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Justin-Siena Theatre—The First 50 Years

Eileen Mize
It is not often that a school can celebrate fifty years of a stellar program that has touched the lives of so many, but we can! Enjoy this tribute to fifty years of Justin-Siena Theatre.
Justin-Siena has a rich tradition in the performing arts, dating back to 1969 with its first production, My Fair Lady. The founding Director of Theatre Arts at Justin-Siena was Mr. Robert C. “Bob” Morrish (pictured above) who had joined the Justin High School faculty in 1968 as a Latin and Spanish teacher and quickly saw a need for theater arts in the co-curricular line-up and gathered a cast and crew from both Justin and neighboring Siena High School for Girls (where he was also on faculty) to mount that first famed production.

My Fair Lady met with resounding success from student participants and audience members alike and thus began a new tradition at two schools that merged to become Justin-Siena High School. JS faculty members Jim Day ’72 and Louis Pierotti ’72 (pictured third from the left in the above newspaper clip) were student actors at the time. The highly regarded Mr. Morrish went on to direct a number of hits including a favorite of his, Hello, Dolly! which he first did in 1974 and again as his final directorial act in 1979.

Some notable firsts during his tenure were the introduction of microphones in the 1976 production of Camelot, a show chosen at the urging of Br. Warren who had been heavily involved as choreographer (given his talents in bringing the cheerleaders and song girls to statewide achievement) as well as set and costume designer. Mr. Morrish and Br. Warren were a formidable pair. Their collaboration ushered in a great influx of student athletes looking to broaden their horizons, including gridiron great Nelson Bettencourt ’74 who landed a role in the 1974 production of Hello, Dolly! The 1977 production of Oklahoma! featured significant advances in set design with a spectacular rotating set thanks to the talents of Jeff Streblow ’77 and Jim Collins ’77. The set would be used used again the following year in the 1978 production of Annie Get Your Gun, which also featured some outstanding special effects.

The program continued to grow and evolve through the 80s and 90s under the brief direction of Mr. Jerry Gardiner and then Mr. Alex H. Urban who led the program through 1995. The first production to be taken “outside” was Mr. Urban’s 1985 innovative extravaganza of Barnum, based on the life of the great showman, P.T. Barnum, and was held on the site of our former softball field. It was during the 80s that JS Dance Instructor Lisa Clark Schmeling ’84 unveiled her talents in the choreography department. Playing the part of Bloody Mary in Mr. Urban’s 1983 production of South Pacific, Lisa went on to play a major role in theatre choreography as witnessed in the 1984 production of West Side Story, and then even after she graduated, in the 1985 production of Godspell and the 1986 production of Grease.

Mr. Morrish found himself back on the JST stage in Mr. Urban’s 1987 production of A Christmas Carol in the role of Scrooge, beginning a tradition of incorporating faculty members into the show when possible. He played Bill Sykes in the 1990 production of Oliver, which also featured some younger cast members from St. Apollinaris and St. John the Baptist elementary schools—including an 8th grade Matthew Farver ’94 who played the title role.
Thus far, with the exception of the outdoor production of Barnum, all performances had been done in the Justin Cafeteria. The big move to what now is the permanent home of JST, then called the North Gym and today called Siena Hall, was with Mr. Urban’s 1990 revival production of West Side Story. This show set a new standard with its talent and production quality. The following summer in 1991, Mr. Urban took the show to Russia where students joined with a teenage Russian cast and performed at the Gogol Theatre in Moscow to great acclaim, and the international tour would continue with other performances in London, Cambridge, Paris, and New York in the following years.

The 1991 production of Big River saw great advances in set construction. Three thrusts were built, resembling piers and a moving raft piloted from below by Eric Steggall ’94 who also lent behind-the-scenes muscle to the carnivorous plant in the 1993 production of Little Shop of Horrors. In Big River Mr. Morrish played the King opposite Tom Durante’s ’94 role of the Duke and often regarded this as his favorite role. The duo would reprise their act in a revue production called Starbound in 1993. Set construction took center stage once again in the 1992 production of Into the Woods, largely guest-directed by Pat Hallahan ’93 where Steve Moore, father of Stephanie Moore ’96 built a rustic arched wooden bridge to connect the apron with a gigantic thrust at the center of which was a revolving stage. The cast was packed with talent including Kristy Cates ’95 who played a witch, perhaps some foreshadowing to her role in the Broadway hit musical Wicked and starring Elphaba in the Chicago production!

The Alex Urban era with JST drew to a close in the 1994-95 school year as the demands of his Children’s Theatres in Southern California and elsewhere were taking more and more of his time. His final production at the Home of the Braves was Once on This Island with Marna Farver ’96 playing the lead of Ti Moune. Marna was able to enjoy a revival production of Once on This Island twenty years later in 2016 when Ti Moune was played by Hannah Brudney ’18. Mr. Urban is fondly remembered for the indelible mark he left on the program, the spectacular careers he helped launch, and for the first-rate shows he directed that rivaled anything on Broadway, according to many fans.

The theatre program continued under the direction of Mary Fullerton who focused on straight dramas and who soon passed the baton to Mr. Todd Decker, a JS History teacher at the time. He and his wife Kelly Daniel-Decker ushered in a new era of musicals with a fantastic production of the Cole Porter classic Anything Goes in 1996 with the luminous Rian McCarroll ’96 as Reno Sweeney. Rian’s father, Lynn McCarroll had served as the first Athletic Director for the Braves and played a role in getting more athletes involved in theater over the years. Making a great team, Todd handled the musical aspect and Kelly was more the stage director. Mr. Morrish called her a master who knew her craft and knew how to elicit the best performances from everyone. One set construct theatre fans are still talking about is the gargantuan display in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in 1997—Bill Berry ’98 and Doug Buurma ’99 really outdid themselves. JST standout Michael Daw ’97, known for his title role in the 1995 production of Cyrano de Bergerac, played the sneaky nephew, then took his talent to Santa Clara to become a stage specialist and hone his stage sword fighting skills.

The hits kept coming! Taylor Bartolucci ’00 and Lauren Dunn ’99 sparkled alternating as Mama Rose under the more than 16,000 lights arranged for the proscenium and specialty signs in the 1999 production of Gypsy. They dazzled the audiences alongside Ellen Toscano ’01 as Gypsy who went on to wow crowds in Fiddler on the Roof and then as Eva Peron in the ambitious production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber sensation, Evita whose finale performance of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” brought everyone, including Ellen, to tears. The Deckers’ tenure came to a close with a revival of the classic Guys and Dolls before they moved to Michigan.

Then Vivian Bayubay McLaughlin took the helm—a NYU graduate, and TV star who married fellow JST alum Bret McLaughlin ’93. It was the 2003 production of Once Upon a Mattress that put JST back in the limelight, but not to be outdone by the revival of Oklahoma! in 2003 and then Bye Bye Birdie in 2004. Vivian McLaughlin continues to be involved with JST today as the music director for the musicals.

Justin-Siena theatre alum and Broadway veteran Matthew Teague Miller ’95 took the directorial helm of the program that had launched his career and in 2005, mounted a fantastic revue Braves on Broadway where program veterans and current students performed side by side and showcased the talent of JST in a very bright light.

A memorable moment of the show was the “Razzle Dazzle” Chicago number performed by Mr. Bob Morrish on the very stage he held auditions for the 1969 production of My Fair Lady and launched a theatre program. Mr. Morrish made his final exit at that show taking leave from Justin-Siena and soon after losing his battle with cancer. His legacy undoubtedly lives on.

The very next show was a revival of Arsenic and Old Lace where the lead role of Mortimer Brewster was double cast with cousins—freshman Jeffrey Gerlomes ’10 and senior Vincent Beard ’07 who’s aunt, Eileen Beard ’70, played Eliza Doolittle in the inaugural My Fair Lady. Students continued to take on more and more aspects of the show. The 2007 production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [Abridged] was largely student-directed by Jordan Joske ’07.

Building on more than four decades of theatre, Matthew Miller took the program to new heights with acclaimed productions and technical feats such as actual falling rain in the 2009 production of Singin’ in the Rain! Michael Starr ’10, dancing across the stage in the North Gym, was literally singing in the rain. Using theater to shine a light on social justice issues, Dead Man Walking delivered a poignant performance surpassed only by the on-campus visit of the story’s own Sr. Helen Prejean, who was portrayed on stage by Erin Kinda ’10.

Another program milestone was moving a production off campus to the Napa Valley Performing Arts Center at Lincoln Theater located on the Veteran’s Home campus just up the road in Yountville—the first being a 2011 production and Napa premiere of The Phantom of the Opera, as if the 2009 production of Les Miserables (for which Matthew Miller had a soft spot, having played Marius on Broadway) wasn’t big enough for a high school to tackle. The show involved an immense cast and crew with a record number of students, faculty, and administrators alike. The part of Phantom was double cast by senior Will Purdue ’11 and freshman Max Risch ’14 with sets, choreography and a professional venue, this show stunned audiences and was said to have rivaled an off-Broadway production.

With the program soaring to even further heights and drawing record numbers of student participants, it was time for Mr. James Thomas Bailey to take the reigns of JST. He brought with him new ideas, new connections, and a level of professionalism that elevated the program and continues to serve our young thespians well. A consummate educator, he ensures his young actors are exposed to different genres and styles. As such, he introduced an annual production of ComedySportz High School League—a high energy, innovative competitive improv show—that has become a staple in the annual repertoire. Yountville’s Lincoln Theatre continues to be the home for the annual spring musicals, and James Thomas Bailey has balanced a mix of classic and contemporary with big productions and some Napa premieres such as Pippin in 2012 with Drew Dorsey ’12 as The Player and Anything Goes in 2014. Then Helena Herber ’14 shone as Reno Sweeney as did Tyler Bertani ’17 in Urinetown in 2016 and Sister Act in 2017, which was affectionately dedicated to the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of Justin-Siena High School. Audiences enjoyed other notable performances by Evan Day ’16 (who is currently playing Peter Pan at Tokyo Disneyland), William Francis ’16, Hunter Schaufel ’18, and Rachel Carey ’17 to name a few.

Following a couple of seasons that featured some original and adapted dramas such as The Twilight Zone—Live on Stage, The Birds—A Modern Adaptation, and Driven which boasted a series of original one act plays performed in actual cars, James Thomas Bailey chose to open the 50th anniversary season in the fall of 2018 with a theater classic—Our Town—which was also celebrating a milestone in its 80th year. Authored by the same playwright as the 1996 production of The Matchmaker, Thornton Wilder’s stamp runs deep in JST history. Mr. Morrish’s favorite and twice-directed production of Hello, Dolly! is based on Wilder’s The Matchmaker—and Mr. Jim Day ’72 played the part of the Stage Manager as Mr. Louis Pierotti ’72 (both who were in the first JST production) sat in the audience opening night as newcomers Jadyn Satten ’21 and Satya Green-Cardona ’19 took center stage as George Gibbs and Emily Webb, respectively. And so the program comes full circle. Even from a technical standpoint, the shows today benefit from long-time scene, lighting, and sound wiz Tom Durante ’93 who got his start on the JS stage and launched a career in event design putting his passion and technical expertise to use and developing a thriving local business. But he still has time for Justin-Siena—not just theatre, but serves as Chair of the Board of Trustees.

In the spirit of celebration, Mr. Bailey has announced that the 2019 50th anniversary spring musical will be Encore!—a musical theater celebration 50 years in the making! Relive the magic and moments that have dazzled audiences through five decades as brought to life by our vibrant theatre program and featuring a few special guests. Save the date for March 14-17, 22-24, 2019 at the Napa Valley Performing Arts Center at Lincoln Theater. With such a rich and storied history and decades of inspiring performances, the Justin-Siena Theatre program has impacted the lives of so many and is poised to reach even higher heights as the show will go on!
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Justin-Siena High School

Justin-Siena is a Catholic high school in the Lasallian tradition offering a college preparatory program that serves young men and women in grades 9–12.