Tag Archives: MTI

I ♥ freckles!

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It’s easy to love freckles — especially the ones that grace my hubby and three children, mostly Jennifer. So I was sad to miss Friday’s opening of “Freckleface Strawberry” at Valley Youth Theatre when it looked like another one of my kiddos might need a swift trip to the doctor. Turns out all could wait until the morning — but word came too late for me to join all the freckles and fun down at VYT in Phoenix, though I suspect it was happy news for the lucky person who snagged my seat.

Kimiko Glenn, who originated the role of “Emily” in the NYC production of “Freckleface Strawberry,” was in the house for Friday night’s opening (the show’s premiere outside NYC) — and will be on hand Saturday as well, doing a free post-show Q & A for those with tickets to the 3:30pm show. She’s one of many youth who trained and performed with VYT before making it on stage/or screen — but that’s a tale I’ll tell another day.

VYT’s production of “Freckleface Strawberry” features a fine mix of new and seasoned VYT actors, whose program bios make for a fascinating read. VYT first-timer include Jessica Arnold (Mother) of Ironwood High School, Lacey Bookspan (Freckleface) of Veritas Preparatory Academy and Carly Makani Copp (Jane) of Marshall Ranch Elementary School — all boasting plenty of Valley theater credits with shows from “Les Miserables School Edition” and “Seussical, Jr.” to “Cats” and “Hairspray.”

ASA students E.J. Dohring (Danny) and Bransen Gates (Jake) also have a long string of credits. Dohring’s done “Alice in Wonderland” and “13” with VYT, “Oliver” with Broadway Palm and “Les Miserables” with Phoenix Theatre. Also “The Producers” at the famed Stagedoor Manor performing arts summer camp. “Freckleface Strawberry” is Gates’ ninth show with VYT, but he’s also done “Godspell” at Spotlight Youth Theatre, “Spring Awakening” with ACAA and “The Wiz” at Greasepaint Youtheatre (that one earned him an AriZoni Award).

Ally Lansdowne (Ballet Girl) attends Orangewood Elementary, where she’s active in chorus, drama and the National Junior Honor Society. She’s performed roles with especially fun names — like Jennyanydots in “Cats,” Toffee in “Zombie Prom” and Bird in “Pinkalicious.” Megan Mahoney (Emily) attends and directs show choir for Chaparral High School — doing piano, music and voice lessons in her spare time. She’s performed with VYT, Desert Foothills and Musical Theatre of Anthem.

Rhetta Mykeal (Teacher) is a freshman at MCC who’s done several shows with VYT, enjoys playing the piano and plans a career in acting — while Devin Sanders (Harry), a Mountain Ridge High School student with several VYT credits, looks forward to a career in orthodontics. If you see a kid with singing braces someday, they might be a Sanders masterpiece.

Naturally I’d expect his braces to feature songs from the musical “Freckleface Strawberry.” Think “Freckle Mafia Song,” “Kid in the Mask,” “Creative Mind Rap” or “Be Yourself.” All were inspired by children’s books authored by actress Julianne Moore and illustrated by LeUyen Pham. The musical was conceived for the stage by Rose Caiola.

Gary Kupper and Caiola wrote the book (parts not sung) for the musical, while Kupper wrote both music and lyrics. The VYT production of “Freckleface Strawberry” is directed by Bobb Cooper, the company’s producing artistic director. Mark Fearey is musical director and Katie Casy is choreographer.

Other team freckle members include Karol Cooper (costume designer), Sarah Trieckel (scenic designer) and D.J. Selmeyer (lighting designer). Production stage manager is Kristian Rarig and sound design is by Clearwing Productions. VYT is presenting this baby by special arrangement with Music Theatre International (MTI).

I’m disappointed about missing Friday’s show for all sorts of reasons, including the very real chance that I missed a playful producing artistic director sporting a face full of freckles. Red pigtails would have been a bit over the top. Though who could really blame him? Freckles just have that effect on people.

— Lynn

Note: Our own adorable freckleface, Jennifer, turns 21 this month and while I suspect she’s a tad too old now for a “Freckleface Strawberry” party — I’d run with the theme if she was a bit younger. So keep that in mind if your child is celebrating a birthday during the “Freckleface Strawberry” run (through April 22). Hitting a show with friends makes for fun, easy and affordable birthday fare.

Coming up: Tarzan of the desert?, Beware the barber

Update: The VYT production of “Freckleface Strawberry,” which got rave reviews while I was away in NYC, has extended its run through April 29 “due to popular demand.” Way to rock the freckles, VYT!

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Revolution in Scottsdale?

Bjorn Eriksson as Enjolras in Les Miserables School Edition at Greasepaint Youtheatre

I saw the “Les Mis” story anew last week during opening night for Greasepaint Youtheatre’s production of “Les Miserables School Edition.” It was my first time experiencing a stage adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel since the advent of “Occupy Wall Street” — a movement that’s translating the lingo of “haves” and “have nots” into numerical terms.

I felt like part of the 1% Friday night — not because the house was packed with people of great means. But because I had a ticket. This is the first Greasepaint Youtheatre show to completely sell out its run before opening night, according to producing artistic director Maureen Dias Watson. So 99% of the people hoping to see the show won’t have the opportunity. It’s a shame, because “Les Mis” at Greasepaint is big, bold and beautiful.

Much of the production’s grandeur comes from music elegantly and energetically performed by a 12-piece orchestra, and ensemble vocals approached the quality I’ve enjoyed during several touring productions of “Les Mis.” Musical direction for this production is the work of Reynaldo Saenz.

Rebecca Woodbury, who studies vocal performance at ASU in Tempe, makes her Greasepaint Youtheatre debut as Cosette in this production. It’s easy to imagine Woodbury singing this and other roles on a much larger scale, so I hope her sights are set on auditioning soon for national touring productions of various musical theater works.

Tanner Van Parys as Javert in Les Miserables School Edition at Greasepaint Youtheatre

Greasepaint Youtheatre assembled a first-rate creative team for this production, which is directed by Sara Bernstein and features choreography by Molly Lajoie. “Les Miserables” is only as believable as its barricade, and set designer David Weiss nails it. Brick walls and various vignettes for other scenes round out his work — which gives an authentic feel to each setting, from tavern to courtyard.

Still, I found myself wishing for a somewhat grittier vibe. Both sets and costumes could have used an extra layer of grime, since it’s hard to imagine prisoners working with pristine feet and peasants sporting nearly spotless clothing. Nonetheless, costume design by Jean Aiken, which features great attention to detail, is lovely. Every element of the show transports viewers to mid-19th century France.

Lighting design by Dori Brown and sound design by Pete Bish are best appreciated during the barricade scene and sewer scene that follows. Both battle and sewer sounds feel eerily real. Sound equipment for the production was provided by Nearly Naked Theatre of Phoenix.

Other community organizations assisted with the production as well. Scottsdale Neighborhood Arts Place provided researsal space. Southwest Shakespeare Company of Mesa and Tesseract School of Phoenix helped with costuming, and Great Scott Productions provided props. The loveliest of the latter was a pair of silver candlesticks that shone for a time on a lone table sitting center stage.

Boston Scott as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables School Edition at Greasepaint Youtheatre

Boston Scott exhibits a rare blend of acting and vocal performance skills. Despite struggling with a few of the high notes, Scott brings real depth to Jean Valjean. A great Gavroche is a must and Casey Likes, another newcomer to Greasepaint, delivers smile and spunk with playful precision.

Other cast members include Jessica Arnold (Fantine), Cheyanne Ballou (Little Cosette), Ryan Beamon (Thenardier), Bjorn Eriksson (Enjolras), Luke Powell (Marius), Tasha Spear (Eponine), Tanner Van Parys (Javert), Johnna Watson (Young Eponine). The stellar cast of 39 makes it easy to forget at times that you’re watching young non-professional performers.

The power of “Les Miserables” stems from Hugo’s insight translated into strong storytelling. Program notes evidence Dias Watson’s grasp of Hugo’s inspiration and intent, and the show reflects direction well-grounded in the plight of poor living in despair amidst the decadence of the rich.

Tasha Spear, Boston Scott, Jessica Arnold, Luke Powell and Rebecca Woodbury in Les Miserables School Edition at Greasepaint Youtheatre

“The best theatre impacts both individuals and societies,” writes Dias Watson, “enabling them to see those who may have been invisible to them before.” The Greasepaint Youtheatre production of “Les Miserables School Edition” makes clear that the 99% have always been with us, and that revolution never ends.

— Lynn

Note: Greasepaint Youtheatre has added an additional performance Sun, Jan. 29 at 7pm. Click here for details.

Coming up: More French revolution tales

Photos: Barry Smith

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