As a form of theater, musicals are adored by many for the lively spectacle of singing and dancing they typically entail, and disliked by others for the very same reason.
It is a daunting challenge to create a musical that appeals to hard-core musical fans and to people who only watch them when forced, but Joe Rizzo, the director at Nikiski Middle-Senior High School, thinks he's done just that with his latest production, "Thanks for the Memories."
"It's an unusual musical," Rizzo said. "In most musicals, the plot is just many times an excuse to get from one big dance number to the next. In this, the plot is strong enough that it pretty much stands on its own."
The show is set during World War II and centers around a group of people in North Platt, Neb., who operate a canteen at a train stop. The family and friends who work at the canteen meet every train and provide refreshments, comfort and encouragement to the soldiers passing through on their way to war. The canteen owner was killed serving in World War I, so his widow and her grown kids, Joe and Laura, run the canteen.
Joe joins the Army out of a desire to avenge his father's death, against the wishes of his mother and sister. Then one day a train carrying USO performers passes through the canteen, and Laura joins the group in an attempt to get the group's director, Glen Stevens, to use his influence to have Joe resigned to the USO and away from battle. Laura succeeds in getting Joe assigned to the USO, but he resents the change and looks for a way to get to the front lines.
From there scenes bounce back and forth between the canteen and developments in the South Pacific, where Joe strives to carry out his self-appointed crusade of avenging his father's death, and Laura tries to keep him from harm.
Josh Ball and Elena Bird perform as members of an USO show that entertains troops during World War II.
Photo by Jenny Neyman
The involved plot and the multi-faceted characters make the show a departure from the typical quirky, upbeat and somewhat shallow nature of many musicals.
"It's a pretty emotional show, really, in a lot of ways," Rizzo said. "Anybody who has any kind of experience with war is going to be able to identify with these characters."
That's not to say the show is somber, however. The USO element offers opportunities for lighthearted humor and entertaining dialogue including Bob Hope-esque monologues. Of course, the show is still a musical, so there are the requisite song and dance numbers, but they are done within the context of the plot, instead of seeming to come out of left field.
"The big music numbers are basically supporting the USO concept," Rizzo said. "Unlike other musicals where the music appears out of nowhere, all of the music in this show has a logical reason to be there."
The music in the show is from the World War II era, so anyone with a taste for swing and big-band tunes will enjoy the USO performances. Rizzo used many popular songs for the dance numbers, including "Chattanooga Choo Choo," "Stepping Out" and the title song "Thanks for the Memories," as well as wrote two 1940s-era songs of his own.
Rizzo also wrote the script, which is loosely based on the real North Platt Canteen that began serving solders on their way to war shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. In his research, Rizzo learned the North Platt townspeople planned to meet a train around Christmas after the Pearl Harbor attack that they thought was carrying soldiers from their town. They brought food and gifts to the train, but the soldiers weren't from North Platt.
"They realized, 'Well, they're somebody's boys,' so they gave them all the gifts and decided they should meet every train." Rizzo said.
In its heyday, Rizzo said the canteen went through 3,000 hard boiled eggs and 870 cases of soda pop in one day and served a total of about 6 million soldiers.
USO singer Elena Bird teases soldier David Schwenke durin gher performance while soldiers Paul Morin, front, and Corey Schaefer watch.
Photo by Jenny Neyman
Using the concept of the North Platt Canteen as a starting point, Rizzo invented characters and the rest of the plot. He cast the show in late September and wrote the script with his 40 actors in mind.
"That's part of the advantage of writing your own show," he said. "You save a huge amount of money on royalties ... and you can tailor the roles to the talents that the kids have. In this case we have some really terrific actors who aren't necessarily great singers and vice versa, so we play to our strengths in this."
Rizzo said he has a young cast this year, which has been good since they have a lot of energy and enthusiasm. Most of leads are played by more seasoned actors.
Though he's only a sophomore, Josh Ball is a veteran of several of Rizzo's productions and plays the USO leader Glen Stevens in "Thanks for the Memories."
"I think it adds something to it with Rizzo writing the show," Ball said. "... It adds something new when you're doing something that's original."
Along with acting, Ball helped build the elaborate set, which includes a working facsimile of a full-size train and other surprises for the audience. All-out sets, complex choreography and quality in general have become the hallmarks Rizzo and his production team strive for in their shows. Though "Thanks for the Mem-ories" may break the mold of musicals in some respects, it is the same in that one.
"The Nikiski tradition of musicals is to have the best show possible," Ball said. "So we're going to have the best show we can."
"Thanks for the Memories" will be performed at 7 p.m. today, Friday and Saturday in the Nikiski Middle-Senior High School theater and at 7 p.m. Jan 29, 30 and 31 at the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium at Kenai Central High School. Tickets are $7 in advance and available at Charlotte's in Kenai and River City Books in Soldotna. Tickets also will be available at the door for $10.
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