The 1920’s Live Again in Musicals at Fairfax County High Schools

“The Varsity Drag” in “Good News” at Fairfax High School. Photo by Kimberly Klain

Fairfax-area audiences currently have an opportunity to witness and enjoy talented singers, musicians, dancers, actors, and actresses at two Fairfax County high schools. Surprisingly, material they are presenting are from bygone decades, mostly the 1920’s! We refer to the current high school productions of “Good News” at Fairfax High School and “Thoroughly Modern Millie” at Woodson High School, both in Fairfax, Virginia. While “Thoroughly Modern Millie” is a latter-day pastiche of musical styles and the flapper trope of the 1920’s, “Good News” playing at Fairfax High School is an actual 1920’s-era musical.

We will start with “Good News” from 1927.  Like the Buster Keaton comedy film “College” of the same year, “Good News” focuses on the collegiate lifestyle, football, and the soda shop, all becoming then more prominent in American life due to increasing wealth in the boom decade of the 1920’s (though the musical alludes to the coming stock market crash in 1929). Tom Marlowe, college football icon, is in danger of being sidelined due to failing an astronomy test.  Teaching assistant Connie becomes his tutor as well as his love interest. Will he pass the test in time for the big game? Will he sacrifice his current girlfriend Pat and the family wealth she represents to be with Connie, the girl of his dreams? Such questions, as well as two subplot love stories, dominate the musical.

“Good News” has an unusual history, as the original 1920’s version has only one or two well-known songs (the youth-spirited “Varsity Drag” and the thoughtful “Best Things in Life Are Free”).  The original version is usually scuttled in favor of a 1993 version which incorporates songs which stood the test of time for several decades, such as “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” “You’re the Cream in My Coffee,” and “Together.”    Director Erich Dicenzo explains: “The 1993 version of the musical offers a wider variety not only of songs, but of characters.”

Mr. Dicenzo’s direction is superb, and he brings out the best in his student cast.   The many tap-dancing sequences come across as well-coordinated and well-rehearsed. There is some clever choreography with football players and tires at the opening.  One student (Seth Strong as Bobby Randall) enters driving an amusing stage-prop roadster, complete with rumble seat. Vertical scrimmage lines frame either side of the stage. One particularly strong moment is the duet “You’re the Cream in My Coffee,” featuring the 16-piece band (conducted by music director Kirsten Boyd) and former college sweethearts Coach Bill Johnson and Professor Charlotte Kenyon (Mikhail Goldenberg and Marin Bronaugh) singing and tap-dancing.  A standout in the show is Kamila Adamczyk as Babe O’Day, channeling the spirited flapper style of a 1920’s coed and leading the cast in the show-stopper “Varsity Drag.”

Why choose “Good News” as the 2019 Fairfax High School play?  Director Dicenzo responds that the answer lies in “its humor, style, and most notably its pacing. There is something so special about rapid but substantial exposition that leads to big song and dance numbers, each more engaging than the prior.”  These very qualities apply as well to “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” though the music was written in the 1920’s style from a much later vantage point. 

“Millie” at Woodson

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“The Nutty Nutcracker” dance in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” at Woodson High School. Photo by Alexandra Jennings.

“Millie,” currently being staged by the Woodson High School drama coterie, is a particular challenge, for in addition to 1920’s Charleston-style numbers like the title song, there are also operetta pieces from Gilbert and Sullivan and Victor Herbert as well as a Les Brown-style jazz version of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.”  Terri Hobson, director of the Woodson production, notes the show’s variety of material is one of the reasons why it was chosen: “‘Millie’ is a vibrant show that offers many opportunities for students who are passionate about musical theatre, especially dancers. We also have a 20-piece pit orchestra comprised of almost all students.”

“Thoroughly Modern Millie” is the story of an ingénue who comes to the big city in search of love – or rather a financially prosperous marriage, since she is, of course, “thoroughly modern.”  Millie begins to learn that wealth can involve risk, temptation, and even crime, and that money is not necessarily the proper criterion for “falling in love with someone” (to quote the Victor Herbert operetta duet performed in the musical).  Sets also convey this transition of theme, from a realistic boarding house lobby at the beginning to a romanticized large moon image high in the background towards the end of the play.

 “Thoroughly Modern Millie” as performed by these talented young people is thoroughly enjoyable.  Hannah Black as Millie is thoroughly convincing as the protagonist of the piece matures and develops her personal values.  Marlaina Horewitz as Millie’s friend Miss Dorothy surprises with an operatic voice for “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life,” another song “Millie” borrows from the world of the Victor Herbert operetta.  The moment when the show really comes together is the excellent “Forget About the Boy,” which displays highly coordinated tap dancing by all on stage, a disciplined orchestra playing in jazz style, and harmony and contrast by all voices.

The play contains many direct and indirect references to personalities specific to the 1920’s:  singer Al Jolson, composer George Gershwin, and writer Dorothy Parker. How did the students performing a play about a decade nearly 100 years ago become familiar with such allusions?  Mrs. Hobson explains: “They had to research the period and the references themselves.” Student director Alexandra Jennings echoed these sentiments. Thus, for all students involved in the production, “Thoroughly Modern Millie” became a stimulus for learning about a crucial decade in American history – a decade when the US became wealthier, more urban, and “thoroughly modern.”

We recommend that readers see these two enjoyable musicals reflecting on life in the 1920’s.  It is important to recognize and lend support to talented young people in our midst, some of whom may go on to careers in the arts.  “Good News” at Fairfax High School and “Thoroughly Modern Millie” at Woodson High School both run through May 4. Please consult the websites of these schools for further details.

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About the Author

Mark Dreisonstok
Mark Dreisonstok is a professor, editor, writer, and translator in the Washington, D.C., area. He holds a PhD from Georgetown University and an M.A. from the University of Freiburg, Germany.