Pioneer meets the challenge of Sondheim's West Side Story

Maria (Michelle Edwards) and Tony (Dustin Hanna)
After nearly sixty years of working on Broadway, the creations of composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim have become so highly regarded for their intricacy and high degree of difficulty that people attempting to tackle them are either looked upon as directorially brave or artistically masochistic. This is especially true of his most notable work, West Side Story. Since its debut in 1957, it has become a unicorn for high school musical theatre programs who dare attempt to tame its unrelenting challenge. The brave students and staff of Pioneer High School have faced it head on, and have created a production which is pleasing to the ear and engaging to the heart both in the context of the story itself and in the dedication and passion of their very large company.

The ever-ebullient Steve Dini welcomed me and PHS alumnae Melanie Beck to the PAC last night and regaled me with the history behind this challenging production. "After 42nd Street, we only took about a month off and then jumped into production meetings for this show. We also [in similar fashion to the dance intensives before last year's show] held vocal sessions to prepare the students for this very difficult score." Their preparation paid off by creating a strong sound across the cast, as well as some stand-out leads and soloists.

Riff (Brandon Cruz) and the Jets
From the first notes of the show, the audience was treated to the relentless energy of Riff (Brandon Cruz), who deftly maneuvered through the acrobatic rhythms of "Jet Song" with confidence and style. The rest of the Jets were also highly enjoyable, helped by a dose of simple yet stylized choreography by Susan Dini. The vocal bar gets set even higher with the introduction of Tony (Dustin Hanna), who took a more understated approach to the young lover while showing impressive upper range and falsetto control during "Something's Coming".

In the role of Maria, Michelle Edwards brought an endearing simplicity and approachable honesty to a role that can often become maudlin and disconnected. Her work was bolstered by her impressive vocal skill, opening up easily into higher territory for her solo work and even higher for chord-dressing in large numbers with the entire company.

While the book relies on its Romeo and Juliet inspired lovers, this production also sources its energy from several supporting roles which quickly became audience favorites during the performance. Anita (Erica QuiƱonez) was a delight with her quick-wit and strong physicality, playing very well against a sassy Rosalia (Lauren Germaine) during the classic, "America". Also enjoyable was the hot-headed Action (Nick Vincent), the manipulative and easy-to-hate Bernardo (Cedric Wolk), and the almost midwestern-humored School Teacher (Deets Marchello).

The Jet's Girls
What was truly striking in this production was the use of so many performers on the stage. Different "dance corps" were utilized for select groups (Jet Girls, Shark Girls, "America" Dancers, Jet Chorus, Shark Chorus) to offer many opportunities while attempting to keep the stage unclogged for large scenes. While the effect did cause some occasional crowding and subsequently understated choreography, it was wonderful to see so many students involved so heavily in their school's production.

A review of this show cannot possibly be complete without mentioning the incredible work of the nearly all-student orchestra under the direction of Christopher McCoy. The score for this show is hard enough for the on-stage performers without giving them strong musical backing, so it is even more impressive that the pit was so tight through the many dynamic, time signature and key changes. Special kudos go to Natalie Kanga and Natalie Tom for their crisp and strong trumpet work, the percussionists (both kit and pit) for their strong musicianship, as well as the whole orchestra for tackling the score with accurate instrumentation (eight strings, ten woodwinds, four brass, six piece rhythm section) instead of using unnatural sounding synthesizers.

Watching a show like this is much like watching a tight-rope walker on a high-wire. We all desperately hope for the catharsis of seeing the walker make it safely across, but the experience is definitely heightened by the degree of difficulty of the act itself. It would be an entirely different performance if the wire were only a foot off of the ground. So, to see a public non-magnet high school attempt arguably one of the most difficult musicals of all time and to do it so capably is a testament to the skill, passion, and dedication of everyone involved. They have captured their unicorn, and you cannot help but wonder what they will undertake next year.

Pioneer High School - West Side Story
1290 Blossom Hill Road, San Jose, CA 95118
Through March 31
Tickets are available at or at the door.

Behind The Scenes - Valley Christian's Titanic The Musical

Valley Christian High School - Titanic
Through March 31, 2012
100 Skyway Drive, San Jose, CA 95111

Cupertino's The Wiz gets the documentary treatment

This morning, I had the chance to speak to Arcadia Conrad who heads up the Cupertino High School theatre department and company known as Cupertino Actors Theatre. In catching up about their production of The Wiz, which opens this weekend, she shared with me trials of getting this show up on its feet, the maturation of her young actors, and the semi-operatic style of the show which has challenged her cast.

Chronicling the growth of a show on a blog or through a Facebook page is nothing new, but filmmaker Charles Haid has partnered with Conrad and John Logsdon of Blind Vision Films to take the idea a very large step further, creating a film which goes beyond 200 word production updates and gets into the people, the art, creation, expression, and the faces of arts education in our schools.

Click here to see the film's website and the trailer.

Cupertino High School presents The Wiz
10100 Finch Avenue, Cupertino, CA 95104
March 30 - April 7, 2012 
Facebook event page

Branson serves up Anything Goes to hungry audiences

There are some shows that are just pure fun. They are inescapable, irresistible, and intoxicating, and when you are in the audience for one of them, you walk out feeling...

...really ...really good.

Moonface (Chas Conacher) and Reno (Julia Smith)
These kinds of shows are like the comfort food of theatre. They wrap you up with a big warm hug and make everything seem brighter through your eyes as if you are looking through an amber lens. On a dark, cold, wet Bay Area night, a show like this can change your perspective on all that surrounds you and warm up the very blood in your veins. Last night, I had the treat of taking a notably longer trek than usual all the way up to Ross in Marin County to get a heaping plate of theatrical comfort food, served hot by the talented people of The Branson School.

Calling upon Cole Porter's classic Anything Goes, the cast and company of this production found a fun, infectious, and charming energy which saturated an already rain-soaked closing-night audience. Immediately in the overture, the audience buzzed with excitement as an incredibly tight orchestra under the direction of Tony Angelo (as well as under the deck of the on-stage ship) set the tone with acrobatic reeds, colorful brass and a solid rhythm section.

Billy (Epstein-Shafir) and Hope (Kudler)
The first act suffered from slow pacing at first, but began to get into a comfortable gear thanks to the work of Julia Smith as Reno Sweeny and Max Epstein-Shafir as Billy Crocker who warmed up into the stylized and rhythmic comedy of the book. Epstein-Shafir's vocal work was impressive, as was his boyish-take on Billy's love-lorn journey onto the ship. Smith went beyond impressive and showed off a set of pipes that made the audience go "gaga" over her, giving Sutton Foster a real run for her money (absolutely no hyperbole intended). In fact, it was the vocal acumen of the entire cast that seduced the audience in the first act, especially in the show's title number.

Sasha Kudler took a more legit approach to her vocal work as the betrothed young-socialite, Hope Harcourt, and married a beautiful vocal performance to some honest and natural moments of want, need, longing and love. She also showed the bubbly enthusiasm of a smitten young lover with Epstein-Shafir during "It's De-lovely", creating a charming package that had the audience talking during intermission.

The comedic power of the show was not in short supply, thanks to the work of Chas Conacher as a elastic and highly-kinetic Moonface Martin, and Katie Colley as a coy and sexually-manipulative Erma. The duo worked so well together, driving the pace of many scenes and making the book come alive. Conacher was particularly adept at making smaller moments memorable with his Commedia Del Arte flavored physicality and fantastic timing. Not to be outdone, Colley should win an award for having too much fun on the stage, taking the role to new heights with her energy and vocal chops.

Erma (Katie Colley) and the sailor quartet
Also highly notable was the incredible work of Cooper Harrington-Fei as Lord Evelyn Oakleigh ("Gypsy In Me" had the audience roaring), Charlotte Guerry in a hilarious female version of the Purser along with Aristo Ambatzidis as the Captain, a wonderful sailor quartet (Sam Baughman, Mike Ryan, Victor Liu and Lucas Mani), and some incredible dance work and hilarious acting moments from Emily Libresco as Virtue along with the rest of the choreographically impressive Angels.

Additional kudos are due to the beautiful costume work of Judy Rheingold, who with the help of the American Conservatory Theatre costume shop created a beautiful costume plot which really helped further the characters and helped tell their story.

The production came together so well that is a real shame that they only ran one weekend. Theatrical productions mature and find themselves after the first weekend, creating even tighter timing, higher character stakes, better sense of space and bigger energy as the cast becomes more comfortable in the natural flow of performance after such a long time in rehearsal where they are focusing on the execution of individual moments. I personally feel that if this cast was allowed to go a second week, the pacing would have tightened so much so that the first act would have been five minutes faster. I understand that sometimes budgets and schedules can't allow it, but this show would have really grown with another weekend of audiences.

As it was, I still got my theatrical comfort food. The songs are firmly stuck in my head, and I am feeling the warm glow of a filling, satisfying, and fun production even the morning after. Well worth the 150 miles of driving through four counties to get that feeling. I am intensely interested to see where these talented performers go after Branson, and to see what the school mounts next year. If it is anything like this, I don't think I will be able to resist making the trek again.

Thank you to Twitter subscriber and FB follower Carole Parker for asking me to come out to see the production! Be sure to visit our Facebook page and to see more photos! Like us while you are there!

Social Networking: Drama where it doesn't belong

Compared to fifteen years ago, it is easier than ever to get in touch with someone and share your thoughts with the push of a button. In 1997, AOL introduced Instant Messenger, which altered the terrain of communication by making it possible to completely misunderstand a person's words and become offended... online! People were able to shed the awkwardness of being face to face with someone and became irreversibly brave about what they said, and who they said it about. All of this, despite the fact that what they typed was still arguably public. Since then, we have gone through the trendiness of Friendster, the horror of MySpace, and now the addiction of Facebook and habitual use of Twitter. Are these things inherently evil?

That is up for you to decide.

But, whether or not you feel that social networking is useful, useless, engaging, engrossing, or an utter waste of time, it is a fact that 73% of teens who use the internet often are using social networking sites. Unfortunately, it is also a fact (albeit an unquantifiable one, for now), that many of these "wired" teens are flat out abusing them. And yes, this does spill over directly into the world of theatre.

From Stage to Webpage
I cannot go more than 72 hours without a new event invite on Facebook to a local production, whether it is on my personal page or on this site's page. That is great! It keeps me up on what is going on, and when I can go see the show, I do. I read the walls (or ahem, "timelines") of the companies if they have their own FB page, and I do the same for the actors if I know them. I truly enjoy seeing the 2:00am posts of a group that is obviously in tech, slaving away and getting us excited about the inner-workings of their show. It is incredible how many of my own connections are from the world of theatre. Just by virtue of how many people we meet in this business with each show we are involved in, your connections can stretch to the tens of thousands in a heartbeat. That means that all of those people are connected back to what I post. Much of the traffic for this very site comes from what I post on Facebook, which is great. But, I also see a dark side...

I also can't have 72 hours pass without seeing something like this from a former student, or hearing about it from a fellow theatrical professional. Facebook has become a great place to share your life and connect with people in ways we never would have imagined. But those connections, paired with the sense of distance and bravery of being behind a keyboard in your own home (instead of being face to face) have made for some very awkward, hurtful, cruel, and (quite frankly) stupid situations. If you wouldn't say it to a person's face with your parents present, don't put it on Facebook or Twitter. What you post cannot ever truly be deleted. It lasts in retweets, shares, emails, texts, and word of mouth. See also: cyber-bullying.
Who am I anyways?
This goes beyond the simple digital-bickering we all see, and gets into the world seeing a side of you that you didn't intend for it to see. It doesn't matter how you set up your Facebook profile, that "friends only" post can get out there somehow. So, that photo of you playing a backstage prank or that video at the pizza parlor after opening night where you were caught swearing like a sailor can and WILL get out there. So remember:

1) Don't do dumb things in front of a camera.
2) If you happen to catch someone doing something dumb on your camera, think twice before posting it.

Question: Is this worth it?
God, I hope I get it.
Little do many teenagers know that very important people are watching. Forget mom and dad (important though they may be), and think of the 24% of college admissions boards at 359 selective colleges in the United States that use Facebook to get information about applicants. Also, think of the hiring managers, internship directors, and of course casting directors who are watching. And yes, we really are watching.

With all of this being said, these sites are great tools for networking, expressing and sharing a part of yourself that you couldn't do before. They are fantastic, addictive, and fun to use. Just, be smart about it. Stay in the light and use them well, or else you may find yourself helping to form a harmful cyber-caricature of an innocent person, or being judged as an unsavory digital version of the person you really are.

When in doubt, don't press "send".

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