Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Celebrating a theater legacy

Emotions were high both onstage and off as Byram Hills High School in Armonk, N.Y. on April 13 staged a performance of the musical Next to Normal with Broadway actors to benefit the school’s theater program and honor retiring teacher Joy Varley.

Her 28 years at the school (out of a 36-year career) were commemorated by a surprise announcement from Principal Christopher Borsari that each year’s theater troupe would be renamed the Varley Players. “In the life of an institution, the people who shape it should never be forgotten,” Borsari told a sold-out audience of parents, friends and alumni in the BHHS auditorium.

In addition, the performance’s music director, BHHS alumnus Jason Loffredo, premiered a song composed for the occasion and sung by the cast, called “Song to Joy.” He prefaced it by saying, “I would not be where I am in my life were it not for Joy Varley.” Loffredo is a well-known theatrical music director, pianist, composer and arranger.

Joy Varley
Both tributes were a surprise to Varley, who responded, “Thank you all for everything. This school district will be in my heart forever.” Before the performance, she noted the powerful impact of the arts and theater in particular on young lives, saying “the people who will create the future of our culture are standing on a high school stage today.” She announced that the benefit had so far raised $24,000.

The Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning show’s composer, Tom Kitt, returned to his old high school as keynote speaker for the evening, observing that “it feels like no time has gone by, then it feels like years and years.” (He graduated in 1992.) “To come back was a no-brainer to raise money for this wonderful program,” he said.

Participating in BHHS theater “changed my life,” he said, remembering a production of Into the Woods that powerfully influenced him. That Stephen Sondheim show uses fairy tales to tell stories of real people and he said he “started to go after theater that told more of those stories. The seeds of Next to Normal began there.”

 He spoke of theater’s ability to change lives, noting that the subject of Next to Normal, a family coping with the mother’s mental illness, was discussed at two school assemblies on the day of the performance. “Art is the great savior. It talks about issues that might be scary,” he said.

Talking about Next to Normal’s journey, he said it took 11 years for he and lyricist Brian Yorkey to bring the musical to Broadway, starting with a 10-minute version as part of a musical theatre development workshop. He also called his welcome at BHHS “quite overwhelming.”

As reported earlier on allaboutarmonk.com, alumni of BHHS who are professional actors and musicians gave up several Mondays off to rehearse and perform for the benefit. The semi-staged performance featured a seven-piece orchestra, including Loffredo conducting from the piano.

Lauryn Ciardullo (BHHS graduate 2004) brought a fragile and brittle edge to the character of Diana, a mother whose bipolar disorder haunts her family. As her husband Dan, BHHS Theater Director John Anthony Lopez conveyed the desperation of a man realizing his love for his wife may not be enough to hold the family together.

Jared Weiss (BHHS 2003) played the family’s compelling son Gabe with charm and an undertone of mischief. As daughter Natalie, Katerina Papacostas (BHHS 2006) portrayed a young woman longing for her mother’s love and attention and trying to understand she might only get crumbs. Guest artist Johnny Stellard played Natalie’s boyfriend Henry as a decent, caring person who in his way might be as steadfast as Dan.

As Dr. Madden, Jonah Piali (BHHS Assistant Theater Director) served up medical platitudes with compassion and also the right amount of bland professional attitude.
Orchestra members included J.J. Clarke (BHHS 1995) on drums and percussion, Craig Magnano on guitar, Kathy Shelhart (H.C. Crittenden Middle School Orchestra Director) on cello, Alan Lounsbury (BHHS Stage Conductor) on bass, Lori Horowitz (BHHS alumni parent) on violin and Robert DelGaudio on synthesizer.

The technical crew included BHHS Production Assistant Jim Gulick (production assistant), BHHS Tech Director Jamie LaJoie (sound design) and BHHS 1993 alumnus Mike Cummings (lighting design).

Ticket holders were invited to pre- and post-show receptions where alumni, parents and friends mingled with Varley, Kitt and the cast and crew.

This article originally appeared at allaboutarmonk.com.