Justin Griggs and Paola Lehman

This year’s musical at Riverside-Brookfield High School will not be some retread of something that you’ve seen before. Instead this year two English teachers at the school collaborated to write a brand new musical based on an album released in 2010 by roots and rockabilly musician JD McPherson.

English teachers Kathleen Harsy and Thomas Dignan wrote the play which they titled Northside Gal after one of the songs McPherson’s “Signs and Signifiers” album.

“We wrote the play around the songs [on the album],” said Harsy.

Northside Gal will be performed this weekend at the RBHS auditorium, 160 Ridgewood Road in Riverside.

Show times are Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 12:30. Tickets are $9 ($5 for seniors and students) and can be purchased in advance at the RBHS business office or at the door.

Northside Gal is set in a small Oklahoma town in the 1950s. It tells the story of how a new boy comes to town and introduces a spunky local girl to rock ‘n’ roll and the possibilities of life outside her small town.

“It’s a fun, fun, show,” Harsy said. “It is comedy. People will laugh. It is definitely not a drama.”

Writing a musical based on an album was Harsy’s idea. She had become a fan of McPherson’s music after hearing a couple of his songs on radio station WXRT. Then she went to see him in concert last year at the Metro in Chicago. She decided that she wanted to write a musical based on his music.

“It was kind of like a strike of inspiration,” Harsy said. 

Last fall she introduced Dignan, an accomplished musician himself, to McPherson’s music. 

Dignan used to be a member of the local band Flapjacks, which had a strong following in the Chicago area, performed at venues including the House of Blues and had released two albums. He also loved McPherson’s music.

But when Harsy suggested they team up to write a musical based on “Signs and Signifiers” he was skeptical. 

“I obviously laughed at first and said, ‘Yeah it would be great, but it will never happen,'” Dignan said. 

But Harsy and Dignan got to work and wrote a few scenes.

Then Harsy emailed McPherson’s publisher to ask for permission to use the songs from the album. 

“We basically assumed that they’d say no,” Harsy said. “We thought this was a total pipe dream. They got back to us and said yes. He allowed us to use it for free. It was amazing.”

So Harsy and Dignan got to work writing the musical. During Christmas break they locked themselves in Harsy’s classroom and finished the play.

They recently had a Skype conversation with McPherson, who once was a teacher, who gave them nothing but encouragement.

“Tom and I were both grinning ear to ear at the opportunity to talk to this musician that we both admired so much,” Harsy said. “He’s very knowledgeable. He only says yes to good ideas.”

It probably didn’t hurt that Doug Corcoran, a member of McPherson’s band, graduated from RBHS in 2000, but that was something that Harsy and Dignan didn’t even know when they contacted McPherson.

“I don’t know him,” said Harsy of Corcoran. “I don’t even know his name, to be honest.”

Harsy said that cast members have been important contributors to the development of Northside Gal. Since she and Dignan wrote the show, they can make changes whenever they want to.

“The kids have been significantly contributing to the character development and the line delivery,” Harsy said. “An entire character came out of a kid really taking his job as an ensemble member so seriously.”

RBHS senior Justin Griggs plays Tommy Cooper, the new boy in town who shakes things up and wins the heart of Lily Blue, who is played by junior Paola Lehman.

“We’ve tried to make this fun and funny and lighthearted and upbeat to sort of match how upbeat the music is,” Dignan said.

Harsy and Dignan are having fun even if it is stressful to write and put on a brand new musical. 

“It’s been a thrill,” Harsy said. “The kids are fantastic. They’re so fun; they’re so easy to work with. Their excitement has really just been contagious.”

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