By Lauren Alexander
This past weekend, the Willamette Theatre Department debuted a world premiere musical titled “Wings of Fire,” written by Hayley Hoffmeister Green with score and compositions by Austin Green. “Wings of Fire” tells the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911, a disaster that took the lives of 141 people due to locked doors manipulated by the factory owners. Many could not escape the ninth floor and fire equipment of the time wasn’t enough to make a difference. Many of the factory workers, mostly underpaid immigrant women, jumped out of the windows instead of waiting to burn to death.
The show itself is based off a passage describing a young man helping women out of a window as though he was “helping them up to enter a streetcar, and not eternity.” Throughout the show, you fall in love with many complex and broken characters, knowing that many of them will not see past the end of the last scene.
The entire cast is composed of veteran theatre department students as well as first-year students, and each devoted so much heart into the roles they were playing. Often times with musical theatre it is easy to let characters fall into two-dimensionality templates, but under Susan Coromel’s direction each of the actors put impactful emotion into scenes of love, family, community and tragedy. Some of the shining lights among the cast are sophomore Alex Foufos, who plays a young Irish paper boy who sings the praises of the streets of New York and his love for the newly arrived Russian immigrant Rose, played by senior Kaitlyn Rickaby, who leaves nothing at the door as she wears her heart on her sleeve throughout the entire show. She becomes more and more passionate and outspoken as the show continues.
Sophomore Dawn-Hunter Strobel plays the powerful Clara, whose voice and words bring passion and fire to the stage. Junior Eliza Buchanan and first-year Mondara Granados Carreiro play Emma and Ida, two characters who bring much of the realism for women of the time front and center. Emma works in the factory by day and in the streets by night, often being beaten and mistreated. Ida is a dancer who becomes idolized by many of the men around her even when that isn’t something she wants. You become dedicated to both in their struggle to remain powerful women in the face of oppression.
First-years Katy Payne and Truman Smith play the love struck Celia and Teddy, a star-crossed romance that plays out in dancing, poetry and song until they reach their tragic end. Smith, who plays the young man helping girls out the window in the end heartbreakingly describes it to be as simple as jumping off the pier in Atlantic City, like flying. By the end of the show there was not a dry eye in the entire house as all the people around me clung to tissues through the finale.
“Wings of Fire,” while both uplifting and tragic, still had some moments where it was lacking in development. In world premiere musicals, there is still much work to be done before we see it in its final form, and Willamette University’s production is a huge step in that journey. There were moments when the audience was confused by small holes in plot or disconnects between song and scene. The entire show was being accompanied by just Austin Green, the composer and music director, on the guitar and occasionally sophomore Claire Read on Violin and senior Tommy Stallone on piano, which teased at the possibilities of a full orchestra adding much more power to the music.
It will always be difficult to put a show up in less than two months, and the theatre department was able to do so much with the little time they have. I urge you to go see the beautiful and powerful performances in “Wings of Fire.” Even if you aren’t a fan of musicals, you will leave with a new love and appreciation for life and the community of people you hold around you.
“Wings of Fire” plays in the M. Lee Pelton Theatre though April 28 with tickets for sale online or at the box office.