Tina Fey inspired quite a few arched eyebrows last year when she announced she was adapting her big-screen monster hit Mean Girls as a Broadway musical. But the Fey faithful – especially fans in Upper Darby – know that her musical adventure won't be so much a departure from her career as a return to her roots.
Fey is an alum of Upper Darby Summer Stage, a recreation program at the Upper Darby Performing Arts Center that has exposed countless kids to musical theater since 1976.
Founded by musician, director, and educator Harry Dietzler and administered by Upper Darby Township, Summer Stage gives practical experience to would-be actors and singers, directors, lighting designers, and set builders, who mount six children's shows and a main-stage musical each season. They are guided by teachers, voice coaches, and directors, many of whom grew up in the program.
A list of alumni makes for a Who's Who of the region's theater scene and includes quite a few Broadway stars. Among them: Everybody Loves Raymond's Monica Horan (Spring Awakening on Broadway), Alyse Alan Louis (Mamma Mia!, Amélie), her sister Jillian Louis (It Shoulda Been You), Jeremy Morse (Waitress), and Arden Theatre co-founder Amy Murphy and her husband, Barrymore-winning director Terrence J. Nolen, who this spring directed Horan in Arden's Gypsy.
This month, Summer Stage will be one of a handful of theater companies around the country that will produce an adaptation of Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (July 28-Aug. 5). While the older kids prepare for the main-stage production, they will help the youngsters put on a series of daytime shows including Madagascar – A Musical Adventure Jr. (Wednesday through Friday), Shrek the Musical Jr. (July 19-21), How I Became a Pirate (July 26-28), and Curious George and the Golden Meatball (Aug. 2-4).
"I'd call Summer Stage an entry-level performing arts program," Dietzler said, "because everyone has to start somewhere. And that includes the kids in the audience seeing their first musical."
Dietzler said kids serious about theater tend to return year after year through their college and graduate school years. That includes Dietzler's son Jeff, who is directing Hunchback.
"It's very much a family business. My dad met my mom [Dottie] here, and all their five children grew up acting here," said Jeff Dietzler, 32, a DeSales University alum who teaches performing arts and music at St. Elizabeth High School in Wilmington. "But I'm the only one of us who went on to study theater. Oh, and my wife, Beth, is the acting coach on Hunchback." The musical is based on Disney's 1996 animated adaptation of the Victor Hugo masterpiece. "The movie was much darker than most Disney films," he said, "and the musical is even darker."
It's also a seriously difficult production, his father added: "It has a regular cast of between 30 and 40 on stage, but there's also a full choir of 30, and on top of that there's a live orchestra." Even theaters like the Walnut Street, he said, "generally will have no more than 25 performers on stage. It's just not feasible financially."
The Hunchback of Notre Dame stars local actors Patrick J. Walsh as Quasimodo, Sierra Wilson as Esmeralda, and Chris Monaco as the villainous Judge Claude Frollo.
Monaco, who earned a master's degree in acting from Villanova, has been coming back to Summer Stage for more than a dozen years. "I started in 2004 when I was 12 in the apprentice program, which is sort of pretheater," said the Bryn Mawr native. "You take classes on theater, and you watch shows. But as the years went by, I learned to sing and act, and eventually I came back as a staff member."
Alums who have moved on to professional theater remember Harry Dietzler and Summer Stage with a fondness that's almost mystical.
"My sister [Jillian] was involved in Summer Stage first, and I grew up watching her," Havertown native Alyse Alan Louis said in a phone interview. "To watch her do those shows, it was an incredible experience." The two sisters would eventually perform together in Summer Stage productions. "Being a young kid getting to watch these young adults and how they conducted themselves in the room," she said, "how they were able to collaborate, that was inspiring."
Harry Dietzler was a 20-year-old recent Temple University graduate when he started Summer Stage with help from the township. "They wanted to start a theater, and I suggested this program."
Nolen was 11 when he joined up that first season. Dietzler "had this amazing idea, and somehow he was able to convince the township officials to turn over this large building," Nolen said. "He gave me my first opportunity to direct when I was 15. I remember all the people involved were incredibly passionate about theater. It just attracted a really good group of people, and it made you work hard and really fostered discipline."
Amy Murphy agreed. "It taught us resilience, that you keep going even when you think you can't do it anymore."
Summer Stage brought quite a few couples together, said Murphy, who began dating Nolen when they costarred in a 1984 production of Annie. They married in 1992. "We are on the list of Summer Stage romances," she said, laughing, "but also of summer stage babies."
The couple's 14-year-old son, Fynn, last week made his Summer Stage debut as an actor, Murphy said.
"He was in Annie."