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S.F. schools revive old-fashioned musicals

SAN FRANCISCO, CA (Catholic San Francisco) - If you are looking for an old-fashioned musical theater experience, look no further than your nearest Catholic high school. From Archbishop Riordan High School’s reprise of the 1961 Broadway musical “Carnival” to St. Ignatius College Preparatory’s rendition of “Mame,” the spring musical is back in all its glory.

COMING SOON - Stefania Pierucci is Lili and Greg Schwartz is the puppeteer in the Archbishop Riordan High School production of “Carnival,” in the school’s Lindland Theater April 11, 12, 18, 19 at 8 p.m. and April 20 at 2 p.m. Almost 60 other students complete the ensemble of cast, crew and orchestra. The school is located at 175 Phelan St. across from San Francisco City College. Tickets are available online at (Vincent Paratore)

COMING SOON - Stefania Pierucci is Lili and Greg Schwartz is the puppeteer in the Archbishop Riordan High School production of “Carnival,” in the school’s Lindland Theater April 11, 12, 18, 19 at 8 p.m. and April 20 at 2 p.m. Almost 60 other students complete the ensemble of cast, crew and orchestra. The school is located at 175 Phelan St. across from San Francisco City College. Tickets are available online at (Vincent Paratore)

Marin Catholic High School premieres Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” on March 13. In San Mateo County, Woodside Priory is producing “Bye Bye Birdie” which began yesterday, March 6.

“Our goal is to teach these teens as much about professional theater production as possible, and to hear our audiences say they can’t believe the people on stage are in high school,” said Valerie O’Riordan, now in her eighth year as drama director at Riordan, the all-boys Catholic high school in San Francisco, where more than 50 high school students are working with musical and circus professionals, learning trapeze flying, unicycle riding, juggling, stilt walking and puppetry for “Carnival,” the story of an orphan who joins the circus and finds love and family.

A confluence of coincidences rather than any collaboration between the schools is bringing a raft of old-time Broadway shows to the high school stages of the archdiocese.

“This was our time to do a big Broadway-style, old-fashioned musical,” said Ted Curry, drama director at St. Ignatius in San Francisco. SI rotates through the various genres of serious traditional, contemporary and comedy every three to four years, and “Mame” is this year’s choice for a comedic musical, Curry said.

After several years of “edgy” productions, Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory in San Francisco is staging “Guys and Dolls,” said drama director Francine Torres-Kelly. The light-hearted romance about gangsters and a floating crap game in New York features the measured cadence and Brooklyn accents of Damon Runyon, she noted. “I wanted the kids to understand genre and to understand comedy. We wanted to get back to basics,” Torres-Kelly said.

“It’s a great way to do what you love,” said Abigail Colyer, an SI senior who sings the lead of Mame in the Jesuit high school’s musical. “If you love acting, if you love singing, it’s a great fun time and way to be with your friends.”

Teaming up for a modern musical

While most of the Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of San Francisco are staging classics, a collaboration of three San Mateo Catholic high schools will present the 1990 “Once On This Island,” a Tony-nominated Broadway musical about a tragic and mythical love story set on a Caribbean island. Girls’ schools of Mercy-Burlingame and Notre Dame-Belmont continue an 18-year tradition of teaming up with Junipero Serra High School, a formal arrangement known as Mercy, Notre Dame, Serra Tri-School Productions, said Jay Jordan, a member of the musical’s directing team.

Sixty-two students act, sing and dance in the story of class struggle between the wealthy and peasants.”Very much Romeo and Julietish,” said Jordan, who has been helping oversee stage shows at Serra for 30 years. “It’s a bit of a tragedy, but it has an uplifting ending.”

“One of the things that is important to us is to maximize the number of students” in the production, said Pam Matthews, Jordan’ s colleague and chair of the Visual and Performing Arts Department at Mercy-Burlingame, noting what is a value for most if not all high school theatre departments. “We try hard to make an experience for as many students as we possibly can.”

For that reason, Sacred Heart Preparatory in Atherton alternates its musicals between fall and spring to allow students in various sports to do the plays as well, said John Loschmann, drama director at the Atherton Catholic high school. This year, Sacred Heart Prep staged “Bye Bye Birdie” in the fall, he said.

For students, participating in a musical, whether as a lead, in the chorus or on stage crew, requires discipline and commitment to balance the hard work of the four-to-five-day-a-week rehearsals with academics and other commitments, Matthews noted.

Many students participate in a fall sport, but very few can manage to continue with a spring sport and the musical and keep their grades up, Jordan said.

“One of our shining stars is at UCLA as a theater major on a scholarship,” said the Serra drama director. “Brad Satterwhite (‘07 ) was a varsity football player, and he started dabbling in theater and really got the bug.”

Riordan’s lead, Greg Schwartz, has been accepted to Columbia University for next year. Two of SHCP’s leads, Seamus Donohoe and Steven Arce, are auditioning but have not yet decided which college to attend as drama and music majors.

The lessons of drama

Working on a musical is fun and an opportunity to sing and to act, said Woodside Priory sophomore Maia Thielen, who plays the female lead of Rosie Alvarez in her school’s vesion of “Bye Bye Birdie.” “I enjoy being here after school, working the scenes, being with people I wouldn’ t normally get to know,” she said.

Co-curricular programs such as drama and sports are integral to educating the whole person, noted Riordan Principal Kevin Asbra. “Drama teaches students how to express themselves, how to be up in front of a group of people,” he said, noting these are skills necessary for whatever career path a student takes.

As a Marianist school, Riordan stresses family, Asbra added, and in musicals — as in other co-curricular activities — a sense of family is created, he said. “When students work in plays, because of the amount of time that they spend together, they cannot help but create that family atmosphere — by looking out for each other, working together and supporting each other.”


This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of Catholic San Francisco (,official newspaper of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, Calif.



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