “really neat family type show about a summer amusement park.”
“It’s about family ties and triumphing over adversary,” he said.
WHILE CONDUCTING RESEARCH for the story, Behan interviewed a number of families and characters at amusement pier communities. One particular character that stuck out in her mind, apropos for the story, was a grandmother visiting a park with her grandson.
“She was talking about how important it was to be here sharing it with her grandson,” she said. “People in New Jersey were really warm and very enthusiastic about the show.”