This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Directors carry on a 100-year theater tradition

BLUFFTON, Ohio — A Bluffton University tradition with events dating back a century, May Day weekend includes a Maypole dance by first-year students and is capped by baccalaureate services and commencement.

Melissa Friesen, center, and Crystal Sellers Battle work with members of the ensemble for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. — Photo by Kerry Bush/Bluffton University
Melissa Friesen, center, and Crystal Sellers Battle work with members of the ensemble for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. — Photo by Kerry Bush/Bluffton University

The thread that runs through it all is the three-night May Day musical, which opens the weekend every year on Thursday.

Beginning with May Day 1915, early theater productions at then-Bluffton College featured Shakespeare “on the green.” Musicals were introduced in the ’50s, according to Melissa Frie­sen, professor of theater and communication.

While both musicals/operettas and plays were performed for a time, the musical production — complete with live orchestra — ultimately emerged as the annual tradition, now directed by Friesen along with Crystal Sellers Battle, an assistant professor of music who serves as music director.

This year’s musical is How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Alumni who were part of its 1979 staging in Found­ers Hall have been connecting on social media about returning to see this spring’s production.

The tradition “impacts what shows we do,” Friesen said. “Celebration,” “fun” and “comedy” are among the words many alumni associate with May Day. “That expectation colors what they expect to experience as an audience,” she said.

Themes resonant for Anabaptists can be found in several of the musicals produced in recent years. Friesen points to forgiveness in Jane Eyre: The Musical, staged in 2004, as well as in the 2009 production of The Spitfire Grill. In 2006, Bluffton staged Children of Eden, a musical interpretation of the creation and flood narratives from Genesis.

Now alternating between large- and small-cast musicals, the directors think about which — and how many — students are likely to audition. Considering schedules and other factors, there are no guarantees, and “sometimes we do some shoulder-tapping” to encourage prospects, Friesen said.

But there are also surprises. Both last year and this year, she was “blown away” by some newcomers.

Once the cast members are selected, Battle works on their character voices. She said this year’s characters have “very distinct personalities,” and with a 21-year-old playing a 70-year-old man, the student must learn to sing, as well as speak, more like the aging character, including more bravado and speaking his way through musical notes.

“There is a lot of humor in the show, including very eccentric characters with specific voices and statures,” said Rileigh Zickafoose, a junior from Lima who plays Hedy LaRue.

“Both Melissa and Crystal encourage us to let loose and become our characters, which is quite fun.”

Friesen cites the character voice work as an example of how Battle has benefited musicals during her five years at Bluffton. She was a vocal coach the first two years before officially becoming music director for The Music Man in 2012. Last year, she added conducting to her duties for Songs for a New World.

By show time, after weeks of rehearsals together, cast members “become a family and huge support system for each other, which is probably my favorite part of being in musicals at Bluffton,” Zickafoose said.

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