No fewer than 41 roles were up for grabs during auditions in January for Mary Baldwin University theatre’s upcoming performance of Leonard Bernstein’s musicalWonderful Town.Although it was challenging to fill all the slots from a small student body, director Ginny Francisco ’64, professor of theatre, revels in the number of opportunities provided when casting a large show.
“Most of the plays we perform have six to eight characters, maybe fewer,” said Francisco, who will concentrate solely on producing the show this semester as she transitions into phased retirement at Mary Baldwin. “We continue to do musicals because they allow many more people on stage, and they look at the lighter side of the artistic world, the part that explores what benefits humankind.”
A Tony Award-winner for best musical,Wonderful Townfollows the story of sisters Ruth and Eileen Sherwood, who travel to New York City in search of careers and romance. Bernstein developed the score in the early 1950s when he was quite young, only about age 35. Francisco said the composer’s youth — and perhaps his state of mind at the time — make Wonderful Town a “cheery and fun show.”
The musical debuted on Broadway in 1953 and ran for more than a year, followed by television productions and movies that used adapted scripts. Mary Baldwin’s performance follows a recent revival of the show on and off Broadway, including a Broadway run from 2003 to 2005 and a national tour in 2006–07. The Mary Baldwin cast and crew had just four weeks to produceWonderful Town— a feat made possible by what Francisco says is a commitment by students to “give me basically every minute of their waking free time.”
Stage manager Kylene Henry ’09 has one of the biggest jobs, including leading all the technical and props aspects and serving as a liaison between actors and the technical crew. “Musicals are the best because you get to escape from the rest of the day into song and dance,” said Henry, who recently returned from an internship at Disney World where she worked as a stage tech for shows at the park and for special events at surrounding resorts.
The cast is primarily populated by Mary Baldwin women, so Francisco took a few artistic liberties with the musical, such as transforming a barber shop setting into a beauty parlor. She realizes, though, that placing young women in male roles creates a unique learning experience.
“It forces them to think about how a man thinks, moves, interacts with the world,” Francisco said. “It is quite a useful experience these days. Gender roles are more flexible than they were when I was studying theatre.”
Francisco is also quick to point out that the Mary Baldwin theatre department relies on community support for its productions. Not only does she hope residents will fill seats in the audience, but several local actors were cast in the show — as they often are — and community members contribute everything from props and furniture to critiques that help the department improve, she said. Francisco teams up once again for Wonderful Town with friend Louis Dolive, who helped her successfully bring a translation ofLa Jolie Parfumeuse: The Pretty Perfume Makerto the Mary Baldwin stage in 2007. She also credits accompanist Don Rowe with helping cast and stage the show in such a short timeframe.