Where the macabre meets the military

Down in the low-ceilinged crypt in the chapel at the United States Naval Academy, where the remains of John Paul Jones reside in an elegant tomb, a young man wanders around in a dress. Another sits before a mirror, applying lavish makeup. Nearby, a woman dons a thick beard.

No, it's not a case of Middies gone wild, but just the scene backstage — more precisely, under the stage — of the annual over-the-top extravaganza called the Halloween/All Saints Day Concert, an extraordinarily popular Annapolis tradition now in its 14th year.

"It's refreshing to find there are all these creative people here," said Skye Martin, 21-year-old senior, during the final rehearsal. "They're not just sitting in their rooms studying engineering or playing sports. It's amazing how many talented people are here, whether they're playing sax or singing solos or just being zombies."

Monte Maxwell, the chapel organist for the past 15 years, created the celebration in 1997. About 300 people turned up to hear him play J.S. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor and other pieces that can sound pretty spooky. But this was no mere organ recital, and word soon spread about all the showbiz elements Maxwell added to the occasion.

The next year, 3,000 Halloween-spiked souls crammed into the chapel, about 1,000 more than the seating capacity. "They lined the walls and were peering into the windows," Maxwell said.

Enthusiasm never abated. Soon, a second performance was added to the schedule to handle the demand; both routinely sell out each year. Tickets to Friday night's performance disappeared 48 minutes after they went on sale to the public a month ago; the 2,000 for Saturday night's performance were all snatched up within 48 hours.

"Former superintendents of the academy will fly across the country for this show," Maxwell said. "Admiral [Mike] Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has come."

The grandly scaled chapel undergoes a major transformation for the production. Masses of cobwebs adorn the balconies. Several stained-glass windows are temporarily covered over with haunted house-type portraits, including one of a woman holding her severed head in her hand. Dry-ice fog floats across the floor on cue. Imitation bats divebomb unsuspecting concert-goers — "You hear waves of screams starting from the back of the hall," Maxwell said.

For 90 minutes, the often elaborately costumed cast of about 100 flows through, and sometimes high above, the space performing a wide range of repertoire. At one point, swarms of vacant-eyed zombies in torn clothes menacingly fill the aisles, only to break into spasmodic rock dancing as a Wolf Man in a white suit does a Michael Jackson routine on the stage and a beat-boxer adds percussive effects to Maxwell's organ playing. There's even a whole circus routine, complete with life-size, imitation animals.

The production provides "an outlet, a way to get out of the norm," said Katie Reid, an 18-year-old plebe.

Getting out of the norm is a primary point of the production. Maxwell sets the tone for the program with his entrance down the main aisle, borne in a closed coffin on the shoulders of midshipmen in hooded monks' robes.

"When I came to the academy 15 years ago from New York City," Maxwell said, "I saw an opportunity to do something very unique and very special with a great instrument and a great venue."

That instrument is a richly restored organ from 1908 that can fill the chapel with appropriately spine-tingling force, as in the title theme from Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera." During that number, various Phantoms keep popping up in the upper reaches of the chapel to sing; one of them adds his voice from a seemingly precarious perch in the dome, more than 100 feet above the nave.

There's a certain dizzying effect to the whole show, which "runs the gamut of emotions, from spooky to funny to serious," Maxwell said, and ends with a shower of confetti.

"In years past, before we brought in a confetti machine, there would be 20 midshipmen cutting paper," said Lt. Jeremy Searock, the officer representative for the show (an officer oversees each extracurricular activity at the academy).

Searock is as much a booster of the production as anyone performing in it. "When I describe it to people, I call it a Broadway-style spectacular," he said. The officer also sees the venture as something more than mere entertainment.

"The trust I put in the performers in this show is the same trust I would put in them on a submarine," he said. "The leadership parallels are identical with putting on a fun show. It directly relates. They have to work through problems, have to figure out how you get 100 people to do what you want done."

Erin Fawcett is directly handling a lot of those problems this year. She was a plebe when she joined the show, helping with makeup. Now in her senior year, she's the producer. Among her final instructions before the dress rehearsal: "Don't use the restrooms to take off makeup. Don't get sick."

She also told the cast members that they would be excused after the first quarter of Saturday's football game at the academy (against Duke) so they could get to the chapel in time to get made up and into costume.

Every year, there is no shortage of students interested in joining the show. "We don't turn anybody away," Searock said. "If you can match a pitch, you sing in the chorus."

Not all midshipmen find the idea of a Halloween concert enticing. "It's hard to explain this to people, especially the plebes," Fawcett said. "We just tell them to trust us. The next year, you see the [former plebes] telling the new plebes, 'Trust us.' "

Young people don't go to the Naval Academy to study music or dance; such things are not part of the curriculum. "But there are very creative men and women here, midshipmen who could have chosen a different career path," Maxwell said.

Chris Hetherington, a member of the Class of 2013, has been interested in acting and musicals since he was a child. "I was raised on the Beatles and show tunes," he said. He appears in the production as Uncle Fester, the character from the TV classic "The Addams Family."

"Some people give you a funny look when you come back to your room with your makeup still on," Hetherington said. "But they really appreciate what we're doing."

Max Desens, a 21-year-old senior, had never tried out the entertainment field before being drawn to the Halloween show, first on the fringes, and this year as a dancer who gets to do some sharp moves to the big-band classic "In the Mood." As for reactions from the rest of academy, "A lot of people look at us indifferently," he said, "but others think it's cool and say they wish they could do it."

Although the show's Halloween elements are prominent, Maxwell doesn't let them dominate. "I consider it a Halloween/All Saints Day celebration, celebrating the triumph of good over evil," he said. "The production has this great message of redemption and appreciation for humankind. It doesn't celebrate evil at all. It's what I deem a family-oriented show. No blood, no sharp teeth. It's lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek spooky. After all, we're in a church."

And by 3 a.m. Sunday morning, all the cobwebs, confetti and other remnants of the show will be gone, allowing church services to resume as if nothing out of the ordinary had every occurred there.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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