2017-03-30 / Front Page

Thoroughly directed, choreographed

BHS theater department brings in professional
By Garrick Hoffman
Staff Writer


Above, Biddeford High School Theater and music director Chris Ferrell and choreographer Deb Lombard pose for a photo before a rehearsal of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” Thursday, March 23. The musical will mark the first time a professional choreographer was hired for a theater production for Biddeford High School. Above right, from the catwalk in backstage, Biddeford High School students rehearse for the upcoming performance. (Garrick Hoffman photo) Above, Biddeford High School Theater and music director Chris Ferrell and choreographer Deb Lombard pose for a photo before a rehearsal of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” Thursday, March 23. The musical will mark the first time a professional choreographer was hired for a theater production for Biddeford High School. Above right, from the catwalk in backstage, Biddeford High School students rehearse for the upcoming performance. (Garrick Hoffman photo) BIDDEFORD – When music and theater director Chris Ferrell decided to direct “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” a musical about a city-bound girl from Kansas, he had a feeling he wouldn’t be able to choreograph its complicated dance elements himself.

“With this type of show, I knew I was going to need to hire a professional to teach a lot of it, because I’m not a dance expert in any stretch of imagination,” Ferrell said.

Ferrell, who is in his fifth year in both roles in the Biddeford High School Theater Department, contacted the theater director at Gorham High School. Gorham High hosts a musical every year, and its theater director helped Ferrell get in touch with professional choreographer Deb Lombard of Saco. He offered the job to Lombard, who recently finished her 12th year choreographing Gorham High School’s theater productions, and she agreed to hop on board.

“It’s been good to get her involved. It’s been amazing. It took a lot of weight off my shoulders,” Ferrell said.

Lombard, 60, is director of The Dance Company, a Saco-based troupe of adults and children in its 25th year that puts on “The Best of Broadway” every year, most recently at The Temple in Old Orchard Beach. Lombard is the first professional choreographer the Biddeford High School Theater Department has hired for a production.


Coming to the end of a number, students pose for a nearly-empty Biddeford Performing Arts Center during rehearsals. The band, with Chris Farrell conducting, played in front of the stage. (Garrick Hoffman photo) Coming to the end of a number, students pose for a nearly-empty Biddeford Performing Arts Center during rehearsals. The band, with Chris Farrell conducting, played in front of the stage. (Garrick Hoffman photo) Lombard has worked professionally in show business for 38 years, including Broadway productions. She has worked in various capacities in theater, including roles as an educator and performer. On behalf of The Dance Company she fills roles in production, directing and design, in addition to choreography. She’s also worked on “Thoroughly Modern Millie” in the past and has worked with actor Jeremy Jordan and Hollywood star Anna Kendrick, the latter of whom is from Maine and was 7-years-old when Lombard worked with her.

“I wear every single hat,” she said. “When you have 38 years of experience, you kind of know everything. You know how to do lighting; you know how to do costumes. You dabble with everything over the years. So coming into this where it’s new for (the students), I try to help them with all areas because Chris has to wear every hat.”

Ferrell calls “Thoroughly Modern Millie” a “strange” show. Set in 1922, it follows the story of Millie, a girl from Kansas arriving in New York City. Instead of going to the city to pursue success, however, she attempts to find a job and husband in an effort to abandon her dismal life in her hometown.

“When she finds these things – or thinks she does, I should say – all hilarity ensues,” Ferrell said.

There are 10 students who will operate the technical elements of the show, 10 in the band – or “the pit,” in theater nomenclature – and 25 in the cast, bringing the production to 45 students, all from Biddeford High School. The cast is required to sing and tap dance while acting.


At far left, student actors Spencer Arnold and Raymond O’Toole leap in the air for their parts during rehearsal. At left, three students await backstage for their roles onstage. (Garrick Hoffman photo) At far left, student actors Spencer Arnold and Raymond O’Toole leap in the air for their parts during rehearsal. At left, three students await backstage for their roles onstage. (Garrick Hoffman photo) “It’s a good undertaking,” Lombard said. “Dancing is fun. It’s a new experience for them having to sing and dance and learn new stuff. They’re working really hard; there are a lot of shows that aren’t as hard. When it was done on Broadway, (actress) Sutton Foster was the lead. It was big. It was a big, big production. It’s going to be fun.”

The production will be held at 7 p.m. Friday, March 31 and Saturday, April 1, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 2 in the Biddeford Middle School Performing Arts Center.

The band has practiced since January and in February the cast began rehearsals. Thirty hours of practice time was lost, however, due to weather. They practice Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m., or about nine hours per week, which isn’t much for a high school production, Ferrell said.

Lombard said the most challenging aspect of the production so far has been encouraging students to project their voices since they need to ensure the singing can be heard over the tap dancing and music.

“It’s a lot,” she said.

Lombard said she brought in her own costumes and marley floor for tap dancing – a floor that was used by Billy Joel.

“I have a major building full of costumes to costume a lot of different things,” she said. “I brought in a couple pieces of my marley floor because (the students) aren’t allowed to tap on the stage. It gives them about 10 feet where they can actually do the tapping on. It’s a real hard rubber floor; it’s what everyone in the dance world uses. This was Billy Joel’s floor and I bought it.”

Lombard’s experience working with students is extensive, she said. Besides teaching Gorham High School students, she also hosts summer dance camps for children ages 6 to 18 years old, where they learn choreography to Broadway show tunes. Camps will be held in Ocean Park July 10 through July 14 and Aug. 7 to Aug. 11. The “Best of Broadway” 25th anniversary show will be held at 7:30 p.m. July 1 and July 13 at The Temple in Ocean Park.

“Even though I love working in the professional world, I really like working with kids who are going places. To start with them and to know you had a little part in helping them through” is rewarding, she said.

“I don’t allow them to think they’re beginners,” she added. “I give them way more credit than how they really feel. I always try to push them beyond their comfort level because they really can do it. The first day coming in and showing them the dances they’re going to do – they’re really taken back. On opening night though, they’re going to look back and think, ‘Oh, we were so worried, now look at us.’ I have so much confidence in knowing I can get them to a level that they never thought they could reach.”

“Deb is such a great choreographer,” said student Addison Moore, who will play Cora. “Without her, our dances would’ve looked awful. Mr. Ferrell keeps us together and makes sure we’re on task most of the time but also makes rehearsals fun and comical. I think the biggest challenge was actually learning the choreography and getting rehearsal time despite the many snow days we had. I’m most excited to see the audience’s reactions to our dances and, of course, the cast party at the end of it all.”

Student actress Rebekah Libbey, who will play the Pearl Lady, was asked how much she was excited for the musical on a scale of one to 10.

“I’m, like, a thousand,” she said.

See the show

“Thoroughly Modern Millie” will be held at 7 p.m. Friday, March 31 and Saturday, April 1, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 2 in the Biddeford Middle School Performing Arts Center.

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