Tag Archives: Kenny Grossman

Slice of life

I enjoyed a slice of life as only Sondheim can deliver it last night, attending the first Valley production of “Sweeney Todd School Edition,” which is being performed by Spotlight Youth Theatre in Glendale through Sunday. Folks who hit tonight’s show can enjoy the added thrill of sharing the company’s 2012/13 season reveal.

I ran into director Kenny Grossman after the show. “You’re a brave man,” I told him. “That’s a big show for a small stage.” It only worked because of clever set design — the work of Grossman and Bobby Sample. There’s also serious fun with props, the work of Vicki Grossman. (Think tools of the meat pie trade.)

There’s even a pair of Grossmans in the cast. Carly Grossman is part of the very capable ensemble, and Jamie Grossman completely rocked the role of Mrs. Lovett. Sondheim is a bear to sing, but she’s got both serious vocal chops and delightful comedic timing. The University of Arizona musical theatre program is fortunate that she’s joining their freshman class next year.

A warning to mom and pop Grossman, however. That freshman year sails by. Seems we just sent daughter Lizabeth off to college, and she’s returning next week proud to be a sophomore already. Attend the tale of the empty nest. Several seniors in the cast share college plans in their program bios — including ASU’s Barrett College/Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Tyler J. Gasper, whose program bio notes that he’ll “soon be heading to New York City,” performs the role of Sweeney Todd. Gasper has performed with several Valley theater companies, including Arizona Broadway Theatre, Hale Centre Theatre, Theater Works and Desert Stages Theatre. Gasper’s bio also notes that he’s been cast in the Phoenix Theatre production of “Spring Awakening” so fans will know where to find him.

Several cast members were culled from Arizona School for the Arts in Phoenix and the Arizona Conservatory for Arts and Academics in Peoria, including some I saw in another area first — a school production of “Spring Awakening.” This is another “mature content” musical and Spotlight notes that parental guidance is suggested.

Though I wasn’t wild about every element of the show, I felt sympatico with Grossman’s vision the minute I read his director’s statement. “Sweeney Todd, School Edition isn’t about violence and blood,” he wrote. “It is a very complex story about injustice.” Its themes resonate in contemporary American society, consumed by discrepencies between the 99% and the 1%.

“The characters,” adds Grossman, “are emotional and deep.” He advises theater goers to “Focus on the love and tortured souls of the characters” rather than the musical’s violence and blood. Teens will take me to task for saying this, but it’ll be a few years until they fully appreciate the depth of love hidden amidst all that blood. That’s part of the challenge in giving youth such meaty roles.

Grossman’s note also alludes to the humor in this work, which features book by Hugh Wheeler in addition to music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. I’ve seen two previous productions of “Sweeney Todd” and this was the funniest by far — in a good way. My favorite part of the show has always been a song titled “Johanna.” Butcher that and it’s all over in my book. Thankfully, Sam Brouillette (Anthony Hope) does a lovely job with the melody.

Half the fun was hearing reactions of audience members who’ve apparently never seen the musical before. The cumulative effect of revenge gone wrong is shocking in the show’s final scenes, and I enjoyed hearing a good gasp or two. But I was puzzled by the use of head mics in such a small house with actors plenty good at projecting their voices.

Still, I’m hoping folks will support the Spotlight Youth Theatre production of “Sweeney Todd School Edition.” It’s a slice of life that’s hard to find elsewhere, and it took real guts to put it on their menu.

— Lynn

Note: The musical director for “Sweeney Todd School Edition” at Spotlight Youth Theatre is Mark 4Man. Costumes are by Tamara Treat. Hair and make-up is by Angel DeMichael. Please note that although a Monday matinee is listed on their website, your final chance to see the show is Sunday, May 6.

Coming up: Museum meets asylum, Jim Gradillas talks playwriting

Update: Spotlight Youth Theatre’s 2012/13 season includes “The Little Mermaid Jr.” (Oct 26 -Nov 11), “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” (Dec 12 – Dec 23), “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” (Jan 11 – Jan 27), “The Yellow Boat” (Feb 15 – Mar 3), “Once On This Island” (Apr 5 – Apr 21), “Footloose” (May 24 – Jun 6). Weigh in on their Facebook page. Post updated 5/6/12.

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Getting the scoop on “Godspell”

Cast members from Godspell on Broadway participated in Broadway Remembers in NYC's Times Square on 9/11 last year (Photo: Liz Trimble)

Our daughter Lizabeth flew home from NYC during winter break for Pace University, where she’s a B.F.A. in acting student. We spent her last night in Scottsdale at the Sugar Bowl, where I got both a scoop of ice cream surrounded by a cream puff and the scoop on “Godspell” on Broadway.

Lizabeth loves the show, her first exposure to anything resembling a gospel of any sort, and I wanted her take before seeing a junior production being performed through Sun. Jan. 29 at Spotlight Youth Theatre in Glendale. Basically it’s a giant song, dance and lovefest featuring pearls from the New Testament book of Matthew.

“Godspell,” originally conceived and directed by John-Michael Tebelak, features new lyrics (the Bible and an Episcopal hymnbook had first crack at it) and music by Stephen Schwartz — whose works from “Pippin” to “Wicked” are also high on Lizabeth’s list of favorites. The current revival of “Godspell” on Broadway opened at the Circle in the Square Theatre last October, and Lizabeth would see it over and over again were money no object.

Performance of Godspell at Spotlight Youth Theatre in Glendale

We compared “Godspell” notes via Skype after I saw the Spotlight Youth Theatre production of “Godspell,  Jr.” on Sunday — and I was quick to share my delight with both sets and costumes. Each reflects the hippie vibe associated most often with a 1973 film adaptation of the show, but the production stops short of taking all things “hip” and “groovy” too far. Bless them.

“Godspell, Jr.” works particularly well as a youth theater production because it’s less linear than most storytelling, and is easily adapted to all sorts of settings and skill levels. I loved the back-alley feel of Spotlight’s show — complete with graffiti-laden red brick wall, chain link fence and Salvation Army donation bin. Graffiti art is by Juan Evan Macias.

The script for “Godspell” leaves plenty of room for director deviations and actor ad lib, and Spotlight’s production takes full advantage of both. It’s infused with humor, but doesn’t go over the top. Most is the work of director Kenny Grossman, but he’s quick to credit the actors for improv elements that traveled from rehearsal to final production.

I was especially charmed by Samantha A. Isely’s comedic timing. Isely is “an avid performer of Spotlight” who attends Arizona Conservatory for the Arts and Academics in Peoria and sometimes seems to be channeling Carol Burnett. Ally Lansdowne and Carly Grossman delivered two of the best vocal performances, and ensemble vocals were quite beautiful.

I was thrilled to see a nice mix of new and veteran Spotlight performers in the cast. It’s always a good sign when youth theater companies routinely welcome new members into their family. Still, some loyal Spotlight fans in the audience left me feeling like a little girl peering over the fence at a really fun party. Some folks are put off by seeming self-adoration, so a bit of curbing the enthusiasm might be warranted for the high-pitched whistling types.

Performance of Godspell at Spotlight Youth Theatre in Glendale

The show’s main characters include Jesus, played by Brophy College Preparatory student EJ Dohring, who recently played Otto in the ACAA production of “Spring Awakening.” Costume designers Tamara and Leigh Treat nailed it by putting Dohring in white denim jeans and jean jacket — plus black FDNY t-shirt. I appreciate their homeage to modern day saviors of the non-celestial sort.

Also Judas, played by Arizona School for the Arts student Bransen Gates, recently seen as Ernst in ACAA’s “Spring Awakening.” Goodman shared that the great chemistry between Gates and Dohring was an important factor in casting the show. Gates shines with angst-filled scenes like the betrayal of Jesus, while Dohring excels with upbeat expressions of pure joy.

The Spotlight production of “Godspell, Jr.” features choreography by Amanda Paige. It’s fun, youthful and fresh — and succeeded in showcasing the movement talents of the entire cast. I also enjoyed the music direction by Mark 4Man. I don’t understand  the numeric name thing, but his fans are quick to laud  it.

“Godspell, Jr.” was orginally adapted and produced by Edgar Lansbury, Stuart Duncan and Joseph Beruh. Given its unqiue adaptability to the sensibilities of youth, I hope other youth theaters in the Valley will mount the work in coming years. Who doesn’t love material that leaves room for considering the mysterious ways of God — like Taylor Swift snagging the role of Eponine in an upcoming “Les Miserables” flick.

Performance of Godspell at Spotlight Youth Theatre in Glendale

Spotlight Youth Theatre previously performed “Les Miserables School Edition.” The next school adaptation on their plate is “Sweeney Todd School Edition,” which features book by Hugh Wheeler plus music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. They’ll also present “James and the Giant Peach” and “Annie, Jr.” this season.

Click here to learn more about Spotlight Youth Theatre auditions, camps, workshops and productions. Then get ready to enjoy the best pies in London.

— Lynn

Note: “Godspell, Jr.” at Spotlight Youth Theatre features hair and make-up by Angel DeMichael, properties managment by Vicki Grossman, stage management and lights by Vinny Jordan, and sound by Kenny Grossman.

Coming up: I’ve got something in common with Johnny Depp…

This post was updated with photos (by Craig Ross) and corrections on 1/18/12

Fall musical a spring awakening

The musical “Spring Awakening” is about as dark and heavy as they come – filled with traumas of teen years endured amidst harsh and repressive German culture. Think suicide, incest, child abuse and abortion. It’s based on a late 19th century work by German playwright Frank Wedekind.

It’s hardly the stuff of typical high school musicals, but that didn’t stop Adam Berger from choosing it for his school’s fall musical. Berger directed Arizona’s first high school production of “Spring Awakening” for the Arizona Conservatory for Arts and Academics, a Phoenix charter school that’s part of the Sequoia Schools group.

Berger first saw “Spring Awakening” performed on Broadway during the summer of 2007. “It was,” he says, “a theatrical experience I’ll never forget.” Berger describes the musical as “a daring work of art that puts the struggles and feelings of teenagers at its forefront in a completely honest and often explicit way.”

It features book and music by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik. The touring production has twice been performed at ASU Gammage in Tempe, which had the benefit of a much larger stage. Despite the quality of ACAA’s production, some elements simply don’t transfer with ease to a smaller setting.

Going big with certain dance movements made them feel akward on the smaller stage, and the hand-held mics that visually reinforce the individuality of each character’s voice during professional productions of “Spring Awakening” were distracting at best — due in part to overall sound challenges during Sunday afternoon’s performance.

Some might say that my own German heritage is showing here — leading, as I am, with the things in my “needs improvement” column. I wish the vocalists had nailed more of the uber-high notes. I wish the scene with two boys exploring romantic feelings for one another hadn’t elicited giggles from the audience. I wish the movement work as characters explored their bodies hadn’t been more timid for the men than for the women.

But having said all that, performing a work of this magnitude with less than three months of preparation is quite a fete. It’s hard to imagine that many schools could have done it better. The cast clearly recognizes the signifiance of even being allowed to perform such a work, and wisely thanked their school principal, during closing remarks following a standing ovation, for letting them go there.

Three groups of people — the production team, the cast of 17 and the four-piece orchestra — were instrumental in pulling it off. Berger served as director, set and costume designer, sharing lighting design duties with Eli Zuick. “Set painting/decoration” was the work of “the cast.” The orchestra included Mark 4man (conductor/piano), Jonathan Nilson (guitar), Kenny Grossman (drums) and Erin Burley (violin).

The live music, especially solo guitar and violin work, was haunting. Vocals by the full cast and ensemble, especially during the final musical number (“The Song of Purple Summer”) were rich and powerful. My favorite vocal performances featured Chica Loya (“Whispering”) and Kimberlyn Austin (“Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind”).

The cast of “Spring Awakening” included students from ACAA and other schools, including Arizona School for the Arts, Brophy College Preparatory, Desert Vista High School and Notre Dame Preparatory. Two adults with community theater credits, Brett Aiken and Terri Scullin, performed adult men and adult women roles.

Every student cast member bio boasts prior on-stage experience, working with Arizona Broadway Theatre, Broadway Palm Theatre, Desert Foothills Theatre, Greasepaint Youtheatre, Mesa Encore Theatre, Phoenix Theatre, Spotlight Youth Theatre, Theater Works and Valley Youth Theatre.

The acting performance of several students improved, as if slowly unfolding, over the course of the production. Namely Chica Loya (Wendla), Brad Cashman (Melchior) and Ian M. White (Moritz). Loya could have conveyed youthful innocence without resorting to the baby-like quality in her voice, but her performance was impressive nonetheless.

The scenes where you’d most expect high school students to stumble were some of the most beautifully executed ones. To some they’re dubbed “the switch scene” and “the swing scene.” Thankfully, “the self stimulation scene” included a blanket and a light touch of humor. The perils of puberty are central to “Spring Awakening,” and these thoughtful actors convey them well.

Plenty of people question the appropriateness of “Spring Awakening” for high school students, but a grandmother who saw Sunday’s performance told me she understands the lure of this work for youth — noting that its stories are their stories. “They have an intrinsic connection to this material,” reflects Berger, “that we adults can only look back and remember.”

— Lynn

Note: ACAA was careful to note the “mature” nature of this piece in event materials, even requiring a parent-signed permission slip for audience members under the age of 18. Nearly Naked Theatre will present “Spring Awakening” in association with Phoenix Theatre in June/July 2012 — click here for details.

Coming up: A Valley actor and college student shares his “Spring Awakening” reflections, “God of Carnage” on stage and screen, Opportunities for young playwrights