The Final Days of the Fairfield Valley Community Players
In his will, composer George Gershwin stipulated that his folk opera “Porgy and Bess” always be performed in English language productions by an African-American cast. This was decreed in order to prevent bad characatures of the black cast by white performers.
This piece of information had apparently not reached as far as the Fairfield Valley Baptist Church hall. It was there, on the final night of a successful three-night run, that John McNichol had just launched into “I got plenty o’ nuttin'” from “Porgy and Bess”, respledent in a sponged-on layer of dark brown foundation, carefully applied by his wife, Fran, in order to make him look less like a 47-year-old science teacher and more like a poor, crippled black man.
What ever effect the brown make-up had on de-whitifying him, it was sadly undone as soon as he opened his mouth to sing. John and Fran were English and had moved to New Zealand over twenty years ago. He still had a clipped English accent, which resulted in in the line “Oh, I got plenty o’ nuttin’, an’ nuttin’s plenty fo’ me” sounding like “Oh, I got plenty oh nut in, Ann nut in’s plenty foh me.” Standing tall in a pair of crisply ironed black trousers, a black skivvie, John was about as far from Porgy as was possible.
John’s performance, however, was only one of the many highlights of the Fairfield Valley Community Players 1992 end-of-year revue, titled “It’s Showtime: Greatest Broadway Hits!” The revue was the creative masterpiece of Margaret Ballinger, who, as she often reminded people, audiences might remember from the Waikato Operatic Society’s 1978 production of “Music Man.”
After breaking her ankle and the subsequent weight gain in the mid-’80s, Margaret changed from performing to directing. “It’s Showtime” was the third show she’d produced and directed for the Fairfield Valley Community Players since she formed the Players along with choreographer Martin Bellevue in 1988.
Next on the programme was “I’m an Indian Too” from “Annie Get Your Gun”. This was sung by the youngest and prettiest member of the lady Players, 32-year-old Helena Anderson. She cavorted on stage with Hamish Stevenson, the 19-year-old former rugby player who had been cast as Big Chief Son-of-a-Bear thanks to the sharp casting eye of Martin Bellevue.
All the songs in the show were accompanied by the two dancers, Trudie Kimble and Natasha O’Connell. Former students of the Bellevue School of Jazz Ballet, the pair had been called in from their university studies to add a little glitz and glamour to the show. For “I’m an Indian too”, Martin had them do a stylised version of the old cowboys and Indians war call where the hand is waved over the mouth while making a shrill sound. Obviously having a couple of mousey, flat-chested dancing girls in black leotards doing a war call would have interrupted Helena’s singing, so Martin had them do it not only with no sound, but also paced to the rhythm of the song, which slowed it down so much it looked like they were yawning to the beat.
The show-stopper was the moving version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from “Carousel.” Fran McNichol started singing the song, but when she got to “hold your head up high,” suddenly, for no apparent reason her voice caught and she broke down in tears. From the chorus behind her, Margaret Ballinger stepped out, walked over and put her arm around Fran, and signalled for the pianist to start playing again. The two then belted out the song with confidence, and the entire company behind them joined in for a stirring final chorus. This was executed to perfection every night, always earning the Players a standing ovation, and always moving at least a few audience members to tears.
Being the final show, Saturday night’s performance was a special one. The show ended with an extra encore of “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little” from “Music Man”, and a surprise original number written and performed by Martin Bellevue called “I’m Gonna be a Star on Broadway.” Bouquets of flowers were handed out, speeches made and after-show nibbles enjoyed.
Everyone agreed the show had been wonderful and that they would come back for next year’s show. However a few months later a letter from the lawyers of the estate of a dead composer sent to the administrator of the church hall resulted in the Players being banned from using the hall. Without a local venue to rehearse and perform the Players soon disbanded.
The last anyone had heard, Martin Bellevue was working on a full-length musical based around “I’m Gonna be a Star on Broadway.” Margaret Ballinger started the Margaret Ballinger School of Stars, offering singing, acting and dancing classes for children aged 12 and under. But the Fairfield Valley amateur dramatic scene just wasn’t the same.