SOUTH PORTLAND – Despite a late start and a ban on advertising, the South Portland High School musical “Thoroughly Modern Millie” hopes for a strong house.

SOUTH PORTLAND – There’s an old saying in acting circles – the show must go on – and this weekend students at South Portland High School are proving their ability to weather a 1-2 whammy pushed on them by a pair of professional theater houses.

For nearly a quarter century, Scarborough residents Steve and Jane Filieo have directed the annual musical production at the high school, shows so popular in the community that it’s not uncommon to sell out of all 800 seats during the second weekend.

For a production of “Beauty and the Beast” six years ago, ushers counted nearly 200 who had to be turned away at the door, recalled Steve Filieo.

But this year something happened that’s never happened before – two things, in fact – that threaten to kill attendance and send the annual production into the red.

Each year, the Filieos hold auditions in October and then, based on the talent that turns up, choose the show that best complements their chosen cast. This year, the musical was to be “Cinderella.” But then, late last fall, word came that the Rodgers and Hammerstein Theater Library, which owns the rights to the show, denied a performance license because a new production starring Tony-nominated Laura Osnes was being readied for Broadway.

“It was supposed to open the week after we would have closed, and they said that was too close,” said Jane Filieo.

“Well, I guess we were flattered,” said Steve Filieo, of the idea that a high school production in South Portland, Maine, might sap into ticket sales on the great, white way.

The Filieos say several weeks went by while they tried to negotiate.

“By the time they finally got back to us it was after Christmas and we really had to scramble to find another show that would suit the same cast that we already had,” said Jane Filieo.

“It was important for us not to slight any of the students who had an expectation of getting principal roles,” said Steve Filieo.

Once the co-directing couple realized how many of their cast could tap dance, the decision was made to produce “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” a 2002 winner of six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, based on the 1967 Julie Andrews film of the same name.

(For show times and information, see here.)

And just like that, the show’s lead, 18-year-old mezzo-soprano Paige Doane, was whisked from a fairy-princess ball gown inside a magic kingdom, given a flapper dress, and dropped into a New York City speakeasy, circa 1922.

“We usually start rehearsal in November but this year we didn’t get started until January,” said Doane, during a tech run-though on Sunday. “But this is such a fun show. It draws all age groups. The songs and music are really great and we’ve all worked so hard. I think people will really like it.”

But then came the second blow, which threatens an empty theater.

As it turns out, the Ogunquit Playhouse has plans to produce “Millie” this summer, with Sally Struthers of “All in the Family” fame in the villainess “dragon-lady” role to be played locally by senior Emma Dadmun.

After all the hocus-pocus with “Cinderella” pushed performance dates in late March from the February time slot it’s held for 24 years, it was too late to go back to the well a third time for a new show.

So, a deal was struck – South Portland could produce “Millie” in March and early April, the Ogunquit Playhouse people said, but it couldn’t advertise the show. That meant no newspaper ads, no online promotions, not even posters placed in shop windows.

Production costs …

The problem, however, is that ticket sales have taken a beating. Normally, a week before opening night, more than 1,000 tickets would be pre-sold, said Jane Filieo. But this year, between the non-traditional performance date, the lack of advertising, and a public perception that parking will be impossible thanks to ongoing renovations at the high school, ticket sales stood at roughly 300.

“That indicates to me that the word really is not out there,” said Jane Filieo. “We don’t know what the problem is, but we really hope the people of South Portland will turn out to support the kids in this program. They would love to have that support.”

Producing a high school musical is not cheap. Given the size of the high school theater, production rights alone can cost as much as $6,000.

“Publishing houses don’t care if you’re a high school or East Podunk Community Theater, you’re charged a royalty based on the size of your theater,” said music director Leslie Chadbourne, “and this is a big auditorium.”

Worse, the rights don’t include scripts and sheet music, which must be rented separately. Add in costumes, sets, and ancillary costs, and a show can easily run into five figures.

On average, says Jane Filieo, the production team has to sell about 3,000 tickets, 400 per night, for each year’s production just to break even. However, even though the possibility of doing that is looking grim outside of a sudden outpouring of community interest, money is not the biggest loss, she said.

“We’re nervous about it, but the money is not the biggest thing,” said Jane Filieo. “I’m just concerned about the kids not having an audience to perform to after all of the hard work they’ve put in.”

“These kids have been involved in this show in one way or another for the better part of 41?2 months, some five nights a week, plus Saturdays and Sundays, and some of them come in and help with the set,” said Chadbourne. “To perform to an empty house is just heartbreaking for them, because they’ve given it 115 percent.”

“It means so much to have a big audience because they are the source of our energy,” said Dadmun. “Any audience is wonderful, we still appreciate them, but it makes a difference looking out and seeing that a ton of people are there to support you.”

… and benefits

For Doane, who fell in love with Broadway when she saw her first show, “Les Miserables,” at age 5, and who plans to minor in musical theater in college, performing is something she plans to “keep as a part of my life forever.”

Still, not every member of the “Millie” cast will make a career in the arts, but that’s not really the point, says “pit leader” Bev Hosic, who runs the vocal music program for the South Portland school system.

“This is probably the most inclusive program we have in this school,” she said. “It’s not just the kids in my vocal program, it’s the athletes, the mathletes, it’s Joe Everybody. It really does cross lines like no other activity does. It’s a big deal to these kids.”

“We just become a family through this entire thing, doing something we love,” agreed Doane. “It brings us all really close together.”

This year’s musical, says Jane Filieo, features 50 students from all four high school grades in the cast, plus 25 in the backstage crew and 15 more in the orchestra, all of whom put in 10-15 hours per week up until the final few weeks of rehearsals, when things really ramp up.

And the crew includes community members, some of whom continue to help out even after their own children graduate.

“My daughter Jenny graduated last year,” said spotlight operator Mike Fletcher, a social work retiree. “She was involved in the musical for four years and I got hooked on the program. I decided just because she’s moved on doesn’t mean I can’t stick around.”

According to Fletcher, the South Portland musical program, helped his daughter find a career – she’s now studying at the University of Maine hoping to become a music teacher – it imbibed her with confidence.

“It really gave her a lot of motivation, how to aim for a goal and to keep at it, he said, adding that neither he nor his wife have musical aptitude.

“That’s not something we brought to her,” he said. “She got that from exposure her in the schools.”

“I was really, really shy when I was little. I wouldn’t talk to anyone,” said Dadmun. “Just having the ability to go out on stage, it gives you a confidence that fills everything in your life. You feel more connected to everything.”

“It’s really helped me a lot to put myself out there,” agreed senior Lyndsay Lombardi. “Being on stage, all my shyness just goes away. It makes everything worth it.”

“We’ve worked really hard and I think our hard work will show,” said Dadmun.

“That’s why we do this,” said Jane Filieo, who spends her days as a home health care practitioner. “The camaraderie among the kids is just unbelievable. They all get along and support each other so well. They’re just a classy group. It’s amazing. And this gives them all so much self-confidence.”

But will the public turn out for this year’s show?

“I certainly hope so,” said Chadbourne. “This is a tremendous program. These kids are wonderful and dedicated and talented, from the lead to the stagehands, and they’re all just looking to give you a wonderful evening.

“I’m confident that no matter how many people turn out, these kids are going to put on a heck of a show,” said Hosic.

“It’s all been very unusual, very different this year,” said Steve Filieo. “But the kids have done an amazing job and we’re all in a good place right now.”

South Portland High School student Paige Doane leads the cast in a song and dance number from the upcoming production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” which opens this Friday night. Due to conflicts, the cast was first forced to switch musicals, then told it couldn’t advertise. Still, the directors are confident the community will come out to support the students.

Students in South Portland prepare for the opening of Thoroughly Modern Millie with a tech rehearsal in the high school auditorium.
Photo by Rich Obrey

Gaby Ferrell, a sophomore at SPHS, plays the important role of microphone technician backstage before a dress rehearsal of “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” making sure Ben Doane and other cast members can be heard on stage.

Students in South Portland prepare for the opening of Thoroughly Modern Millie with a tech rehearsal in the high school auditorium.
Photo by Rich Obrey

Kathy Jones, mother of cast member MacKenzie Jones, prepares an arrangement of lilies backstage before Sunday’s rehearsal.

Leah Berry-Sanderlin, a freshman, waits backstage with other members of the cast for the start of a full dress rehearsal last weekend. Photos by Rich Obrey

Students in South Portland prepare for the opening of Thoroughly Modern Millie with a tech rehearsal in the high school auditorium.
Photo by Rich Obrey

South Portland eighth-grader Ben Donangelo waits backstage with other members of the cast of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” for the start of a full dress rehearsal last weekend as this Friday’s opening night draws near. Photo by Rich Obrey

Students in South Portland prepare for the opening of Thoroughly Modern Millie with a tech rehearsal in the high school auditorium.
Photo by Rich Obrey

South Portland High School student Paige Doane leads the cast in a song and dance number.

Students in South Portland prepare for the opening of Thoroughly Modern Millie with a tech rehearsal in the high school auditorium.
Photo by Rich Obrey

Students in South Portland prepare for the opening of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” with a tech rehearsal in the high school auditorium.

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