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The show goes on

The Daily Times and Chronicle, Tuesday, April 28, 1981

Burlington Past and Present, by John E. Fogelberg
(Article # 097)

The show goes on

Theater in Burlington was practically nonexistent before 1900. Social life was centered in the church, so the possibilities were very limited. Pageants were produced from time to time, but they were either historical, depicting scenes from Burlington’s past, or patriotic, during the Civil War, or ecclesiastical in nature based upon Bible stories or the Puritan past. It is interesting to note that when the second town hall was built in 1915, most items placed in the cornerstone were related to church affairs. The church was everything.

The first known theatrical group was the Hilltop Players. They, too, were church-oriented since their talent was recruited there. They produced a number of light musical comedies, one of which was “Miranda” under the direction of Marjorie Field. The local Grange used the stage in the new town hall to show several of their productions, but the troupe did mostly minstrel shows in tiny venues, featuring local people who weren’t averse to performing before the public, such as Charlie McGinnis and Charlie Bennett. Those two worthies appeared with four other young men as “The Bull Throwers” in a minstrel show sponsored by the Burlingtonians in 1932.

To the Burlingtonians, maybe, should be given the credit for producing the first musical in Burlington. More like a minstrel show than a modern musical, it did have three acts, parts for 14 players and a girls’ chorus of 30. It was called “College Inn,” with no author listed on the program. An indication of what the local audience appreciated at the time were such songs as “Make Hay While the Sun Shines” and “Can You Tame Wild Women?” In Act III, Beatrice Kirkland did an acrobatic dance, Lillian Johnson gave an accordion solo, Charles Bennett sang a song specialty, and Wilbur Dobbins, with the help of the girls’ chorus, rendered a song entitled, “They Go Wild Over Me.” The time was 1935, and Burlington was in the midst of a depression.

The first Burlington High School was built in 1939, just before WWII. The war years, the prosperity which followed, town water, Route 128 and a tremendous influx of new residents left little time for other dramatics. It wasn’t until 1959, when an innocuous little three act comedy directed by Ed Fogelberg with Richard Parker playing the lead, started what was to become a yearly presentation by high school students, mostly seniors. When Marshall Simonds School opened as a new high school, the seniors used the new and vastly superior stage of Walker Auditorium to present probably the best of the early plays, “You’re Only Young Once.”

The new facilities prompted the Burlington Teachers Association to present “Burlington Goes South” under the direction of Woburn’s Walter F. Doherty. Phil Russo sang, Herb Danielson got into the act with a specialty called “Kathleen,” but it was Mary Cronin, Patricia Ryan and Paula Kirby who stopped the show with their pantomime of “The Retire Sisters.” That production was not really a musical, simply because it had music, but Don Lussier later wrote the lyrics for one called “Rally at Ridewood;” Tom Deechan wrote the music and the Dramatic Club produced it in 1962. It was the first appearance of Bonnie Jean Joyce, whose voice was a marvel for one so young.

Then came “Oklahoma!” the first of a number of fine professional musicals which has been successes on Broadway. The production staff had some familiar names: Thomas Deechan, musical director; Marie Deechan, choreographer; Elinor Marvin, scenery; Don Lussier, later the founder of the Greater Lowell Theater, staging of musical numbers; Priscilla Kilgore, art book; John O’Brien, promotion; Bernie Dupuis, lighting; Ed Fogelberg, director. In the cast were David Sanfason, who played Curly; Bonnie Jean Joyce as Laurey; Richard O’Neill as Will Parker; Theta Ciriello as Ado Annie; George Brusko as Jud; and Joanne MacKenzie as Aunt Ella. Only students appeared on stage and they ran the whole show on opening night. The show was a huge success. Broadway had come to Burlington.

That was followed by another Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, “The King and I.” This is the show that many people here remember when talking about student musicals. The sets were fantastic, completed by  eighth grader Don Gorvett, who later illustrated Burlington’s history book and brilliant murals in Burlington’s history museum along with Jeff Weaver. The showstopper of that musical was the number “Let Us Dance” with Carlson Pian as the King and Bonnie Jean Joyce as Anna. Almost all shows here had standing ovations at curtain call, but before that number was over, it produced a spontaneous one never to be forgotten by the youngsters involved. Nothing could go wrong after that. A 10th grader, Kevin Stryke, played Anna’s son; an 11th grader, Wayne Little, played the Prince, and another 10th grader Margaret Prishwalko, danced Eliza. That musical was the one to which all later ones were to be compared.

Not to be outdone, the Teachers’ Association proceeded to put on “South Pacific.” The 27-piece orchestra was directed by Don Lussier, the choreography by Beverly Kilmartin, scene design by Elinor Marvin, Ron Mansfield, member of the faculty, well-known soloist who once sang for Eric Leinsdorf in the B.S.O. recording of “Lohengrin” and the director of the Mishawum Choral Society, played Emile, Barbara Garland played Nellie, and George Yore and Edna Howard gave unforgettable performances as Billis and Bloody Mary.

Excellent performances by senior high students followed year after year: “Li’l Abner,” 1965; “Brigadoon,” 1966; “Kiss Me Kate,” 1967; “Guys and Dolls,” 1968; “The Boy Friend,” 1969; “The Apple Tree,” 1970; “Pajama Game,” 1971; “Damn Yankees,” 1972; “Applause,” 1973, and “Camelot,” in 1974. Space does not permit accolades to be given for the many fine performances by Burlington’s young people in those musicals, and they were many.

In the meantime, the Teachers’ Association had deferred to the new Burlington Players, a local players group organized in 1967. They staged four musicals, “Fanny” and “Take Me Along” in 1968, “Paint Your Wagon” in 1969 and then “Mame” in 1971 before reverting to traditional three-act plays in which Jennifer Lavin, Marge Lacey and Vin Sferrino often have a part. It still is an active group with many out-of-towners now involved. They have done such good productions as “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Mouse that Roared,” and “Never Too Late.”

There was no high school musical in 1975 or 1976, but then the tradition was revived by the collaboration of Jeff Hoyt as producer and George Yore as director. For them the students did “Carnival” in 1977 and “Little Mary Sunshine” in 1978. With Mike Barczak taking on the job of director the school staged “Once Upon a Mattress” in 1979 and “Anything Goes” in 1980. On stage in all four productions was Sehnaz Oncu, who played Lili as a freshman in 1977 and Reno as a senior in 1980. Still recuperating from an automobile accident on opening night, she still performed in the old tradition of the theater that “the show must go on.”

The musical (an adjective turned into a noun) is a musical play which incorporates all the theater arts; librettos and acting, lyrics and song, music and music arrangements, choreography and staging, costumes and lighting, sets and stage design. Which makes them much more difficult to produce, and far more costly, than a straight dramatic play.

That high school youngsters can do them well, from the girl who enjoys the spotlight to the girl who must take care of costumes, from the boy who gets to kiss the girls on stage to the fellow who must become a responsible stage manager with all that that implies, all this speaks well for the intelligence, perseverance and ingenuity of youth.

This Friday and Saturday evening the youngsters of Burlington High will present for the town’s entertainment the well-known musical “Guys and Dolls,” the 17th musical in a tradition which started with “Oklahoma!” in 1963. It is the only production which as been repeated by the school and was selected probably because Mr. Barczak, this year’s director, was thoroughly familiar with the play, and Mr. Tyler, musical director, felt he had the voices necessary to do the score justice.

If past performances are any indication, the play will be well worth seeing. The young men and women involved have worked long and hard after school hours to make it so. And when teachers are being criticized, be it remembered that their efforts on behalf of their budding thespians is a voluntary one. Applause! Applause!