Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Lafayette's drama teacher leaves a lasting legacy

Lafayette High School drama teacher Cindy Kewin, center, worked on a rehearsal of Bye Bye Birdie. Kewin is retiring after 27 years there. English teacher Katie Franklin, left, hopes to take over Kewin's drama class. At right is Debby Owen, who has been music director for Kewin's productions since 1991.
Lafayette High School drama teacher Cindy Kewin, center, worked on a rehearsal of Bye Bye Birdie. Kewin is retiring after 27 years there. English teacher Katie Franklin, left, hopes to take over Kewin's drama class. At right is Debby Owen, who has been music director for Kewin's productions since 1991.

Lafayette High School drama students this month will present the musical Bye Bye Birdie. But it just as easily could be called Bye Bye Cindy, Debby and Luanne.

That is because this will be the last show for Cindy McLendon Kewin, a Lafayette alumna who retires in June after 27 years as the school's drama teacher.

Also leaving the stage will be her close friends, musical director Debby Owen and choreographer Luanne Franklin. Since 1991, they have helped Kewin produce shows several notches above typical high school musicals.

"I have season tickets to Broadway in Chicago, but some of Cindy's productions rival the big-time productions," said Diane Massie, a Lafayette classmate of Kewin who now works as an advertising executive in Chicago.

Massie is coming home for this last show, and so are many others. More than 40 of Kewin's former students will appear in one Bye Bye Birdie number. Three will sing, and Franklin, who owns a dance school in Paris, will dance.

"I can't believe Mrs. K is retiring," said Brance Cornelius, a former student who lives in New York and has been a professional stage actor for a decade.

He and others describe Kewin as having the special magic that makes a teacher great. Strict but approachable, she can be both a taskmaster and a friend. She sets high standards and motivates students to achieve them.

"She expects the best of her casts, and because it is obvious how much she cares about the shows, her casts deliver their best," Cornelius said. "Debby is still one of the best musical directors I have had to this date, and Luanne can make any non-dancer look like Gene Kelly or Vera-Ellen."

Kewin caught the theater bug as a Lafayette student under drama teachers Thelma Beeler, who was there 29 years, and Bob Gardner. Kewin's first acting role was in a Beeler production of Bye Bye Birdie.

I must admit to having some inside knowledge: Kewin was a year ahead of me at Lafayette. She was editor of the school newspaper the year before I was, but I always knew that drama was her first love, especially after I watched her act in a production of Lil' Abner — while holding a live pig.

After graduating from Asbury College, Kewin knew she wanted to be a high school drama teacher. When Gardner changed jobs in 1983, Kewin begged the principal, Dwight Price, to let her succeed Gardner. Her first show was Bye Bye Birdie.

"I get teased at Lafayette reunions," she said, "because I never really left."

Excellence was always her goal, Kewin said, but it became easier to achieve after she recruited Franklin and Owen, whose children were in her shows. Franklin's daughter Lindy eventually made it to Broadway as assistant dance captain and the understudy for several roles in A Chorus Line.

"That first year, we realized there was a chemistry among us," said Franklin, a Lafayette alumna who also studied under Beeler. "Cindy has always been generous to give us a lot of creative license. We just play off each other, there is so much mutual respect."

In addition to their own friendships, they value those they have made with students. "We build very special relationships with these kids," Franklin said. "The learning is more than just music and dance and acting."

After staging 23 shows together, they have many favorites — Footloose, Fiddler on the Roof, The Music Man and Hello Dolly! among them. The 2003 production of Honk! was special because their students performed it at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland.

And then there was The Sound of Music. In the final scene, the student actors climbed a re-creation of the Alps on stage. Kewin's husband, Kevin, helped build all of the shows' sets.

"This has kind of kept us young," Owen said of the 20-year collaboration. "Next year, we won't know what to do with ourselves."

Kewin's successor hasn't been named, but she hopes it will be Katie Franklin (no relation to Luanne). The 24-year-old Lafayette English teacher is Kewin's assistant for Bye Bye Birdie and will direct the senior variety show in the spring.

"I hope I'll be able to live up to her standard," Katie Franklin said as I talked with them after a rehearsal last month in Lafayette's darkened Beeler Auditorium.

"You had better," Kewin told her with a smile, "or I'll kick your butt."

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