SOMERVILLE, NJ - Somerville High School is a place where students come together, whether it is in the classrooms, on the field or on the stage. Nowhere does this prove more true than with this year’s spring musical, "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," which will be performed at 7 p.m. on March 2, 3 and 4.
Building on the momentum of last year’s technically elaborate Mary Poppins, director Laura Manziano and assistant director Justin Cimino are furthering their mission of creating a larger, more supportive community around the drama program.
“Our goal has come to fruition in an even bigger way this spring: Acting in this year’s show is our football quarterback and teammates, a star soccer player, upperclassmen boys who have never been on stage before and a high percentage of freshmen,” says Cimino, who grew up in Branchburg, graduated from Somerville High School in 2009 and is now a professional actor in New York City.
“What is most impressive is that from Day 1, all of these students who are so very different have been incredibly supportive of each other.”
Since December, this enthusiastic group of teens – numbering nearly 100 – have been hard at work crafting roles, perfecting dances, creating sets and finessing the music for this Pulitzer Prize–winning musical.
Set in 1962, "How to Succeed…" tells the story of a young window washer named J. Pierrepont Finch who aims to scheme and charm his way to the top of the Worldwide Wicket Company. As he climbs the corporate ladder, Finch negotiates jealous coworkers, bumbling bosses and an office romance. Revered for over 50 years, "How to Succeed…" was revived on Broadway in 1995 and 2007, starring Matthew Broderick and Daniel Radcliffe, respectively.
“Our production team selected this beloved musical because it opens our eyes to a very different time in our country,” says Manziano. “How to Succeed ..." has shown the female members of our cast how women were viewed in 1962, and more importantly, has made them celebrate all that women are able to achieve in 2017.”
After casting was complete, Manziano, who teaches English at the school, educated the students on the period’s history and culture so that they understood the politics and dynamics of the workplace. “They saw how the show is really a satire of the time and that much of this translates to today,” she says.
The male-dominated show presented some challenges in casting more boys than usual. This was where Nick Couzzi, Somerville football team quarterback and lacrosse player, came in, rallying his teammates. “Nick was in the show last year and had a blast. He said he was going to audition again and invite some of his football friends to join him,” Cimino says. “This worked out great, especially because there’s a scene where guys play football on stage.”
Senior Chris Ciempola (“Davis”) was one of the football players who auditioned. “Nick and a bunch of other kids wanted me to audition since sophomore year, but I kept blowing it off,” he says. “I decided to try out this year and now I regret not doing theater earlier. It’s a lot of fun and a different experience.”
“I love how the program is opening up to all the students,” says junior Liam Devlin (“Finch”). “As I’m speaking, there’s a bunch of guys tossing around a football behind me in the theater. It’s cool to have a bonding experience with people you might not otherwise talk to.”
In addition to Ciempola and Couzzi (“Peterson”), other athletes in the production include Brendan Marino (“Gatch”), senior captain of the lacrosse team who is also in his first play, and Jessica DeSarno (“Smitty”), a member of the varsity soccer team who is acting in her second musical at Somerville.
With so many male roles, the directors looked for ways to boost the stage presence of the female cast members while staying true to the original musical. For example, following the lead of some Broadway productions, they incorporated women into the big number, “Brotherhood of Man.” “It is really fun to see the entire cast onstage, coming together to celebrate a collective brotherhood and sisterhood,” Manziano said.
The production of Mary Poppins last year inspired many students who never considered working on a high school musical before to join this year’s show. “They realized theater is more than acting and singing: They could work on lighting, sound, set design and hair and makeup. They’re seeing how inclusive theater can be,” Manziano says.
Griffin LeBlond is one such newcomer to the Somerville stage this year — and he landed in a big way. Despite not performing since the fifth grade, the junior was cast as “Biggley,” one of the lead roles.
Devlin, who played “Bert” in Mary Poppins, worked hard to craft “Finch,” a character the audience should root for despite his conniving ways. “This is a challenging role,” he says. “He’s a scheming and maniacal guy who’s willing to do anything to bring himself to the next possible level — but he has to be likable.”
The female lead, “Rosemary,” is likewise complicated, says senior Emily Antico, who was selected for the role. “She wants a man in her life — Finch — but she’s striving for her own goals,” she says. “It’s all about finding that balance of being in a relationship and being independent.”
“The audience is in for a real treat, with catchy songs they’re going to love,” says Karen Gorzynski, who has served as musical director for the high school drama program for three decades. She notes that many students study voice outside of school and work on their songs with outside instructors as well. “They are very dedicated to rehearsing with me and on their own time,” she says.
Many cast members are pursuing concentrated studies in the performing arts. Kati Murdock (“Miss Jones”), Sophie Belkin (“Scrubwoman No. 1”) and ensemble members Julie Ettore and Ally La Mont are also students in the Somerset County Vocational-Technical Schools’ Theater Arts program. Hayden Verbanas (“Bud Frump”) and Robyn Wasserman (“Scrubwoman No. 2”) are students at Rutgers High School Musical Theater Academy. Cast members La Mont, Verbanas and Tyler Stasienko (Ensemble) also have performed in community theater productions.
As with Mary Poppins, the costumes once again take center stage in "How to Succeed…" “This show is set pre-Beatles, pre–John F. Kennedy assassination; the colors are bright and scream that period, with very feminine looks and traditional men’s business attire — vintage ties, three-piece suits and wristwatches,” says Janet Jacobson, who designed the costumes using vintage pieces and with clothes she created for the show. “With the girls, it’s all about color and vintage costume jewelry. When the curtain opens, the audience will see this amazing vibrancy.”
Jacobson, who worked in the New York City fashion industry, designing apparel lines for companies like Reebok and Mark Ecko before she started a second career in special education at the high school, has a great love for this period and has been scouring vintage stores, rummage sales and online dealers since July for authentic 1960s attire and jewelry. The fashion style set by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and sitcom character Mary Tyler Moore was her inspiration for the female cast.
The costumes lend another dimension to the characters, she explains. “For example, you’ll see Rosemary, the female lead, in pinks. She is the ingénue character and grows a lot during the musical,” she says. “Meanwhile, the vixen Hedy LaRue, wears a color palette of reds, blacks and leopard prints.” And, she notes, look closely at the football scene for a visual inside joke: the football players tossing the ball will be dressed in Pioneers orange and black.
The show features orchestra conduction by Matt Krempasky, choreography by Nicole Frangione-Zivkovic and set design by Teresa Michalski from Conackamack Middle School in Piscataway. Jeff Carlson is Theater Arts Advisor and Matthew Sheehan is the lighting designer.
Tickets can be purchased online at https://shsdrama.ticketleap.com/h2s or at the door if available.