Despite budget cuts that eliminated the fall play and the spring musical this year at Riverside-Brookfield High School and resulted in the layoff of dynamic acting teacher Melissa Briskman, student actors will take the stage this week to present the musical Li’l Abner.
The production is being performed by the Riverside Junior Theater Guild, led by Jeanne Sheehan and directed by Darel Glaser. The cast is made up of RB students and one student from Lyons Township High School.
The play will open tonight in the auditorium and will also be performed on Thursday and Friday evenings at 8 p.m. Tickets for adults are $10 if purchased in advance at the Riverside Public Library and $12 at the door. Student tickets are $8.
For RB senior thespians it is one last opportunity to perform in a play during high school.
“I think it’s great,” said RB senior Jacob Palka who will play the role of Eb. “Most of the people who are in this show are people who did the musicals or were in the plays, so it’s nice to do one last thing together knowing that this is the last time.”
Palka and fellow seniors Christina Daily and Max Marciniak were determined to put on a play this year despite the budget cuts. First they reached out to the Riverside Recreation Department, but it became apparent that it would take about a year to get anything done working with the village.
Sheehan and Glaser then stepped in and decided to put on a play themselves. They had worked with many RB students in youth theater productions and Palka was in a play they put on last summer.
“We knew there was talent in this year’s graduating class, and we thought it would be sad if they couldn’t perform their senior year,” said Sheehan who runs the Riverside Junior Theater Guild. “We had gotten to know a lot of these kids because they’ve been in plays over the years, and we’ve come to know their parents, and they kind of came to us. Darel and I looked at each other and said, ‘Well what if just the two of us go in there and put on a show.'”
So that’s what they did. But it wasn’t easy.
Terms had to be negotiated and the theater guild had to get approval from the administration.
“It took them a good couple of months going back and forth with [RB Assistant Principal John] Passarella and [RB Principal Pamela] Bylsma before they finally said OK.” Palka recalled.
The theater guild had to put on the play as an outside group without support from the school.
“It could only be an outside organization because the teachers union would never allow somebody to just come in and do the job cheaper,” Sheehan said. “Like I said, it’s a very sticky situation because you’re talking administration versus teachers union.”
Bylsma is glad the logistics worked out.
“This production demonstrates how people can band together to make the best of a challenging situation,” said Bylsma in a press release. “It is heartwarming to see the leaders of this community organization step forward to support the talented actors and musicians from our high school who are passionate about the performing arts. I know how grateful these students are to the Riverside Junior Theater Guild for giving them the chance to participate in a musical production that the entire community can enjoy.”
The Riverside Junior Theater Guild is renting the RB auditorium for the show. The estimated cost so far is $2,055 according to Bylsma, but the final cost has yet to be determined.
Sheehan said that she was first quoted a rate of $30 an hour to rent the auditorium for the rehearsals and performances but ultimately got a discount.
“The first time they quoted me it was so outrageous, it was like $30 an hour or something like that and I was like, no, I couldn’t possibly do that,” Sheehan said. “What I convinced them to do was to give me a flat rate just so I know I could afford it, and it was somewhat reasonable.”
Sheehan and Glaser are not being paid for their work on the show, but if there is any profit left after expenses they will take that as a salary.
“We will receive whatever we get back in ticket sales,” Sheehan said. “I certainly hope we will at least break even, and I think we will,” Sheehan said. “If we come out ahead, that’s a salary.”
Sheehan decided to do Li’l Abner because it’s a cheap play to produce. She put it on a few years ago in the summer as a children’s production.
“We found a way for how you do a cheap, easy musical,” Sheehan said. “I kind of rewrote it so it all takes place in the same spot so you don’t have to do a million sets. And it’s a rag show. They’re just in rag clothes, so costumes are cheap.”
But don’t expect a cheap performance. Sheehan is confident the play will be up to RB’s normal high standards.
“It turns out that it fits the talents of these kids quite well,” Sheehan said. “We just happen to have this kid [Andrew Payton] who is a perfect Marryin’ Sam, and you don’t usually find that in a senior in high school,” Sheehan said.
RB senior Sara Nie’s Pansy Rose is also a performance not to be missed.
“I think she would win a Tony Award for what she’s doing in this show,” Sheehan said. “I always knew she was a cut above, but she’s just really, really good in this show.”
Sheehan said she hopes the play sends a message beyond entertainment.
“I want to show the school that you need an arts program and it’s worth it to keep it going.”