Story and photos by Carla DeFord
UPDATED, April 16: This weekend come to Lowe Auditorium at Arlington High School (AHS) and dig the swingin' rhythms of Wonderful Town, a celebration of la vie bohème in Greenwich Village circa 1935, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
The jive will be jumpin' as AHS pays tribute to Bernstein during the centennial year of his birth with a cast of enthusiastic players accompanied by a 23-piece pit orchestra. So, take some advice from songs in the show and "don't be square; truck on down" to AHS on March 23, 24, and 25, and fall "a little bit in love" with Wonderful Town.
The show centers on two sisters, Ruth and Eileen Sherwood, who have come from Columbus, Ohio, to New York City to seek fame and fortune. Ruth, the brainy one, wants to be a writer, and Eileen, the beauty, an actress. Upon their arrival, they are tricked into renting a basement apartment in Greenwich Village that has a window open to passersby and is intermittently rocked by explosions from construction of a subway tunnel under the building. It's no wonder that in their first song, they ask, "Why, oh why, oh why oh -- why did I ever leave Ohio?"
The aspiring actress
"This is a very different show from anything we've ever done before," said junior Devin Wright, who had featured roles in both Hello Dolly! and Crazy for You, and who plays Eileen. "The two leads are women," Wright noted, "and the plot is driven by them."
Eileen is so attractive that men are constantly falling in love with her, and at first Wright had difficulty with that. "This character was a huge challenge for me," said Wright, "because I'm a very independent, strong woman, not the dainty, girly type. I identify more with Eileen at the end of the show when she finds that she doesn't need a man; she only needs herself."
Toward the end of act 1, Eileen sings "A Little Bit in Love," a song that made Wright uncomfortable until she found an ingenious way to overcome her misgivings. "I've never felt the need to sing about how much I love someone," said Wright, "but my objective in that song is to show the audience as honestly and realistically as I can that I'm in love. So I do it by thinking about ... chocolate, which I love, and I sing through that."
The aspiring writer
As Ruth Sherwood, senior Olivia Graceffa has the opposite problem -- interacting with the opposite sex does not come easily to her character, as witness Ruth's song "One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man." Graceffa, who played Irene Roth in Crazy for You and Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly!, finds Ruth's insecurities endearing.
"I think what I originally fell in love with in Wonderful Town is that the characters are not your typical stock types," she says. "For example, you don't often find an awkward woman leading a musical-theater production, but everybody can relate to Ruth's experience of making social blunders.
"Ruth accepts herself, flaws and all. She says, 'I'm not going to let anyone or anything prevent me from going after what I'm passionate about.'" Ruth's exuberant side is brought out in the production numbers "Conga" and "Swing," which include numerous 1930s pop-culture references that would have been familiar to audiences when Wonderful Town premiered in 1953.
The object of the Sherwood sisters' affection is Bob Baker, associate editor of the Manhatter newspaper, played by junior Ben Horsburgh, who starred as Bobby Childs in Crazy for You and played Cornelius Hackl in Hello Dolly! Horsburgh says, "Bob has sort of given up. He came to New York to be a writer, but since then he hasn't gotten his big break. He thinks he wants someone to calm him down, 'a quiet girl,' as he sings in act 1. Later, he realizes what he really wants is to be with Ruth, who's not quiet at all. She's very straightforward and says what she thinks. Bob actually needs someone to give him an extra boost, and when he realizes that person is Ruth, he sings 'It's Love,'" which is reprised as the finale of the show.
Featured as the "the ramblin' wreck from Trenton Tech," otherwise known as "the Wreck," is Sam Dieringer, a freshman who is new to AHS, but not to the stage, having been in productions of Arlington Children's Theater, Menotomy Musical Theater and Ottoson Middle School. "I love my song, 'Pass the Football,'" said Dieringer; "it's a big, fun number. Even though I sing it as a solo, it involves a lot of cast members. I get to pass the football around onstage, and I always have a great time."
Director Michael Byrne's choice of the show was partly based on its historical significance. "It's exciting that this is Leonard Bernstein's 100th birthday year," noted Byrne. "This is a great way to honor his legacy as a composer and educator, because I think he considered himself both equally. To extend Bernstein's mission of educating young people about music, it's great to do one of his musicals in a high school, especially one of his lesser-known works. I don't know of any other high-school productions of Wonderful Town coming up soon."
"One of the joys of this show," Byrne continued, "is that the women in it are defining themselves not by their pursuit of a love interest, but by their sense of self-worth, place in society, profession and relationship to each other. What's driving the plot is not the pursuit of romantic love, and that's fun and different."
The music of Bernstein
Another special feature of this show is its orchestra, which is composed of 14 students, five professionals and four alumni, under the direction of AHS instrumental music director Sabato ("Tino") D'Agostino. "The main challenge of Wonderful Town," noted D'Agostino, "is Bernstein's unique style of composing and arranging. On the other hand, the lyricism of some of the music is so beautifully contrasted with the swing and Latin songs. I especially love the overture and "Wrong Note Rag."
D'Agostino finds conducting this orchestra to be satisfying not only as a musician but also as an educator. "The musical gives me the chance to reconnect with former students," he said, "and to see the improvement in my current students, who have done an amazing job in helping pull together such a difficult show."
April 3, 2017: Crazy for You tapped its way into Arlington High School
This feature story by YourArlington freelancer Carla DeFord was published Wednesday, March 21, 2018. Updated March 22, to add a photo link, and on April 16, to fix quotes.
FACEBOOK BOX: To see all images, click the PHOTOS link just below