Wonderful Town, the Homecoming Musical will open on Friday at 8 p.m. at the Abilene Civic Center, and will continue through Sunday at 2 p.m.
Written by Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov, with music by Leonard Bernstein, Wonderful Town, is about two sisters, Ruth and Eileen Sherwood (Payton Reeves and Helena Lynch, respectively) who leave Columbus, Ohio, and move to New York City in 1935 to chase their career dreams.
Adam Hester, the director of the production and professor of theatre, said he enjoyed working through the selection this year.
“The show has this really fun plot with all these crazy, wacky things that go on throughout the story, and there’s just great heart to it,” Hester said. “It’s a family-friendly musical with very hummable tunes. It’s one of those musicals that will be around for a long time, one that just keeps coming back. Audiences love it.”
Every year, the Homecoming Musical is one of the Department of Theatre’s most grandiose and glamorous endeavors, and Hester said is a lot goes into its selection and production process.
“When choosing the Homecoming Musical, we have to balance what will be a good growing and learning experience for our student population as well as what our patrons would want to come see, thinking particularly of the alumni that would be coming home,” Hester said. “This one seems to fit the bill on all fronts.”
The cast and crew have been working on the show since the beginning of the school year. The first day of classes was also their first rehearsal.
“Wonderful Town is such an ensemble piece, and there is so much that is required of this cast and backstage crew that we talked about early on,” Hester said. “It’s not a show that this age group typically knows, so it’s one that the cast had to become familiar with before they could really fall in love with it. Over time, the affection for this show has certainly grown amongst our cast and crew.”
Andrew Boone, senior acting major from Abilene, who plays Robert Baker, one of the lead characters in the musical, said he is excited to become his character onstage.
“I’m coming straight off a month-long run playing a lead in a professional musical, and having that experience takes some pressure off of me and allows me simply to embody this character and just play onstage,” Boone said. “That’s really what this is: playing. There is a lot of work and I take that side of it very seriously, but whenever I step onto the stage, I just have fun playing make believe with my best friends.”
Boone will graduate this year, leaving many of these best friends behind to follow his own artistic path. Every senior in the department will move to New York to finish their last semester with the Tepper Program.
“It’s very bittersweet,” Boone said. “I see this as the culmination of both my training as an artist and the precious time I’ve spent growing as a person in this department. I wouldn’t want it to end any other way than to perform this magical show with my best friends. I’m trying to savor every last rehearsal.”
Hester said a multitude of elements make this production an extravagant spectacle.
David Utley, an ACU alumnus who worked on various productions, including Man of La Mancha and Big Fish, also designed the set for Wonderful Town.
“David designed this fantastic elevated train platform that makes you feel like you’re in New York City,” Hester said. “He and I had been looking at a variety of different images, trying to capture the essence of the show and there was this one that we both loved that had both the romantic quality and the innocence and the fun that is Wonderful Town.”
Lily Balogh, who is new to faculty this year, worked to perfect the show’s dance numbers.
“She has amazing choreography,” Hester said of Balogh. “Getting to train under her has been great for our students. There have been lots of opportunities with a variety of different dances. There’s a really powerful ballet in the show, as well as jazz numbers and all kinds of different music that is fun both for people to watch and for our students to learn.”
“Lily is incredible,” said Boone. “She brings an air of professionalism to everything she does, but she’s also like our sister. She holds us to a Broadway-level standard of work ethic, yet also hangs out with us after rehearsal. We all adore Lily.”
Though many elements have been marvelous, several things made the process of the show taxing, including sickness, injury and the passing of theatre minor, Jessica Richardson.
“The tragedy and Jessica Richardson hit us very hard,” Hester said. “She was a theatre minor and in my playwriting class. She was such a talent. She had many many friends in this department, so that was really hard.”
Easton Orr, a sophomore musical theatre major who plays Strange Man in the show, suffered an injury, in which freshman Corban Gililland stepped in for his dances. Though Orr said he is doing substantially better and still plans to be in the production, he will not participate in every dance number.
“Gililland has been covering this since day one, so he was able to step right in and not miss a beat,” Hester said. “He’s really outstanding as a performer.”
“I would say the play itself does point to several things that are reminders about the idea of restoration and reconciliation that God is calling us to,” Hester said. “Early on we talked about that in our table work. Even though it’s such a fun, silly comedy, in many ways there are elements of this show that remind us about those essential parts of our own Christian walk.”