Santa Cruz County teens make Berlin breathe in Cabaret

The Kit Kat Girls
It is not easy being a director. You have to have a firm grasp of a show's concept, aesthetics, text, dramaturgy, scheduling, and a knack for working with all types of people. You have to be the consummate project manager and bring everything together in the right order and at the right time. This is a challenge, make no mistake. However, when you take this journey and put it on the shoulders of teen directors who are working with their own peers, it elevates an outsider's respect for the process. For the members of Santa Cruz Performing Arts Teen Theatre, their pride should rest in the fact that their journey is not only noteworthy because of their approach, but because the bar was not lowered when it came to the product they created.

"It has been surprising, feeling the respect from my peers", says director Lexie Farr. "It has also been great to push myself and gain abilities I never had before." Farr, a junior at Aptos High School, beamed with pride as the house began to fill for their evening performance and she assumed her position behind the sound desk. From the first notes by the onstage orchestra, it was obvious that the production was not going to play it safe.

Ryland Gordon as the Emcee
The darkness, the tension, the sex and the political turmoil were all on full display as the Emcee (Ryland Gordon) sashayed into the Kit Kat Club, tapping into the more modern Alan Cumming style of the character rather than the classically angular Joel Grey version. Gordon's voice is all at once smooth and smarmy while also violent and unpredictable; an Emcee you wouldn't want to encounter in a dark alleyway. Matching his intensity was an impressive line-up of Kit Kat Girls, including (Texas) Satarupa Thyme, Fritsy (Allysha Leonard) and Helga (Enya Murray) who embodied the spirit of shameless indulgence in this quasi-underground world.

The effect in the famous opening number "Wilkommen" is thick, with stylized choreography from Sadie Rose and costumes by Farr, Rose and Thyme. The seediness and raw reality of the setting is furthered by some clever staging, and by the straightforward character work of John Wasielewski as Clifford Bradshaw and Jessica Pierini as Fräulein Schneider. The two find an entertaining repartee in their scene work, venturing further into the characters and out of the rigid framework of the text. While there were some moments of disconnect mostly due to occasional spacing issues, the actors kept the pace tight through the many busy entrances and exits in the show. Wasielewski also paired beautifully with London Murray's Sally Bowles, both showing endearing vocal acumen in "Perfectly Marvelous". Murray brings a precocious quality to the role, opting out of the wearied and traveled portrayal that would not have worked for such a young actress. The result is a Sally Bowles that is fresh and energized which helps with the pace the long first act of the show.

Rispoli and Pierini as Schultz and Schneider
Bright spots abound in this production with many young performers getting a moment to show some very impressive skills. Alex Garrett (Ernst Ludwig) showed impressive range and triple-threat skills, bringing energy and focus to the stage in his entire performance. Travis Gorham's work as a Hitler Youth was hauntingly touching during "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" as he almost reluctantly transformed from innocent boy to tool of oppression. In the role of Herr Schultz, Kyle Rispoli found an honesty not often seen in a character so distant from the age and life experience of the actor portraying him. Often this distance can bring an unavoidable disconnect to an actor's work, but Rispoli was consistently heartfelt and pure without becoming maudlin. Also impressive was the energetic dance work and vocal power of Megan Fabry (Frenchie) who rounded out the Kit Kat Girls with great skill and presence, Halley Rhouault (Fräulein Kost) and her unapologetic brashness paired with strong vocal chops, and the strong on-stage piano work of pianist Ben Dorfin and musical director Naomi Gorham who traded off throughout the show.

There is an infectious sense of fearlessness in this production, possibly due to the high stakes of the venture. Safe choices are thrown by the wayside as the cast and creative team gambles on moments that would make more seasoned directors' hair stand on end. However, their gutsy approach often paid off with moments of unexpected power and fun. Artistic Director and choreographer Sadie Rose added that "the actors were not intimidated by [the directors] or by the process. It was very honest, democratic, and collaborative." The result is something special as these students have climbed the mountain and firmly planted the flag at the top under their own power.

It is an impressive feat, especially given the fact that their show selection is not a "gimme" in any way. For them, it was a perfect choice. A gutsy show for a gutsy group of Santa Cruz County's finest up-and-coming theatrical talents. The power of this production will resonate far beyond the run of this show and into the many schools and local theatre companies who are lucky enough to have these burgeoning professionals as a part of their ranks.

Santa Cruz Performing Arts Teen Theatre presents Cabaret
Aptos High School Theatre - 100 Mariner Way, Aptos, CA 95003
See Facebook event page for more info
Through September 15, 2012

Hillbarn Theatre's Ragtime shows off High School talent

Kyra Bowser (Left, pink scarf) and the Harlem Ensemble
While the main focus of The High School Theatre Spotlight is obvious, sometimes an opportunity presents itself to see a more professional production which showcases younger talent while they work alongside more seasoned adult performers. Last night I accompanied Susannah Greenwood (of Artsalot) to Hillbarn Theatre in Foster City to see the second night of their production of the McNally/Ahrens/Flaherty piece, Ragtime. The show and the company producing it provide a great experience for the younger actors in the cast, especially those in high school who are making the conscious choice of becoming artists and getting serious about their craft.

For many school-aged performers, there seems to be a vicious trend of getting stuck in a perpetual cycle of childrens' theatre and school productions. Each has definite merit and are invaluable to a young artists progression, but there comes a time when the next step needs to be taken and a performer needs to get out and work elsewhere. This broadens their scope, creates new connections, and makes them take risks which will push them outside the more approachable aforementioned realms of theatre. This is why it was so refreshing to see many young performers jumping into deeper waters last night.

 Jon Toussaint (center) and Will Palomares (right)
Alongside impressive local talent, including Equity actors Carmichael Blankenship (Coalhouse Walker) and Annmarie Martin (Mother), thirteen young performers (high school or younger) have accepted the challenge of performing in a truly challenging production with a high-caliber company. Among them are Kyra Cherie Bowser and Will Palomares of Woodside High School, Cairo Spencer of San Mateo High School, Katherine Green of Everest Charter High School, and Jon Toussiant of Saint Francis High School. Each of them should be applauded for taking a leap into a bigger world and testing the skills they acquired in their school programs and through childrens' theatre.Beyond the kudos for their bravery, each of them (along with even younger performers in the show) get high marks for their talent. Bowser's extensive dance experience shows in her work as a part of the Harlem Ensemble, Green's work in the same group was always engaged and very strong, and Toussaint brought fantastic energy and strong timing to the role of Little Boy.

W.C. Fields famously said, "Never work with animals or children". While the first may be true (to a certain extent), I believe that the latter should be ignored. Young performers bring energy, passion, and a delightful impetuousness to the theatre. For them, the magic is still there and there is often no restraint to their energy. While this can create challenges for directors, the final product can be even more powerful thanks to the investment of these burgeoning thespians. They in turn grow in this noble craft, becoming stronger participants in the process and more savvy about the artistic world. This is clearly evident at Hillbarn where they have capitalized on some of the great talent our schools have to offer.

Hillbarn Theatre presents Ragtime
1285 East Hillsdale Boulevard, Foster City, CA 94404
Through September 23

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