Hillcrest to put on ‘Follies’ in May; storyline parallels their ownMay 10, 2021 10:12AM ● By Julie Slama
Hillcrest High’s auditorium will host Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” with a cast of both alumni and current students in its final musical in the school before it is torn down this summer. (Julie Slama/City Journals)
By Julie Slama | [email protected]
In his junior year, he played the lead in “My Fair Lady” and his senior year, the lead in “Brigadoon.” Now, 42 years after graduating from Hillcrest High, Brian Bentley is returning to the stage in the last performance in the 59-year-old auditorium.
Bentley will play Dimitri Weissman, who is the producer of the Weissman Theatre, which soon will be torn down to become a parking lot. Before that happens, a reunion of actors grace its stage, running a parallel to Hillcrest as former performing arts graduates have been invited back to be part of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies.” Hillcrest, too, will be torn down and the auditorium will be a parking lot for the new school come fall.
The show will be at 7 p.m., May 12-15 in the auditorium of Hillcrest High, 7350 S. 900 East. There also will be a 2 p.m. matinee, May 15. Tickets are available at hillcresttheatre.com.
“There’s been 59 years of performing arts memories on that stage and I’ve intimately been involved in 36 of those years on that stage,” Bentley said. “It’s been an important part of my life” —including befriending the woman who was to become his wife.
Seven years after graduating, Bentley started teaching at Hillcrest and for 22 of the next 23 years, he directed choirs—even though he did play clarinet in the school band—and has been instrumental in Hillcrest musicals. Even during his tenure as the international baccalaureate director, he was involved in the shows. Since retiring in 2016, he has returned to be a vocal coach (online this year) and even played piano during 2018’s “Hairspray.”
Joining Bentley will be this year’s 26-member productions company as well as performing arts alumni who expressed an interest in performing in the school’s last show in the auditorium.
“I had 169 fill out an interest survey,” Hillcrest director Josh Long said, adding that they ranged from recent graduates to those dating back to the late 1960s. “We plan to have the alumni perform as former actors coming back the night before the theatre is torn down and encountering ghosts of their younger selves, who will be played by our current students. It’s been an incredible experience working with the alumni.”
Some alumni will sing duets with their younger selves, others will tap dance, and more will promenade in the opening scene as they come back to see their former theatre. Long plans to identify alumni with a sash that indicates their graduation year and in the show’s program, name the productions they were in while in high school.
Initial plans call for Bentley to join his former graduate, Keri Anderson Hughes, in the song, “I’m Still Here.”
“It will be exciting to see alumni that I’ve known and directed before whether in musicals, choir or as their vocal coach. I’ve heard from some on Facebook, but in person, there will be a lot more reuniting,” Bentley said.
While he can’t say he has sat in every seat in the auditorium, he has walked by every seat as he checked to make sure they had their seat numbers before every show. He knows every crack and hole, including those that held three rows of removable seats in the front of the auditorium that eventually were permanently removed. He knows the green-and-white tiled walls—ones that he joked were called “bathroom tiles”—that have not helped the acoustics in the auditorium.
“When it was built, the auditorium was designed as a gathering space rather than performing space. It didn’t have a fly system and it wasn’t built with acoustics in mind,” he said.
The auditorium, as well as choir and band rooms, received a seismic, heating and air-conditioning upgrade in summer 2001. When Bentley returned that fall, he saw there was a “3- to 5-inch bump” on the stage, which he insisted had to be fixed.
“It put us in a real bind to get that musical on that year; it was a tight schedule,” he said.
When Bentley thinks of “Follies” being the last show in the auditorium he knows so well, he grows nostalgic.
“I’m a real proponent for a school being built. I saw how the older building inhibits the technology we use and have at our fingertips. It will be hard to see it come down, but educators really need a state-of-the-art building,” he said. “When I walk out of the auditorium the last time, it will be an intense emotional experience. Kids have been the blessing, a real gift in my life; they have taught me more than I ever know. This is a perfect tribute to the ending of our historic building.”