by William Sertl
Calling all musical comedy stars between the ages of 14 and 22: “Please prepare 16 bars of a Broadway theater song and be prepared to dance.”
That’s the way for young adults to make it, according to a North Fork Community Theatre bulletin, not on the Great White Way but in this summer’s production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” in Mattituck. Way off Broadway, but just a block off Love Lane.
Well, that was the way. Auditions for the musical, part of NFCT’s 40-year-old Youth on Stage program, have now wrapped up. A cast is already in place. Rehearsals are well underway. The show must go on, and it will, from July 20 through August 6.
“I’m thrilled,” says Ashley Hilary, the Southold High School senior-to-be who won the part of Millie. At 16, she’s one of the youngest performers to land a leading role in a YOS production. “This is my first big part outside of “Mary Poppins” at school.”
Curtain up! Light the lights! A star is born!
But first, a little rain on this parade of Broadway clichés. Stardom isn’t what brings these kids to the stage.
“Working with like-minded kids is the number one reason we all jump into YOS,” says John Bradley, director of “Millie.” At 25, Bradley is a grand old man on the NFCT circuit, who started his Mattituck stage career nine years ago doing the lights for “Babes in Arms.” He graduated to the ensemble cast for the next year’s production of “Guy & Dolls” and, when finally thrust into bigger roles, he ended up playing heavies like Glenn Guglia in “The Wedding Singer.”
With a tongue-in-cheek grin, he insists, “I was becoming typecast.”
But one thing’s sure, he says: “I loved doing the lighting as much as the leads. Every YOS cast bonds and becomes a family. It never was and never will be about stardom.”
Anne Gilvarry, an eight-show YOS vet from the 1990s and now an English teacher at Mattituck High, says young adults are looking for where they belong in the community. “High school can be rough, and NFCT gives them an identity, a sense of belonging,” she says.
Casts draw on talent from high schools across the North Fork, with some “Millie” students coming from as far away as Manorville and Wading River, says Ms. Gilvarry, who is also co-director of her high school’s drama program. “YOS means plans every night of the summer with an entire group of new friends. The kids have a blast. Their parents have a chaperone.”
Fun may be fun, but mounting a show like “Millie” is also hard work: For an observer in the back row of the theater, watching a YOS show (a musical, always a musical) take shape drives that point home.
Rehearsals can feel like an endless re-run of the classic 1930s backstage musical “42nd Street.”
After the umpteenth call to “sing a few more bars” or a pause to get the dance steps right—“no, again, it’s kick right, left, dip, kick, hands-up up up”— you might want to call it a night. But not the kids, director, music director, choreographer, or piano player. As spring moves into summer, and free form gives way to more polished rehearsals, it’s a marvel to watch the dance numbers begin to flow, to hear the chorus ring out strong and clear, to realize you now recognize each and every member of the cast.
YOS launched in 1971 when a former North Fork couple with a lot of children, Maureen and Don Cahill, got permission to put on summer shows for their children and other local kids at NFCT’s theater, dark for the season, which is now raising funds to extend the stage, build an orchestra pit, upgrade seats, and add its first-ever dedicated rehearsal space.
They called the productions Youth on Stage, and kicked it off with “The Music Man.” Six years later, NFCT took those summer shows under its wing, beginning with “Li’l Abner.”
Co-producer of “Millie” and immediate past president of NFCT, Liz Liszanckie, says each season YOS does something special for the cast. Last year, it was an ensemble party for those who didn’t land a juicy part. “This year, we’re providing professional instruction in hair and make-up, improv, and set-building on Sunday nights before rehearsals,” says Ms. Liszanckie, who designs telecommunications wiring for a company in Manhattan. “There’s a misconception that you have to be on stage to work with NFCT,” she says, adding, “I grew up in a big family that loved show tunes, and while we didn’t go to many shows, my mom played all the songs on the piano and organ.”
At NFCT, her big break came a few years ago, “working the refreshment stand.”
Many of the young performers do have theatrical ambitions. Tess Leavay, now 25, who was Miss Adelaide in the 2009 YOS production of “Guy & Dolls” and played Nellie Forbush five years ago in “South Pacific,” says, “I did have dreams of going on stage after YOS.” Today, she lives in Brooklyn and teaches music at a school in the Bronx. “I tried out for some shows—let’s call it off-off-off Broadway—and then found myself drawn more to music itself than acting.”
With a like-minded friend, Ms. Leavay started a band doing a “punk-surf kind of thing. We’re making a video,” she says.
“Millie” director John Bradley, who is getting an advanced degree at Stony Brook, says he wants to teach history.
“I’ll start a theater program at my school. If they already have a drama club, I’ll run it. If someone is already running it, I’ll kick them out.”
“Millie” star Ashley Hilary says she plans to major in theater at college. But she brushes aside any new-found fame: “I’m in a show with lots of friends. We’re all happy to be there. That’s it.”
Thoroughly Modern Millie will be presented July 20-August 6 on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoons at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 and are available online here.