Ross Mihalko, Creative Giant


Bluebeard and his late wives star at Edgartown School

By Gwyn McAllister
November 9, 2011
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Photo by Gail Gardner

Sarah Poggi (left) and Alley Ellis (right) played two sisters, both prospective brides of Bluebeard. Here, their mother, Amadine Muniz, is advising them to Marry for Money.

Last year, for their annual musical, the Edgartown School presented "Once Upon a Mattress," based on the fairy tale, "The Princess and the Pea."

This year, an entirely different approach to the story of a girl's quest to marry a prince brought some chills to audiences. Last Friday and Saturday nights the school presented an original musical version of the fable of Bluebeard, the tale of a villainous prince and his unsuspecting bride-to-be. The production was wonderfully atmospheric and a lot of fun, thanks to some great tunes, special effects, professional costumes, and excellent performances.

As the curtain rose, the stage was obscured by a cloud of smoke, which slowly cleared to reveal an eerie tableaux. In a dark gloomy castle, a coven of ghostly brides stood watch over the prone body of a young girl. A sinister limping henchman entered and opened the action. The scene was a nightmare sequence that foretold the fate of the young Mary Elizabeth and it perfectly set the mood for the gothic horror tale that unfolded.

The story of Bluebeard is one of the darker of the classic fairy tales and may have seemed an odd choice for a school musical. However, the Edgartown School's production was witty, visually stunning, and spiked with catchy tunes, and it had just enough creep factor for the Halloween season. The show is a home-grown effort, written by school theater director Donna Swift and her writing partner, Ross Mihalko, with music by Oak Bluffs School music teacher Brian Weiland. The collaboration made for a show as well-crafted as any of the classic musicals that the school has presented in the past.

Ms. Swift and Mr. Mihalko met about ten years ago while both were doing children's theater on the Island. Though Mr. Mihalko now lives in L.A., the two continue to collaborate on kids plays based on fairy tales. They have created eight shows so far. Bluebeard is their most recent.

"All of the shows that we have written have an edge to them," Ms. Swift said. "We read the fairy tales and they are grim. They were cautionary tales. We like to take them and put a spin on them."

Bluebeard, a tale of a murderous husband with a secret room in his castle where he collects dead brides, didn't need to be altered much to make it edgy, Ms. Swift noted. "One of the reasons we wrote this is that it's different," she said. "Something that was deeper. Something that the kids could really sink their teeth into. There's not a lot of great material out there for kids."

Bluebeard demanded a strong cast, said Ms. Swift, who runs the IMP camp in the summer, but she felt confident with the talent she had available to her this year. "I wouldn't have picked this show for any cast," she said.

Among that talented group, eighth-graders Sarah Poggi and Alley Ellis played the two leads — sisters who have very different outlooks on the future. As the perpetually sunny, air-headed Mary Stephanie, Ms. Ellis was perfectly girlish and funny, and her sweet soprano voice really suited the role. Ms. Poggi played the more practical and somewhat gloomy, Mary Elizabeth, and her soulful voice expressed her anguish very well. When the sisters duetted in "The Man of My Dreams," their voices blended beautifully.

Amadine Muniz, also an eighth-grader, proved herself a mature young actress as the girls' jaded, opportunistic mother. She displayed on-stage confidence in an authoritative role, not always so easy for young actors. As the love interest, Henri, seventh-grader Thomas Westin displayed a talent for clowning, and his character, a bumbling unlikely hero, provided some of the biggest laughs of the evening.

As Bluebeard's assistant, sixth-grader Samantha Cassidy showed off a very strong, clear singing voice and she did a great job in the classic sinister foreshadowing role. The title character had a relatively small role, but eighth-grader Ethan Donovan was appropriately menacing as the legendary serial killer.

The staging of the production felt professional, with authentic period costumes, a smoke machine used to good effect and black lights that turned the brides into glowing ghouls. The set (recycled from "Once Upon a Mattress") was simply a series of steps and a backdrop painted in the classic grey stone of a medieval castle. It worked really well for the show's action.

The production required a great deal of technical talent and Jared Livingston and Ian Shea managed the complexity of the lighting very well. According to Ms. Swift, they proved themselves great multi-taskers, helping with the special effects and other tech duties. The Edgartown School's use of individual mics is a huge asset, as young voices are not always powerful enough to reach the back rows.

The music incorporated a number of styles. One of the highlights was a Latin-tinged number in which the dead brides each related her sad story. "Marry for Money," led by Ms. Muniz, was an entertaining gold-digger song a la '50s musicals. A vaudevillian number with Mr. Weston and Ms. Ellis was well choreographed and very funny.

The chipper welcoming song delivered by a chorus of townsmen had a mechanical, music box quality that worked very well for the scene, while a gloomy version of "Here Comes the Bride" made for a spooky marriage ceremony scene. Mr. Weiland has proven his talent for stick-in-your-head tunes and the lyrics ("The fairy tales convinced me. The perfect man is princely") were very clever, and they moved the story along well.

All in all, the show was spooky good fun and a nice change of pace. "I love fairy tales and I also really love the horror genre," Ms. Swift said. " Kids aren't allowed to do things like Sweeney Todd, and they love that kind of thing."

Kudos to Ms. Swift and cast for a crowd-pleasing, creepy, campy show.



actress stage singing
Sarah Poggi, Amadine Muniz, and Alley Ellis.
In a word, atmospherics. Theater director Donna Swift knew she had to hold her junior high school players’ attention, and keep it held. But how?

Scour the old books and find the most Gothic fairy tale possible and bring it to life.

“I had to search long and hard to find the story of Bluebeard, the dark prince who married young ladies to make scary portraits of them before cutting off their heads,” she said, adding with a chuckle, “Don’t know why any publisher would want to keep a tale like that from our kids.”

Much as we try to protect our younger children from sinister material, by the time they reach junior high school they can’t get enough of it. Even little kids seem to crave it. How else to explain the tiny tot witches, ghosts and zombie costumes of Halloween or even the thrill of Halloween itself?

actors stage
Samantha Cassidy.
In the Edgartown gym turned auditorium last weekend, the house lights dimmed and the theater awoke in a deep moonlight. Shadows fell on the backstreets of an older America, like the twisted streets of forgotten London. A fog machine rolled out plumes of silver mist.

Characters appeared on stage, figures in top hats and leather breeches. Then, one by one in the upper shadows, seven virgin brides emerged, dressed in long white gowns, their faces masks of rigor mortis.

“Bluebeard . . . Bluebeard,” they chanted in a combination of memory, desire, and fear.

Ms. Swift said that she searched for such ghastly material in hopes that deeper moral lessons would seep through the entertainment.

Even the ostensibly cozy moments were stocked with foreboding. At home in their humble cottage, Mother (Amadine Muniz), dressed in Victorian widow’s weeds, lectured her two girls, Mary Elizabeth (Sara Poggi) and Mary Stephanie (Alley Ellis), as mothers have done from time immemorial, about marrying a man with money (as opposed to their penurious dad, the pig farmer).

actors group theatre
Junior high cast takes on ghastly story.
“Marry for money for money is nice,” sang the determined mom.

But where can they find such a man? Their small town is absent of anyone with financial means.

Cue a knock on the door where a scary creature now stood, Bluebeard’s Assistant (Samantha Cassidy). “The prince would like to invite you to his ball tonight,” she announced in a hushed, commanding tone.

Through two complete acts, the atmospherics helped propel the action. Ms. Swift, aided by musical director Kelly Sullivan, collaborator Ross Hihalko on book, with music by Brian Weiland, put together a stage equivalent of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, led by star-struck lovers, Mary Elizabeth and townie jack-of-all-trades, Henri, played with winsome comic overtones by Thomas Weston. Ethan Donovan made for a slim, enigmatic Bluebeard.

Island Community Chorus director, Peter Boak, who attended the show this past Saturday, had this to say about the production, “The music was challenging yet accessible for the kids. There was a nice balance between music and action.”

The sense of urgency only intensified when the three ladies arrived at the castle. The stone-walled sets, with dark nooks and crannies and circling stairways, evoked Dracula’s castle. The organ chords, the menacing assistant, the ghostly gliding of the seven dead brides, and even occasional mishaps from the fog machine continued to ratchet up the sense of unease.

The daughter who had been hastily wed to the horrible Bluebeard soon discovered his secret dungeon of slain brides. On the wall hung their seven portraits detailing each one’s last moment of terror. The past brides came to life then, lining up to sing and dance the story of their travails in a show-stopping chorus line, complete with individual standout songs of greed, innocence and the harsh penalty that followed.

During the number the lights dimmed completely and the phantoms’ faces changed to orange orbs of sparkling terror. Student Alley Ellis choreographed this electrifying musical moment.

Ancient fairy tales are always held aloft by a moral, never marry for money in this case, but in Bluebeard, the spooky musical, this lesson did not get in the way of a good old scare fest.

Because atmospherics helped propel the show, special notice goes to set design and scenic painting, Alison Carr; production assistant, Della Burke; sound design, William Fligor; lights, Jared Livingston; spotlight, Ian Shea; makeup, Della Burke and Allison Carr; and hair, Lucia Hayman.

This junior high school production of Bluebeard was also better costumed than anything this reviewer has seen on the professional stage. Ms. Swift put time and effort into procuring the hoop skirts and the bridal gowns on e-Bay:

She’ll have them in stock for any subsequent productions, perhaps at the other Island schools where she teaches theatre arts. She’d also love to mount a production with grownup actors. Now there’s a good idea.

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