Wildwood Summer Theatre presents City of Angels
In the auditorium of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School on July 21, two young men in jeans and white T-shirts scuffle, one twisting the other’s arm back while an anxious-looking third delivers a swift kick, sending his target back to the ground.
The fight is broken up a second later. “Can you not run this scene right now? We have to sweep the stage,” says a fourth man standing by the front row of seats.
That day, there are just about 13 hours before the opening night of Wildwood Summer Theater (WST)’s production of City of Angels, and while members said they knew the whole package would come together, they were less sure about the how and when.
However, this recipe of last minute scrambling, problem solving and excitement is the same that has produced award-winning shows by Washington’s only youth-run theater company over the past 46 years. Alumni have gone on to Hollywood (WST-founder Jonathan Hadery acted in Intolerable Cruelty and Bait), and Broadway (Michael Mayer directed Spring Awakening and Thoroughly Modern Millie, co-written by fellow-WST-alumni Dick Scanlan). Participants have also graced local venues, like Imagination Stage, Olney Theater and Signature Theater.
For this company, an impromptu mission to find a pan that clangs just right when “struck” against an actor’s “head” is as business-as-usual as the crew’s light and sound checks.
Losing a safety net, gaining freedom
But in many ways, WST’s company, aged 14-25, is just like any other. Being led by their peers instead of adults, they lose a safety net but gain freedom, responsibility, and a “figure-it-out-as-you-go-along” doctrine. And the goal remains the same: draw the audience in to the world of City of Angels, and maybe they’ll stop wondering if they’re watching neighborhood youth or professionals.
“Just putting on a show is a very intense, personal bonding experience for a lot of people, especially the actors, because they have to break down these emotions and build these relationships with each other that aren’t real but have to look real,” said Jeanie McAlpine, the show’s 23-year-old producer.
In just a few months time of rehearsing, the cast and crew realized the particular challenges of City of Angels, a musical by Cy Coleman and David Zippel, which weaves together the plots of a writer crafting his book into a screenplay and the fictional plot of the movie itself.
“It’s sort of like having to rehearse two shows because of the nature of there being two sets of characters and separate plots going on,” said 25-year-old Kristina Friedgen, who delivered powerful vocals as the loyal assistants Oolie and Donna.
To make the division between reality and film clearer, the set and characters of each plot were decked in either color or shades of grey, imitating the old-time black and white movies.
And like in high school productions, portraying more mature characters – in age and attitude – ended up falling to much more youthful actors.
“You’ll admit it’s a little odd to have someone my age playing someone who’s 75,” said Amy Broadbent, 18, of the portrayal of iron lung-clad Mr. Kinglsey. And to play Gabby and Bobbi, the main love interests in both plots, Broadbent said she learned how to “bring out the sass” on stage.
While some actors said they missed having staff with decades of stage experience, others, like Nunzio, welcomed the chance to work alongside actors, musicians and crew in their 20s.
“It’s an older cast than I’ve been used to in high school,” said Rocky Nunzio, 18, who traded lazy summer days for WST as a first-time participant. “My last summer before going to college, I wanted to do something important,” he said.
But no matter how many shows the more seasoned members have been in, they said they’re still learning too.
“There’s a lot of figuring out how to fix things really fast. We are a ‘learning company,’ which is the nice way of saying nobody has any idea what’s going on,” McAlpine said, adding that someone in the company usually has an answer if you’re willing to ask.
Montgomery County certainly has no shortage of arts activities for youth, including the adult-run Lumina Studio Theatre in Silver Spring and the Musical Theater Center in Rockville.
But funding organizations like WST hasn’t been in easy in recent years. Fifty dollar membership fees, year-round fundraising efforts, grants and ticket sales have kept afloat a $30,000 total budget than once saw ample donations from the community.
However, history has shown that as long as area youth put in the time, a show will go on.
“For people to actually come in during their summer vacations and work on a show, it’s such a great thing to see that. Especially when there’s so many options for kids,” said Friedgen, who participated in WST for the last time this year.
And when the curtain dropped on City of Angels in August, leads Alex Garretson and Mason Catharini immediately dropped character to implore their audience for donations, to keep the company alive and presenting “perfect Hollywood endings” another year.
Wildwood Summer Theater is a 501(c)3 non-profit theater company in Maryland. To learn more: http://www.wst.org/
Photos by Rebecca Lurye