SUNSET SPECTACLE The lights would not go down on a spring-turned-summer musical

by Connor Walters '09

Thirty minutes before show time, David Hoover ’03 appeared as cool as could be. Walking around in flip-flops, khaki shorts, a t-shirt and blazer, he casually strolled around the parking lot of the Breen Center for the Performing Arts, chatting with a mix of people present.

You’d never know that what the Fine Arts teacher and Harlequins director was about to pull off was unprecedented in the world of high school theater and also the result of a whirlwind of work that relied on the cooperation of dozens of people and, perhaps most importantly, the weather.

The Saint Ignatius spring musical “Mamma Mia!” was twice delayed and nearly cancelled altogether, after the coronavirus pandemic interrupted classes and activities in March. But a determined director, cast and crew, along with scores of other key personnel, decided that dropping the curtain on the performance would be a last resort.

“When COVID hit and the governor said schools were going to be closed, that was on a Thursday and that was basically two weeks before opening night,” Hoover says. “We had started ticketing already. Obviously it was a shock for everybody.”
Harlequins director David Hoover '03 (right) with scenic design mentor Joe Popelka '84.

At the time, the decision was made to postpone the show until summer, to hold on to hope that eventually it might happen. Hoover led rehearsals over Zoom but says they were not very effective. The pandemic dragged on, and prospects for the show became bleaker, even into June.

Yet outdoor activities appeared to be significantly safer than indoor ones, and so the idea emerged to try and stage the show outside.

Members of Hoover’s planning team had worked on outdoor productions at places like Cain Park and fully understood the unique challenges of staging, lighting and sound. Nobody, however, had experience with implementing social distancing into the choreography, or inventing new ways to seat a limited audience, or how to solve these and countless other issues in a matter of days.

On July 8, Principal Anthony Fior ’02 emailed the Saint Ignatius faculty and staff to notify them that administrators had weighed all the options and safety considerations. A decision was made: The show must go on.

Student actors had to rehearse in just a matter of days on a completely new stage that was still being built days before opening night.

Eight days later, outside the building where for months he planned on his show taking place, Hoover was calm. The summer sun cast a gold glow on the parking lot, which was slowly filling up with two dozen cars, fanned out and facing the enormous white carnival tent that abutted the south walls of the Breen Center.

Families laid out blankets and lawn chairs, rolled down their windows, and tore into snacks. They adjusted their radios to the FM station that would be carrying the audio from the show.

Eight family members of senior ensemble member Zach Hazard ’20, who were packed into a minivan, expressed excitement and relief that the day was finally here. Zach, they said, had been rehearsing his songs and dances at home in their basement and even while the family was on vacation in Cape Cod.

After the last vehicle had parked and start of the show neared, a voice welcomed families to the evening’s “al fresco” performance of “Mamma Mia!” as the play’s trademark melody blasted in the background. In addition to other announcements, the host reminded families that there would be no need to mask their approval after each song—claps and car horn beeps were most certainly allowed.

The characters bounded onto the stage, which itself was a work worth marveling at. It was built in a matter of days with lead work by senior Noah Virant, whose young brother Gabe learned how to man the lights—just for the show.

“John Ebert worked with Noah,” Hoover says. “He was our original setting designer. John had figured out a way and come up with the dimensions to make sure every student was at least six feet from one another.”

Students’ physical distance wasn’t the only noticeable sign of the unique circumstances of the production. The first attempted hug between characters was halted by a hand held outward and the utterance of one simple line: “Uh…pandemic?”

A masked and distanced audience takes in the opening night "al fresco" performance of "Mamma Mia!"

Meanwhile, the actors and actresses did a remarkable job maintaining six feet of distance, even while dancing and following one another around on—and off—stage.

“Originally there were these zones on the stage that were six feet apart,” says Hoover. “Everyone had a regular spot for the big group numbers, then we would go scene by scene.”

He adds: “The kids, from an acting perspective at least, have worked really hard on focusing on the other characters on stage, and so a lot of the movements for them were pretty natural. There were a lot of scenes were you really had three or four people. They had starting positions and ending positions and you had to figure out from your character work how to get from point A to point B.”

John Criscione '20 works his magic on stage.

The dance scenes, in particular, had proven particularly challenging. Two days before the show was set to open, Hoover considered cutting the dances during group numbers.

“Dance Captain Alex Schwartz ’21 made some adjustments on the fly with them,” Hoover says.

“He said, ‘Would you be open to keeping the dances if we come early and work on it?’ It was one of my proudest moments here at Ignatius. I pulled in the next day and the cast showed up early. They figured it out on their own, and they showed me what they did and it was completely different. I was thrilled, and they earned keeping those dances in. Their initiative really paid off.”
Dance Captain Alex Schwartz '21 (left) worked tirelessly to ensure the group dances could still happen.

As the show progressed, the magic of 1970’s pop rock music flowing out into the Ohio City neighborhood on a beautiful summer evening summoned at least one neighbor out of his home. He walked over from Chatham Avenue with his dog, set up a lawn chair near the Magis Athletic Center, and remained for the duration of the performance.

Just before intermission, the sun disappeared behind the canopy of trees in front of the bell tower at St. Patrick’s Church. As the break began, there was a palpable sense of joy among the audience, made clear based on the chatter that broke out among the family members assembled.

Remarkably, the technical issues of having the entire production outside were few. Consider that all the actors were mic’d up and all of the music was performed live by student musicians who were located inside the Breen Center.

Senior Jack Auletta

Assistant Band Director John Mullen (right) coordinated the live music for the show from inside the Breen Center for the Performing Arts.

Students played their instruments from behind plexiglass barriers

“Our sound guy worked with Assistant Band Director John Mullen, and we looked at the stage inside of Breen, figured out a way to spread all the kids out and give them their own isolated booth with the shields or guards so that they were more than socially distant but they were really kind of isolated from one another—just in case,” Hoover says.

With all that could have cut out or been mis-timed, the only notable issue was a brief outage of a microphone during the final scene. The student actors handled the adversity like professionals, continuing on without missing a beat.

The space offered by the parking lot provided opportunities that gave the show some extra spark, as well. During the song “Take a Chance on Me,” Daniel DeVenney ’20 ran in and out of the parked cars, pursued by an interested female and illuminated by a spotlight as he wove throughout the audience.

Madison Comeau implores Daniel DeVenney '20 to "Take a Chance on Me."

Following the final scene and the bows from the student actors and actresses, the student performers gathered on stage to perform a few of the show’s most notable songs. As they began singing the hit “Dancing Queen,” the joyful spirit emanating from on stage inspired audience members to get up on their feet.

In the backs of pick-up trucks, or adjacent to their vehicles, a veritable dance party began. Mothers twirled their daughters as they belted out the words from underneath their masks, “You’re in the mood for a dance / And when you get the chance / You are the dancing queen!”

Eventually the music faded and the raucous applause and car horns and lights flashing and whoop-whooping from those present served as a collective roar of joy—a feeling of happiness and satisfaction after months of frustration and isolation.

“It felt like I finally made it to the finish line,” says senior Anthony Chalhoub. “It was a seven or eight month ordeal. Finally I could breathe now. The whole process I had held my breath, and we finally made it to that opening night. It was a moment of relief, I guess. Usually on opening nights I’m very nervous. That night I didn’t really feel that—I kinda just felt happy and relieved, a sense of accomplishment.”

The show ran one more night, ensuring that all the students’ family members had a chance to attend. Then, less than a week after in-person rehearsals had begun, the proverbial curtains closed on one of the most memorable shows in the rich history of the Saint Ignatius drama program.

Hoover, looking back, put those two performances—and the journey of eight months—into perspective.

“When you do theater, you’re going to end up doing a bunch of shows throughout your life. This was one that became more than just a show. You do it for an audience because of the nature of theater, but this was one of those few shows where we did it for each other. That’s why this one’s always going to be one that’s special for everybody involved.”
Created By
Connor Walters '09


Al Fuchs '79, Connor Walters '09