By Jonathan Slawson
You could tell by the look in his eyes that Thomas Parente was pleased with the concert reading of The Fabulous Jennie, Princess of Brooklyn. Parente, associate professor of piano at Westminster Choir College (WCC), composed the music in collaboration with the play’s author, Ramon Delgado, a professor emeritus at Montclair. The Fabulous Jennie, which awakens our hearts to idealistic relationships in the midst of real-world challenges, was performed last Sunday, Feb. 15, at the Playhouse at WCC. “[It is] a romantic musical fable based on fact, speculation and fantasy amid unsettling circumstances,” Parente said. The work follows the courtship of independent-minded Jennie Jerome (sophomore Theresa Schwickert) from Brooklyn and British aristocrat Randolph Churchill (senior Matthew Taylor), the parents of Winston Churchill.
“The musical focuses on Jennie overcoming parental opposition and the threat of Randolph’s possibly life-threatening illness, and how her romantic idealism becomes tempered by a pragmatic realism,” Parente said. “She triumphs with the suitor whom she not only loves deeply but who can help fulfill her ambitious goals.”
Delgado’s non-musical version of this production premiered in 1978 at St. Cloud State in Minnesota, where it won an award at the American College Theatre Festival. The collaboration with Parente began at Montclair, after Delgado got the idea that music would augment the script nicely. The first musical production was launched in 1983 with a smaller music ensemble. Afterwards, both Delgado and Parente pursued successful careers in academia, until this latest opportunity arose. Parente’s music outlines each character with a different musical and dramatic style. The score fuses together blues, contemporary pop, classical operetta and much more in a patchwork style. It was amazing hearing these various ideas sung and realized with such conviction.
While many were engaging numbers, Parente’s wide-ranging tastes can be somewhat of a complication, as the show lacked a musical strand that tied all the pieces together. It was refreshing, however, to see a play that hasn’t succumbed to the too- familiar formula of a pop-rock musical about teenage angst.
With the formation of the music theater program, under the directorship of assistant professor of voice Nova Thomas, Parente seized an opportunity to showcase the Westminster Theater “singing-actors” in a concert reading production. Thomas’ efforts in helping to bring new works to the WCC campus should be applauded. The department has capitalized on the Westminster choral sound and is providing the school community with real-world practical applications of theatrical scholarship. The concert reading was produced with only a few practices.
“It was scary at first, knowing that we only had six rehearsals,” said junior Lauren Parsons. “The cast really pulled it together and came ready to work.” While the overall mood afterwards was positive, Delgado’s candor about how he felt the production was shaping out was impressive.
“It’s sung, not acted,” he said.
Though the performance was rich in musical integrity, it often lacked the theatricality that would have developed had there been more time to rehearse. “It’s the ideal location to discover what students can do with new material,” Delgado said. “Hopefully an off-Broadway producer will see potential in the show and give it a workshop.”
Not only was this an opportunity for Parente and Delgado to showcase their piece, but it was a chance for 22 WCC students to sing for a discerning audience, many of whom were off-Broadway producers or otherwise active in the theater world.
“When you’re working on a show, it’s tempting to take ideas or imitate an actor who has previously done the same role,” said junior Michela Imbesi. “In this case, we were forced to be as creative as possible, and we could take many liberties with the characters. It was also exciting to have both the composer and the playwright working with us at each rehearsal. When we started having fun with the script, things would really click.”
This reading will be a springboard for many changes to the production. The music was beautiful, but with a running time of nearly three hours, some cuts might be advisable. If it follows the trends of most successful commercial theater shows, the show will need to cut at least half an hour.
Whether or not The Fabulous Jennie continues to have a life after this reading remains unknown. As an audience member jokingly remarked, “Carpe diem! Seize the day!” Taken directly from the musical, it’s a true lesson for WCC students to seize this unique opportunity to shape an original musical in its early stages. Hopefully this is the beginning of many more original musicals at Westminster.
Coming this spring will be junior Christopher Drew’s musical, Making it ’Til June, featuring an intimate ensemble cast. The show is written, produced and performed by WCC students, and promises to be an upbeat, entertaining reminisce of high school life.