Christopher Tomasino, 56, of Alexandria is celebrating his 30th year of being the music director at Bishop Ireton High School, a Roman Catholic high school founded in 1964. But he’s not planning on retiring anytime soon. His role involves working on theatrical productions, casting the show, teaching all of the music to the students and conducting the performances. Working on all the musicals, his job is “making sure the music integrates into the show as the composer and author originally intended,” he said.
He’s seen a lot of changes since he started in 1987 when the school had no theater. In the early days, he recalls the students performing “The King and I” in the gym on a small stage, and the big “Shall We Dance” number where Anna moved in a tiny circle. “The auditorium we have now is night and day,” he said. “Twenty years ago, they built the Garwood Whaley Auditorium.”
“What’s interesting is to see how this program has gone through since the fall of 1987 to present — how hard all the kids have worked, how the various directors, choreographers, designers, and the program has grown and changed over the years. It’s quite exciting,” he said.
Having worked with “countless” numbers of students, he said some of the highlights from his 30 years of staging productions include: “Barnum,” “Zombie Prom,” “Something’s Afoot,” and “The Drowsy Chaperone,” he said. “It’s been a lot of shows … We’ve had a lot of kids involved in all the productions.”
With Bishop Ireton being a somewhat small school, he’s impressed with how some of its alumni have gone on to perform professionally in New York. “It’s quite amazing to see the kids progress to that level. A couple of the kids came into the program and totally gotten bitten by the bug. One person is currently performing on Broadway,” he said. That would be Jake Odmark, who is performing in “Kinky Boots” and soon-to-be “Pretty Woman.”
There are other former students who have done just as well — Karla Garcia was a swing in “Hamilton” (she played multiple roles). And another student, Matt Aument, is the current music director for “Sweeney Todd,” an off-Broadway production.
Tomasino, who plays clarinet and sax, says his style of teaching is to literally try “to get it into the kids’ ears foremost.” He starts by teaching parts to the full cast on the ensemble numbers so they can learn all the vocal lines and move towards solos, duets and trios. “That’s the initial process — get it in their ears so they can start working on it. And break down and clean things out,” he said.
He continued: “And, as we move into running the show with the dialogue, dancing, blending in the music into the show total — I always view that my job is to try to make it a seamless thing so you don’t see the acting part — and they stop and sing. It needs to be a total blend, whether the actors are singing and dancing, or going in and out of scenes — the start of each song or in and out of scenes. That’s all worked out in the rehearsal process,” he said.
When he’s not working at Bishop Ireton, Tomasino can be seen music directing at The Little Theatre of Alexandria (LTA), since 1988. He will be music directing Douglas Carter Beane's “The Nance” from June 2-23, followed by “Jesus Christ Superstar” coming in July and August.
Theater Director Frank Shutts has collaborated with Tomasino since 1991. They have worked on 20 musicals in the professional and non-professional arenas, and 12 at Bishop Ireton since 2005.
“What makes Chris excel in educational theater is that while displaying the patience needed in working with teenagers/beginners, his expectations are just as high as those set for professional performers,” said Shutts, who has worked with Bishop Ireton, McLean, and Madeira high schools as well as LTA, Port City Playhouse, Dominion, and the Greenbelt community theaters. Currently, he is the show director for the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington.
He continued: “He takes his time pounding out notes for new vocalists and puts together a top-rate orchestra to back them up ... and does it all with a smile on his lips and joy in his heart. His fondness for music is only exceeded by his desire to instill the ‘musical theater bug’ in future generations.”
Musician Mila Weiss had the opportunity to work with Tomasino for over 10 years on nearly 20 musicals, both at LTA and Bishop Ireton. “When I first started playing for him, he also played clarinet in the pit. It was nice to have a music director that clearly understood and appreciated the details of pit playing himself. Seemingly small things such as waiting an extra half second to allow an instrument change or securing reserved parking for those carrying 40 pounds of gear every day demonstrates that he is willing to make sure his musicians have the tools they need to do their best,” she said.
She added: “Working with a community theater and a school also means working with limited resources — both time and money — yet Chris always manages to create a great product. He has developed relationships with many quality musicians who are willing to share their talents with the community. He knows what he wants the music to sound like and communicates clearly with the musicians to get it. In the few opportunities he has to really break the music down to work in detail, he demonstrates his knowledge of the score and musicality.”
Tomasino grew up in Alexandria and Prince William County, and has a degree in music education from James Madison University. He has a full-time day job at Burke & Herbert Bank in Old Town Alexandria as a compliance officer, where he makes sure the bank follows federal and state regulations regarding consumer and banking laws.