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MHS Musings: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

The annual high school fall musical opens on Friday.

Many of my fellow students at Millburn High School and I have devoted the overwhelming majority of our afternoons the last three months to one common endeavor: making this year's fall musical the greatest ever.

The Millburn High School Limelight Players are presenting the Broadway hit "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" Friday and Saturday night, and our cast, crew, orchestra and faculty has been putting in countless hours every week in order to make this year’s musical extraordinary. In fact, on Saturday some of us were at school at 10 a.m. to set the stage for our 1 p.m. technical rehearsal, which did not end until 8 p.m.

Putting on a musical is much more difficult than it looks and requires hours of memorization, vocal training, choreography, blocking, setting the stage, preparing costumes and props on top of actually performing in it.

"Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" is scheduled for Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in the Millburn High School auditorium. Tickets are $10 if you call 973-564-7130, extension 455 in advance, and they are $12 at the door.

Back in June, director Paul Weinstein, producer Erin Smith and musical director Jonathan Flowers sat down and considered more than 15 shows for this year’s fall musical. "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" stood out because its music and content would be most appropriate for the would-be cast and its plot would best excite the students.

“We wanted to do a comedy. It was a really hard decision, but 'Dirty Rotten Scoundrels' was out recently on Broadway, and we all liked it, so that’s how it was chosen,” Smith says.

The show opens at a casino introducing Lawrence Jameson, an old con artist in the French Riviera, played by senior Eric Frank. Lawrence, with his companion André Thibault (senior Ethan Lipkind) on his side, goes around conning women, including Lenore (sophomore Chandler Blasini) and Sophia (sophomore Erin Hernon).

On the way, Lawrence and André meet Muriel Eubanks, played by senior Teresa Wittleder, a lonely American, who immediately becomes interested in Lawrence’s royal presence.

André warns Lawrence that word has spread that another con artist, named “The Jackal”, has arrived in town. Soon, Lawrence catches Freddy Benson, played by senior Alex Sugarman, conning money out of Renée (played by junior Kathryn Raskin) and invites Freddy to join him at his grand villa, thinking that Freddy is “the Jackal."

Freddy, who is awed and impressed by all of Lawrence’s “Great Big Stuff”, sings about how he envies Lawrence’s life and wants Lawrence to show him his ways. This is a show stopping musical number, featuring impressive vocals and exciting choreography. Sugarman describes his character as “a young con artist who wants money, girls, and the whole Beverly Hills experience. He is blunt, vulgar, obnoxious, and possesses all bad personality traits imaginable. Freddy is very lively and motivated towards his defrauding work, however, his lack of experience and naiveté serve as his downfall. Freddy wants to get past petty thievery and establish himself as a counterfeiting, conning king but just seems be outsmarted every time."

In fact, the Broadway Freddy was originally played by Norbert Leo Butz, a former Millburn resident. Butz won the Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of Freddy.

However, André is not impressed by Freddy, and likens him to a “Chimp in a Suit” in a comical song.

Lawrence, by now, has moved on to his next subject, Jolene Oakes, the rich American oil heiress played by junior Martha Meguerian, who also is the show’s dance captain. Everything goes smoothly until Jolene announces that they are getting married and moving to her homeland, Oklahoma. She proceeds to explain the perks of living in the panhandle in “Oklahoma?” This energetic all-cast dance number is one of the show’s major highlights.

At this point, Lawrence seeks Freddy’s help in getting Jolene to leave him. So he invents Ruprecht, Lawrence’s mentally challenged little brother, and together they sing “All About Ruprecht," the song that is Smith’s and Weinstein’s favorite, and that will undoubtedly receive the most laughs. After Jolene runs off, the two conmen make a bet over which one of them could get $50,000 quicker.

The hilarity, action, and mystery of the show proceed in the second act as the unlikely characters of Muriel and André come together in “Like Zis, Like Zat," and Lawrence himself tries to absorb $50,000 out of Christine in “The More We Dance”.

 

This year’s cast is extremely talented and entertaining, and the principals do an unbelievable job in playing their roles. All of the principal actors and actresses have an extensive theater background, and have been performing for years.

Sugarman finds a connection between himself and Freddy. “I feel like we have very similar aspirations, we're just planning on getting there different ways.” He eases into his character by naturally adapting to the script and his surrounding environment.

Eric Frank, however, says he is nothing like Lawrence. To get into character, he spends hours on end watching a bootlegged version of the Broadway version on YouTube and makes John Lithgow’s (the Broadway Lawrence) character his own.

Dance captain Martha Meguerian, who also plays Jolene, has been dancing all her life and has participated in every musical the Millburn schools have offered her in middle and high schools.

Lauren Mandel has been participating in musical theater since she was five, and is in the process of releasing her first single, “Welcome to the House of Freaks."

Frank has been performing since fifth grade, when he was a boy soprano. Now, after seven musicals, he is a Bass II singer and a completely changed performer.

Teresa Wittleder has been active in theater since she was nine, as part of the Paper Mill’s summer conservatory and theater programs and in the cast of three Millburn High School musicals. She plans to major in musical theater in college.

Theater is also Sugarman’s passion, who has been in a countless number of shows, attended performing arts camp, and who plays in a band, Rhubarb Jones.

“There are some younger cast members who have come in and injected a lot of energy into the show, giving the potential of a good future for our productions," said musical director Jonathan Flowers "We also have a few upperclassmen who are leading through their talent."

Weinstein, the director, said this is the 22 musical he has directed, and “this is by far the most talented cast I’ve ever worked with. I’ve never directed a show where every ensemble member can sing and dance and do such a great job."

I am fortunate enough to be in a cast with such talented performers, and I feel honored to be surrounded by their talent throughout our rehearsals.

The talented ensemble cast includes senior Tania Seibert, juniors Nicole Albert, Jeremy Bergman, Marisa Blackburn, Gregg Khodorov, Kathryn Raskin, Melissa Rosenberg, Sam Schenerman, and Corey Wagner, sophomores Alyse Binder, Chandler Blasini, Erin Hernon, Maria Maclay, Jessica Solodkin, and David Wasserman, and freshmen Lindsay Maron, Chris McHugh, Remy Novich, Rebecca Van Voorhees, and myself.

The stage crew has also been an invaluable part to the production. The crew—led by sophomores Claire Tietze and Rachel Okrent, junior Theresa Lau and freshman Daniel Miller—has been working since September with their advisor, high school architecture teacher Dr. Roger Keller, sometimes until 11 p.m. They completely designed the stage, props and set elements. They also organized the microphones, lighting, and sound cues, with the help of Matthew Spatz, stage crew director, and MHS associate director of bands.

The pit orchestra has also been working since September under conductor Karen Conrad, also the high school's orchestral director, and assistant pit director Samantha Tomblin. Consisting of about 20 instrumentalists, the orchestra has put in incredible effort rehearsing their songs and playing in sync so that the musical numbers and interludes can run smoothly. The pit orchestra does a fantastic job and plays through the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels score nearly indistinguishable to the Broadway soundtrack.

But possibly the most work and effort towards this production comes from the four production managers—Erin Smith, producer, Paul Weinstein, director, Jonathan Flowers, musical director, and Arvin Arjona, choreographer.

Arjona, also MHS dance teacher, said he has sacrificed all of his prep periods in order to choreograph for the musical. Nevertheless, he enjoys choreographing and loves the time that he spends devoted to the show.

“I love to share my creative thought and bring it onto the stage, and I love seeing that music, dance, and acting become one here at MHS," he said.

Smith, also the general music teacher at Hartshorn Elementary, said she has been working nonstop seven days a week since June, whether she is making phone calls, managing expenses or organizing schedules. "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" is only the second show she has produced, after last year’s "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," but she has become an expert.

“My favorite part of being producer,” she said, “is working with the talented kids and staff members. We’re a good team, we work hard, and there’s great team effort."

Flowers, who is also the director of choruses at Millburn High School, notices a direct correlation between the musical and the chorus program.

“I’ve gotten kids into chorus who tried out for the show, and it becomes a way for them to get involved in our music program," he said. "The training that the students get in chorus helps them succeed in the show."

Flowers’ favorite part of being part of the musical is when he is able to witness when students take initiatives and provide leadership to their fellow students or when they do something great with their character without him necessarily having to encourage them. Flowers said the things that the cast learns as part of being in the show go beyond what they can learn in the classroom.

Weinstein, who spends his days teaching high school English in Kenilworth, has been spending the major part of his evenings in Millburn directing, rehearsing "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" with the cast. He claims that the musical has become such a key aspect of his life that he even goes to sleep singing the songs.

Personally, being in the cast of this musical has been an extremely fun experience. I am in 14 different scenes, which at times can be a little stressful, with 13 quick-changes between a dozen sets of costumes. Nevertheless, I love being on stage and performing in front of an audience. I find the choreography to be extremely strenuous and downright tiring at times. The songs and harmonies are so much fun, I have memorized the entire soundtrack, and, like Weinstein, I too am singing tunes from the show when I am falling asleep.

Through our days together at rehearsal, the entire cast has become friends. Like me, Frank’s favorite part of being in the musical is “the bonding behind the scenes” and Wittleder acknowledges, “All of us depend on each other, and we’re all a team." Although hectic at times, we have all enjoyed each other’s presence, and we are all passionate about what we are doing.

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