By Jill Keppeler firstname.lastname@example.org
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — Behind the Miller Bandshell in Niawanda Park, it looked like a school locker from 1989 had exploded.
Toddlers to teenagers garbed in many colors — most of them neon — rushed around in last-minute preparations. Fingerless gloves made an appearance, as did jelly bracelets and black lace headbands á la Madonna. Legwarmers were witnessed.
Bins of props were loaded with blue-and-white pompoms in the colors of the fictional William Ocean High School, while on stage, “Thriller” and “Footloose” posters hung on the walls.
It was the second night of In Good Company Productions’ “Back to the ‘80s,” and the show was about to go on.
Even an hour before the cast members hit the stage, the space in front of the bandshell was crowded with chairs and blankets. Melissa Tober of Sanborn, the City of Tonawanda native who serves as IGC president and this year’s director, was constantly moving, one moment leading a pre-show pep talk for the cast members, another dealing with the sound system, yet another speaking to the show’s music director.
“Everyone seems to be right on track,” she said during a brief pause. “The kids are doing everything they’re supposed to do. They’re doing a great job.”
Music director Bethany Rarick, who led the group in communal warm-ups during a lull in the pre-show activity, agreed. Opening night, she said, was “wonderful.”
“It’s been great,” she said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better night. Performing in front of an actual audience really brings out the enthusiasm in the kids.”
“We’re the kids in America/We’re the kids in America/Everybody live for the music-go-round.”
— “Kids in America,” Kim Wilde, 1981
In the sea of neon, Nick Slingerland, who plays Feargal McFerrin III in the show, stuck out.
Slingerland was tricked out like the archetypal 1980s “nerd,” complete with suspenders, black-framed glasses (mended with masking tape, of course), spot-on for a character later to be described on-stage as “the kids who never quite fit into society ... or his pants.”
In truth, the IGC “lifer,” who has been with the group from the beginning (and will continue on to major in theater at Niagara County Community College this fall), said he doesn’t fancy himself a nerd — but he does appreciate the character and the humor inherent in him.
“I try to find the funny side of everyone,” he said. “I make it a goal everyday to make one person laugh.”
Slingerland and co-star Morgan Heist (who played new student Eileen Reagan opening night but Tuesday was “just a nerd”) agreed that opening night had been one to remember.
“It was so great. I think we were really on point. It was super high energy, and I was ready to go right back on,” Slingerland said. “This is just a really good group to get into. All the shows are really fun.”
“And now we meet in an abandoned studio/We hear the playback and it seems so long ago/And you remember the jingles used to go.”
— “Video Killed the Radio Star,” The Buggles, 1979 (first video on MTV in 1981)
As the cast prepared to go on, IGC founding board member Jim Wright welcomed the audience, speaking about a “double-dog dare” between siblings that started the company years ago.
Later, Wright shook his head while remembering the beginning, when his siblings (including Tober) were seeking theater groups for their children (much like the ones in which they remember participating) but found everything too expensive.
So they started their own.
“I can’t believe it’s been nine years,” he said. “It was something we started sitting around the dining room table. We all brought our change jars ... and that’s how we founded the company.”
Today, Wright lives out of state, but comes in for a few weeks every year to help with the show. “Personally, I don’t have anything else I remember about summer,” he said. “This park, here, is where my heart is. It’s been a huge labor of love.
“We have a second family of kids because they keep coming back every year.”
“Wake me up before you go-go/Cause I’m not plannin’ on going solo/Wake me up before you go-go/Take me dancing tonight.”
— “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” Wham!, 1984
As the show started to the sounds of Wham!, the “Valley Girls” bounced onto stage to sing, followed by the rest of the cast. Lead Corey Palmer (played by Andrew Zuccari, 15) mused to the audience about memories of his senior year ... and dream girl Tiffany Houston, “the first girl he ever fell in love with ... and the first to ever break his heart.”
Flashback to William Ocean High School, 1989, introduction of members of all the classic high school cliques, the rivalry between Palmer and football star Michael Feldman (Connor Maxwell) the stage set for a school election and all the inherent drama in prom season.
The music turned to “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and “Footloose.” As scenes changed, neon-bedecked best friends Katelyn Shiel and Annabella Bogart, both 11, took a break to sit and chat in the space behind the backshell before they had to be back on stage for their next scene.
While Bogart is a four-year veteran of IGC and other theater groups, this is Sheil’s first year taking part — and she loves it.
“It’s been going really well,” she said. “So far it’s really good. They have a really good time.”
“I come home in the morning light/My mother says when you gonna live your life right/Oh mother dear we’re not the fortunate ones/And girls they want to have fun/Oh girls just want to have fun.”
— “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” Cyndi Lauper, 1985
For the Kaeselau family of Tonawanda, the show is a family affair.
At 4, AJ Kaeselau is already a IGC veteran, while Nora, 2, made her debut this year and their father, Scott Kaeselau, plays teacher Mr. Cocker. While not on stage, mom Jenny Kaeselau might have been the busiest of all, helping to get the youngest cast members costumed and shepherding them on stage for their scenes.
As a school assembly took place on stage, Jenny Kaeselau and other parents suited up a little Jedi (AJ), assorted small Princess Leias and other children for a scene in which they parade across stage in costume or carrying stars.
“It’s wonderful,” she said of IGC. “They take everyone. Everyone helps out in different ways. This has become our summer activity, and it’s been a great family activity we can all do together ...
“And now I have to run in one minute to get them on stage. Sometimes Nora cooperates, and sometimes she doesn’t.”
“Believe it or not, I’m walking on air/I never thought I could feel so free/Flying away on a wing and a prayer/Who could it be? Believe it or not, it’s just me.”
— “Believe It or Not,” Joey Scarbury, 1981
The school drama continues on stage with rivalries, a new girl in school (of course) and an “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” musical duel between the Palmer and Feldman characters (complete with “kilts” and prop guitars like The Proclaimers back in 1988). There’s a concert, there’s a party, there’s a broken heart or two.
Local resident Dave Siedlecki was walking in Niawanda Park and stopped to watch the show.
“To get the kids to do this and all the parents to be involved ... it’s great. Especially with all the ways they’re cutting the arts at all the schools,” he said. “I marvel at it, to see the kids putting themselves out there like that. I wish I’d had the courage to do it when I was in school.”
Like any good ‘80s drama, the show ended with the loose ends tied up and the “good guys” winning. Everyone in the audience applauded when Feargal got his moment of triumph — and when John Tober, 12, as character Billy Arnold effectively “Rick-rolled” the Tonawandas by belting out “Never Gonna Give You Up.”
It all concluded with prom, a veritable cascade of ‘80s-style ruffles and lace (often in hot pink), that ended with “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” and every cast member up on the stage (and down in the audience) dancing.
“ ‘Cause I’ve had the time of my life/And I’ve searched through every open door/Till I found the truth/and I owe it all to you.”
— “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes, 1987
As the music and applause faded, Tober was almost immediately up on stage to start taking down props ... only to return in two days for the next show. “Back to the ‘80s” continues at 7 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday at the Miller Bandshell, and then it’s on to next year.
With another successful show under their collective belts, Tober said her cast has things well in hand for next week.
“The kids are taking over it,” she said. “They’re really making it their own. They’re taking what we taught them ... and running with it.”IF YOU GO • WHAT: "Back to the '80s" presented by In Good Company Productions • WHEN: 7 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday • WHERE: Miller Bandshell, Niawanda Park, Niagara Street, Tonawanda Jill Keppeler is a writer for the Tonawanda News. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @JillKeppeler.