Whether on Broadway or at a local high school, theater is full of tradition.
Some schools have senior circles where the about-to-graduate cast members bid a tearful farewell at the final curtain. At others, kids go to a particular diner after performances. (In my long-ago high-school days, it was a Denny’s in Las Cruces, New Mexico.)
For years, things have been done a certain way at the Dunn Performing Arts Center at Rye Country Day School.
Teachers and faculty have been included in the cast. And the students haven’t had a role in choosing their show.
That last tradition changes this year.
Director Jay Gerlach had been hearing that students wanted a contemporary musical. Members of the drama club had been begging him for one.
Gerlach was thinking about their plea when he went to see his 15-year-old cousin perform in “Footloose” in Michigan, in a production she and her classmates had petitioned to do.
“She actually came here and talked to our kids about how life-changing it was for her, to make a case and to be heard,” Gerlach said. “And through this process, I’ve learned a lot about listening to students and working with them.”
And just like that, Rye Country Day will be one degree from Kevin Bacon as this week they present the musical about a dancing kid from Chicago who is transplanted to a town called Bomont, a town that has banned dancing. Together with his new friends, he makes a case for the kids to be heard.
Gerlach recalls that when “Footloose” was announced last June, “there were people jumping out of their seats.”
That kind of energy, that thrill, is what Gerlach is hoping they’ll bring to the stage this week.
“The energy was palpable,” he said.
That there are 62 in the cast, 30 more than typical, is a reflection of giving the kids what they want, the director said.
Junior David Townley, a drama club co-president, worked all summer to learn the music and came to auditions ready to bring it.
“He was committed to it from June,” Gerlach said.
But Townley, who plays fall soccer, injured his back and had to go through physical therapy.
That’ll put a crimp in your footlooseness. But Townley declares himself ready to dance.
Townley’s co-chair and co-star is Nathalie Chan, a senior from Rye and longtime co-chair of the drama club.
She plays Ariel, the rebellious daughter of the town’s preacher.
Senior Jourdan Layne, from the Bronx, said kids emailed their choices to Gerlach who consulted with his creative team to find the right fit.
Townley, a junior from Rye, couldn’t be happier to have a part in a “fan favorite.”
“It’s always nice to have friends come see the show, but I hope we’re going to have parents who aren’t involved, whose kids aren’t involved, coming. It’s ‘Footloose.’ And who doesn’t love Kevin Bacon?”
“My mother was very passionate about all the stuff and the way things should be, because this was her era,” she said.
“Passion” is a word that comes up regularly in a conversation with the kids who’ll play kids on stage at Rye Country Day this week.
Says Townley: “I think with Ariel, it’s about her conflict with her dad, but I don’t think Ren is about being a rebel. Dancing is just something he’s really passionate about. I think people can relate to being passionate about something like that.”
The dancing at Dunn this week won’t look anything like last year’s “Guys and Dolls.”
And Chan will be decidedly more feminine, as last year she played one of denizens of the Oldest Established Permanent Floating Crap Game in New York.
“It was very very fun and interesting to see the difference from being a crapshooter to being Ariel. It’s not just the time period. We’re going from the city to the country.”
Layne, who counts herself more a dancer than a singer, agrees.
“The posture is all different,” she says, kicking together the heels of her pale green cowboy boots. “Last year, I was a Hot Box Girl, and the choreography was much more specific and prim and proper. This choreography is in cowboy boots, not character shoes. It takes getting used to.”
The change for Townley has been a fountain-of-youth sort of affair: transforming the junior from an aged Brother Arvide in the Save-a-Soul mission (who sang the lovely, lilting “More I Cannot Wish You,” to a twitching teen who can’t sit still and sings, well, “I Can’t Stand Still.”
“It’s really a song you can make your own, and I can make it real and raw.”
It’s hard to make a song your own, much less real and raw, when you’re dealing with snow days.
Just ask Tiler Wilson, a junior from Larchmont, who plays Ren’s Bomont buddy, Willard.
It seems every time they went to stage his song, and the dance, it snowed.
“I enjoy a snow day, don’t get me wrong,” Wilson said. “But my song got smushed in with the others.”
This week, the students are looking toward Opening Night, toward performances and flowers and tears at the end.
But Gerlach is sure talk of next year’s show will start as soon as the curtain comes down on Feb. 28.
“March 1st they’ll be talking about it,” the director said with a laugh. “Definitely.”
Here’s the Running Lines video I shot at Rye Country Day School. Enjoy!