MERIDEN — With the nation’s top educator in attendance, the state’s only live theatrical performance opened before an audience sitting on lawn chairs and blankets.
Call it theater not in the round, but in the traffic circle: The Maloney High School Department of Music and Theater played the musical version of “Little Women” on a wide concrete pad adjacent to the school’s front driveway. U.S. Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, the state’s former commissioner of education and Meriden’s former assistant superintendent of schools, was among almost 100 spectators on Friday.
Among the ideas behind the outdoor staging of the play, which was scheduled to close on Saturday, was giving students the opportunity to play before a live audience for the first time in 405 days, Choral and Drama Director David Pelletier said.
The school’s production of the musical “Mama Mia!” was forced to close after Opening Night in March 2020 when the state banned live performances to try to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The students learned movie making techniques from a taped performance of “Little Women” earlier this year, but Pelletier wanted them to learn from audience interaction, he said.
“The kids deserve an audience,” Pelletier said Friday. “It’s time to bring live musicals back.”
School leaders applauded the idea as a worthy ambition for students already challenged by Maloney’s demanding performing arts programs, said Erin Lyons-Barton, the school’s assistant principal.
“Only in Meriden does our [faculty] think this far outside the box,” Lyons-Barton said. “They are always thinking, what else can we do to push these students? This is a rigorous musical production, and their thinking was, ‘Everybody can do it on the stage, but what else can they do?’”
Pelletier and Director of Instrumental Music Brian Cyr worked with city officials during a week of rehearsals, which began on April 19, to ensure that the production met pandemic safeguards, Meriden school board President Rob Kosienski said.
The students are working to ensure that they stay healthy, said Stephanie Cicio, a junior and actress who played Jo.
“We’ve been following every precaution that we can,” Cicio said. “We’ve been social distancing, wearing the masks whenever we need to and being super, super safe at school just because we’re insanely grateful that they’re letting us do this.”
“Little Women” is something of a warmup for the department’s students and faculty. Their next challenge might be more daring — three performances of the Broadway musical “Footloose” in Hubbard Park from May 13-15.
With “Little Women,” close to 80 students handling the play’s acting, lighting, audio, orchestration and staging transferred the production from the comfortable confines of Maloney’s auditorium to the unpredictable outdoors of its new stage, a large concrete pad adjacent to the school’s main entrance.
The students had to build the lighting stands and wheeled sets heavier than those used indoors to keep them from toppling with the wind. The actors wore microphones with wind guards to keep the sound clean. Balancing the audio in the outdoors, with help from the school’s front glass windows, was another challenge.
They also had to play the first half of Friday’s performance in the golden hues of the setting sun before switching to stage lighting.
As with all productions, the students learned from rehearsing. Erratic gusts blew away sheet music, so the musicians had to use elastic bands to pin down the pages, said Kianna Williams and Havi Nguyen, both juniors and house managers on the stage crew.
The actors had to work to refrain from adjusting their hair and costumes, anathema to their wardrobers, when the wind really kicked up, Cicio said. Cold weather bedeviled the production through most of the week as well.
“It's completely different from anything we’ve ever done before,” Cicio said. “You have to cope with the weather and it’s a smaller stage than we’re used to.”
But playing before a live audience gave the entire company a charge that will hopefully be repeated at Hubbard Park, Pelletier said.
“It feels so surreal. We did the one performance last year, and then the world shut down,” Cicio said. “So now being back here and finally having that live audience is exhilarating because it feels just like brand new, like we’re doing it for the first time.
“I feel like we’re making the right moves. We’re doing the right things,” Cicio added, “and we’re role models for everybody else in the state and everyone else in the country.”