Vivian Fusillo is the sort of woman who would have become an institution in Winona on her first day here. She is not to be confused with anyone else. (Except, of course, Ann-Margret, who played a character in the movie “Grumpy Old Men” who is rumored to have been based on Vivian. The screenplay was written by Viv’s former student Mark Steven Johnson.)
I knew who Viv was long before I met her. She and Rod Hurd, late owner of KWNO radio, were great friends, and I would often see her driving her little VW bug down Mill Street past my house on her way to see Rod. They could also be seen cutting a mean rug on dance floors around town.
No one styles the way Viv does. Her gigantic rings, enormous bracelets and colossal necklaces — some of her own design — set her apart from the rest of womankind, those of us who wear a gold ring, a pearl on a gold chain and perhaps gold studs in our ears (boring!). Her dresses, pants and blouses swoop and drape and have no visible fasteners. Her coats hark back to Gloria Swanson. Her hair is an appropriate shade of red, and falls in soft curls around her face. Vivian is a presence. Even when she is trying to relax anonymously at the coffee shop.
On Thursday night, I accompanied my granddaughters to Vivian’s last children’s play at WSU, “Peter Pan.” Peyton had seen it with her class on a school field trip, and on the drive to WSU told Andie, with much authority, “You are really going to like this, Andie. It’s great!” I told them I knew the director of the play, and promised I would introduce them to her.
At the theater, we found Vivian, dressed in a stunning black top designed by a former student, who had painted the names of over 100 of Viv’s plays. The kids thought the top was very cool, and the women coveted it.
“Peter Pan” is a familiar story, but most kids know it only from the Disney film. On stage, the kids thought it was pretty ho-hum, until not too far into the first act, when Peter Pan himself came flying through the window. That made them sit up and take notice. I was impressed, too. The young actors made the flying seem totally effortless. The elder of my grandchildren, always the pragmatist, pointed out the wires that helped the actors fly, but the younger simply gasped when Peter, Wendy, John, and Michael flew around the room. In fact, that was one of their favorite scenes.
During scene changes, rather than leave the audience to their own devices, Vivian devised entertainments for them. Tiger Lily and Panther performed a lovely dance during one change, and during others, a couple of the Lost Boys entertained us with an alphabet game that had the audience laughing.
In Neverland, the set designer, Jim Danneker, created a cozy little underground home for the Lost Boys, a ship for Captain Hook and his pirates, and rocks on which the Mermaid sat. The Lost Boys were especially endearing and funny. Vivian’s eye for comedy was evident, as a few of the Lost Boys were over six feet tall. Her use of sight gags kept the audience constantly chuckling.
The three of us were especially fond of the Crocodile, in a wonderful outfit by costume designer Tracy Van Voorst, propelled on a “creeper,” the sort that mechanics use to get under a car. The kids liked the Mermaid, the scene in which the Lost Boys shot the “Wendy Bird” with an arrow (it wasn’t fatal), and the scene in which Peter and the Lost Boys capture Captain Hook and his crew. And, we all believe in fairies and weren’t shy about clapping to prove it.
I was impressed by the entire ensemble, because they actually played as an ensemble. That said, I must point out that without a strong Peter Pan, played by Matthew Wenzel, Wendy, played by Sidney Junk, and especially Captain Hook, played deliciously evilly by Anthony Schliesman, it would not have been the wonderful ending to a stellar career for Vivian Fusillo that it was.
Winona and WSU will miss Viv. Can future generations of Winona children be as lucky as the past generations who have been introduced to live theater by a virtuosa such as Vivian Fusillo?