Their song competed with the soft thwack of tennis balls coming from an adjacent court, and with louder thwacks and shouts rising from the football field across the parking lot, where the lacrosse team was sweating through shooting drills. Their audience, roughly 50 parents and close friends, sat on collapsible lawn chairs arranged in clusters six feet apart.
It was the final dress rehearsal and also the opening night of Westfield High School’s spring musical, which was being held outdoors for the first time in school history to comply with pandemic safety restrictions. For the next 80 minutes on this balmy Thursday evening in late May, the actors would sing and declaim while pacing across a green swath of lawn just outside their cafeteria. They would step carefully over LED lights dotted throughout the grass by their technical crew. Cast members would stay six feet apart and masked except during solos and duets, when singers could step away from their peers.
For most in the crowd, it was their first time watching live theater in more than a year and a half. For Westfield drama teacher and theater director Enza Giannone-Hosig, it was a night of triumph tinged with anxiety: After months of planning, she was on high alert, watchful for any whisper of bad weather or hint of technological failure.
And for high school senior Alison Brown, 17, it was a moment she had almost given up hope of seeing.
Brown, wearing a black tank top and gray jeans in her role as nursing student “Mira,” sought to commit the scene before her to memory. The opening number was her favorite part of the musical. She loved the lyrics, which asserted a universal connection tying together all of humanity.
It had been hard to feel connected to much of anything during the past 18 months, most of which Brown spent learning in her bedroom, online and alone. She had taken part in every play or musical put on at Westfield since she was a freshman — including the spring musical in her junior year, “Into the Woods.” Brown had been set to play the lead role of Cinderella in that show, until the pandemic canceled it.
Since the moment school closed last spring, the senior-year musical was on her mind. Would she get to perform? Or share in beloved senior traditions such as kissing the stage after the last performance?
Now she smiled as she sang with her 11 castmates: “So I learn what’s important / I evolve and I grow / I reach for your hand and hold tight.”
Given the pandemic, no one was actually holding hands.
'When life pulls us apart'
Giannone-Hosig watched the action onstage from a table set up behind the parent audience. Next to her were two students, dressed in black, who manned an array of dials and switches that together controlled the actors’ microphones and the network of lights spread across the grass.
Nearby, a lone floodlight loomed in front of a “NO PARKING” sign. A curl of cable lay forgotten between parking spots 265 and 264.
Things were going well, Giannone-Hosig thought — as they had ever since she dreamed up an outdoor musical in March.
At the time, Fairfax County Public Schools was just starting to return students to in-person learning. Giannone-Hosig, inspired by the impending relaxation of restrictions, went to her bosses and asked: “Is it possible we could do an outdoor performance?”
At first, Giannone-Hosig recalled, people warned her the logistics would be too difficult. Rainy spring weather, they predicted, would make rehearsals impossible.
But Giannone-Hosig was determined to give her students, especially her seniors, an in-person spring musical. She had managed to put on a virtual winter play, and a virtual winter one-act show, but it wasn’t the same. “I just missed live theater,” she said.
Giannone-Hosig began soliciting auditions early in the spring semester. In April, roughly 20 hopefuls uploaded singing videos to a platform called Flipgrid. From these, Giannone-Hosig culled her 12 actors, prioritizing juniors and seniors.
The in-person rehearsals had gone off pretty seamlessly ever since; the weather almost never interfered. The roughly 18 student set designers, lighting specialists and props crew built a set from the entryway to their high school cafeteria. The final setup, meant to resemble a college quad, involved a faux-brick wall complete with a prototypical campus billboard plastered with fliers.
Giannone-Hosig was reusing costumes from previous years, cutting back on expenses. With her budget of $10,000 from the school, plus $2,000 raised by a parent booster club, she was able to pay for everything she needed in an unorthodox year: outdoor lights, licensing rights, a professional piano player.
The musical itself, she and her actors agreed, was perfect. “The Theory of Relativity” boasted no set-piece numbers that would require actors to sing and dance in proximity.
The theme also was apt. “It asks,” Giannone-Hosig said, “about what do we do when life pulls us apart in different directions.”
Less than 15 minutes into the show Thursday, one of the actors launched into a solo and Giannone-Hosig winced: The microphone was set too soft. The girl was barely audible over the strains rising from the piano offstage beneath a tree. She also had to contend with the lacrosse team, which had just begun scrimmaging, generating periodic basso yells from the coach.
Giannone-Hosig motioned to one of the student technicians. He nodded and slid a dial. The girl’s voice swelled, drifting above the panting lacrosse players on the almost-summer-night breeze.
'I knew that we'd find a way'
The scene unfolded just the way technical director, dramaturge and lighting-and-set technician Mary Clare Bernier, 17, had imagined it.
Bathed in cold blue light, the two duettists began their song “Great Expectations,” which comes midway through the musical. They were singing of the past. Brown’s Mira and Ryan, played by 18-year-old Matthew Krelovich, sang of their parents’ professions, of their hopes for their children.
But as Mira and Ryan switched to imagining their own futures, the colors shifted — to warm, glowing yellows and oranges.
“The trouble for me is the life that they flaunt,” Brown and Krelovich sang, “is light-years away from the life that I want.”
Bernier, who plans to pursue a career in theater lighting design, thinks the proper combination of shading, color and light makes characters’ emotions palpable to the audience.
Throughout her four years at Westfield High, Bernier helped design the set or the lighting for every production the school hosted.
This spring had posed an unusual challenge, requiring Bernier to practice her craft outdoors — but she was able to draw on her experiences helping her family create elaborate yard setups each Halloween.
Even at the most depressing points of the pandemic, Bernier said, she never doubted that she’d get to design the lighting for her senior-year musical: “I knew that we’d find a way.”
Krelovich had felt less certain.
The pandemic made him question a lot of things. Alone with his thoughts for months on end, Krelovich realized he’d gotten through most social situations, pre-coronavirus, by mirroring his friends’ behavior. It was easier to imitate others’ thoughts and emotions than to share his own.
Isolation had put an end to that. Krelovich was forced to “become more of my own person,” he said.
He saw his quest for individuality — and a place in the world — reflected in the roles he plays in “The Theory of Relativity.”
For example, one of Krelovich’s characters, Oliver, comes to terms with the fact he is gay in a song called “Apples and Oranges.”
But Krelovich most enjoyed playing Ryan. In the musical, Ryan wrestles with how his family life changes after he goes away to college. Ryan’s dog dies, his sister elopes with her boyfriend and his parents divorce. Ryan is left feeling rootless.
Krelovich could relate somewhat. At the end of the summer, he will leave home for the University of South Carolina.
“Things will change while you’re away at school,” Krelovich sang.
Before the pandemic, that would have seemed scary.