In the cold annex basement of the Free Synagogue of Flushing about a dozen actors start the process of turning a script into a production.
“You really need to make eye contact,” writer and director Mark Lord says. “It’s a fine line between reciting and making it very conversational.”
These points are particularly important to “Let’s Hear It for Queens,” because the production could be a flashback to high school history. The show takes the audience on a historical trip from the beginning of Queens when the Dutch snatched land from the Native Americans who occupied the area, up to present times, pausing on notable moments with personal testimonies from the borough’s bigwigs and musical numbers.
“It could become one large lecture, and no one wants that,” lead actor Keiran Larkin said at the rehearsal last Thursday.
Larkin plays the 400-year-old Antiquous, a man who has seen it all, done everything and will lead the play through the decades.
As a schoolteacher, Larkin knows just as well as anyone how to lecture, but he’s not going to. Instead he will focus on amplifying his “crusty curmudgeon” of a character, who breaks up the show and adds a healthy dose of slapstick humor.
Another fun part comes in the opening number, when the cast defines which Queens they mean through song — “not drag Queens or the Queens of England,“ they say.
There’s also a rap.
It might come off a little like a Schoolhouse Rock since it’s not about money and girls, but instead is about the word “hello” and how there are something like 140 different languages spoken throughout Queens.
“It never goes five minutes without a song,” said Lord, who is also a contributor to the Chronicle. “It won't seem lecture-like. There’s a lot of dramatic touches here and there.”
There’s also an ode to the Unisphere and portrayals of Louis Armstrong, Ethel Merman and Tony Bennett — all Queens natives.
Lord’s research about the borough that he has lived in since 1969 became serious about three years ago.
He was granted permission from a former high school teacher and a college professor, who decades ago who wrote a history of the borough, to turn their articles into a musical.
He also found the Queens Memory project — an archive of more than 100 recordings of people from here mixed with pictures, maps and news clippings — which helped veer the production away from a textbook account with personal testimonies and monologues from Queens residents.
One of these stories is of the vivacious preacher, Delois Davis, who to this day brings her message of equality to her Jackson Heights congregation.
“It’s about equality for all,” Melanie Lee, who plays the preacher, said. “It’s the theme of Queens, and I hope that message will engage the audience. It’s about all learning to exist together.”
Lord added other testimonies to his script such as the story of growing up gay in Queens recounted by Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights), who will be played in “Let’s Hear It for Queens” by Chronicle employee Richard Weyhausen.
Lord then added further research to the production such as an article about the woman who owned a residence that is now part of the Queens Place mall in Elmhurst.
She refused to let her little home be taken over by developers. So they built their Macy’s and mega mall around her. When she passed away the house was sold and added to the shopping area.
This story is the backbone of one of the seven original songs that Lord collaborated with Joe Ferrante, musical director Paul Johnson and choreographer Amanda Montoni on.
Additionally there will be some favorite songs, including high school fight songs celebrating Queens schools and a compilation of previously performed FSF numbers, to celebrate the theater group’s 40th anniversary.
“Number one, we are theater,” Lord said, “but just as important, I want it to be educational.I hope I struck a good combination of those two.”
When: Saturdays, May 4 and 11 at 8 p.m. and Sundays, May 5 and 12 at 3 p.m.
Where: Free Synagogue of Flushing, 41-60 Kissena Blvd.
Tickets: $17, $15 for children under 12 and seniors over 60