Multi-Cultural "Once On This Island" at Mission San Jose



By Pamela Rosen

Mission San Jose High School in Fremont is one of the top schools in the country for its academics, and it’s a national contender in science and math competitions.  The kids at Mission are so busy, putting on a musical there hasn’t been a priority. The last time Mission tried, they didn’t have enough interest to even fill out the cast.  Enter Tanya Roundy, the new drama teacher at Mission, and the spring production of Once on this Island.

Daniel Zopfi as Daniel and MC Mendonca as TiMoune in
Mission San Jose High School's Once on This Island
With Once on this Island, the 1991 Lynne Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty musical about a peasant girl’s faith in love on a tropical island, Roundy was able to pull together a large cast, many of whom are experiencing theatre for the first time. The show is a good choice for Mission’s re-entry into the world of high school theatre. Roundy employed 10 student choreographers, who brought their friends into the show, and also rounded out the cast and crew with all of own six children. She also brought in six little girls under the age of 10 to expand the cast to full capacity.

Originally written and cast along racial lines, the show can be tweaked to downplay the racial elements and focus on multicultural themes.  Because a large majority of the cast comes from Asian or Indian backgrounds, the production at Mission became an “Indian/Asian fusion,” according to Roundy, to celebrate and reflect the culture of the school. The result is a rich pageant of colors, textures, and sounds unlike anything one would expect from traditional high school theatre.

The story of Once on this Island can be confusing at times.  It has elements of the original Little Mermaid story, Romeo and Juliet, and pieces of Greek mythology blended together in a modern tropical setting.  Through a series of storytellers, we come to know a peasant couple who rescue a small orphaned girl, TiMoune, from a tree, where a storm had washed her.  We also meet four gods--Erzulie, the goddess of Love, Asaka, the goddess of Water, Agwe, the god of Earth (played by the director’s son, freshman Josh Roundy), and Papa Ge, the demon of Death, played by James Gao. They quarrel with each other and control the fates of the peasants.  Also on the island are the rich French landowners, who control the tourism on the island.

The gods create a storm, which causes a terrible automobile crash, and throws an injured, unconscious young Frenchman directly into the arms of a now-grown TiMoune. TiMoune feels that saving the life of this young man is the reason the gods allowed her to be saved as a child, and, in nursing him to health, falls in love with him.  When Papa Ge comes to take the young man, TiMoune makes a deal to trade her own life for his.

Here’s where the story starts to get tricky.  For some reason, Pap Ge allows both TiMoune and the young man, Daniel Beauxhomme (played by Daniel Zopfi), to live, but Daniel’s wealthy father Armand (played very regally by Sumedh Bhattacharya) finds the boy and takes him back to the palatial hotel they own.  TiMoune decides, with the help of Erzulie, to travel to the other side of the island to charm her way past the gates of the hotel and back to her Daniel, where she reveals herself to him as his savior.  Daniel has no memory of her, but falls for her charms anyway.  At a party at the hotel, TiMoune beguiles the guests with her dancing. She quickly meets Andrea Deveraux, (played by Lynnea Shuck, who shares the role with Ahsas Sood), and learns that she is the fiancĂ©e Daniel has failed to mention.  Papa Ge returns and offers TiMoune her life back if she will kill Daniel, and TiMoune is left with a terrible choice.

The cast is strongest and most confident as an ensemble, though a few featured performers stand out.  Leena Yin as Mama Euralie, Ti Moune’s mother, has a strong presence and a commanding voice, and her performance is lovely. She shares the role with Lucy Shen.  James Gao as Papa Ge, Shivani Ariathurai as Asaka, and Soukhya Inamdar as Erzulie each deliver memorable performances with solid singing voices.  Pretty MC Mendonca, who shares the role of TiMoune with Gelsey Plaza, is lithe and charming. The small orchestra is spot-on, with never a sour note.

It’s a good first effort for a school that hasn’t had a theatre department for a while. Seeing the arts coming back to the schools always gladdens the heart, and with this colorful, sparkly production, Roundy can reach other students, pique interests, and start to rebuild Mission San Jose’s arts program.

Once on This Island continues this weekend, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:00 p.m.  at Mission San Jose High School,  41717 Palm Avenue, Fremont, CA Tickets are available at: http://www.showtix4u.com/index_classic.php?search=ca

Irvington rocks into Springtime with tech-savvy Birdie



By PR Levey

“Bye Bye Birdie” is practically a rite of passage in the world of high school musicals. It’s hard to believe, but there are people in their 70's now who were in their high school productions of “Birdie,” and today, teens all over the world are still putting on their poodle skirts or slicking back their hair to take the trip to Sweet Apple, Ohio.  Now it’s Irvington Conservatory Theatre’s turn to bring this beloved, iconic musical to the stage, performing at Valhalla Theatre in Fremont, March 7-23.

This smartly-designed production is both an homage to, and a comment on the mythical idyllic life of teens in small town America in the 1950s. Blending distinctly 21st-century technology, like robotic lighting and big-screen video, with the familiar ‘50s look gives the production a fresh, modern feel. The open sets are modular, multi-level, and a sleek silver, with delightful vintage furniture and props popping in and out to create a typical 50s kitchen,  a small-town Tiki bar, or a perfect “Mad Men” New York office. Irvington’s production is sophisticated and cheeky.  Video clips, which intermingle historic footage with additional material from the cast, occasionally throw jarring images at us to remind us that the nostalgic 1950s were, in retrospect, a pretty scary time.

Nothing is scary in Sweet Apple, though, and the beloved story of fifteen year old Kim MacAfee (winsome and perfectly-cast senior Katie Kelly, most recently seen at Irvington in The Diviners), who just got “pinned” to the wonderfully dorky Hugo Peabody (freshman Tim Sanders, who audiences may remember as Huck Finn in StarStruck Theatre’s Tom Sawyer last year) learning that she’s just been chosen at random to be kissed on national television by teen heartthrob Conrad Birdie.  Conrad’s been drafted into the army, and his songwriter, Albert Peterson, at the insistence of his longtime, long-suffering secretary/girlfriend Rosie Alvarez, has written a farewell song for Conrad. The song is intended to be the ticket out of show business and into normal married life for Rosie and Albert.  However, nothing goes as planned: Hugo’s jealous, Rosie is frustrated with Albert’s undying devotion to his overbearing mother, and Conrad and Kim long for a fling before settling down.

Robert Ritchie is engaging as Albert Peterson, a pleasant-voiced dreamer who’s painfully henpecked by two women—he’s a man with a good heart and no spine to hold it up. As Rosie, Jennica  Christman is an inspired choice. She represents everything that women were fighting for at the time – and to this day --  in a single character. She’s a scorned woman, a career woman, an ethnic minority, and a single woman in a man’s world, and she deals with every one of these issues in the space of two hours. Without a hint of the abrasiveness or desperation seen in other Rosies, Jennica Christman shines, even through material which modern audiences may find politically incorrect.

Director Scott Di Lorenzo found a dream of a Conrad Birdie in Gabriel Block. Block does not list a great deal of theatre experience in his bio, but you’d never know it from his performance. His presence is electrifying, and his smile works its magic all the way to the back row. His intensity will cause some sweaty palms in the audience.

Other standouts include Savannah Riddle as Ursula, the over-the-top fangirl friend of Kim’s, Kaeo Tiwanek-Finkes, who plays Mr. MacAfee without trying to do a Paul Lynde impression and still makes him funny,  14-year-old Molly O’Donnell, who doesn’t look a day over 28, camping her way through the role of Gloria Rasputin, and Lauren D’Ambrosio as Mrs. Mae Peterson, Albert’s mother, who brings down the house in the second act with her number (which was added to the show for the Broadway revival a few years ago) “A Mother Doesn’t Matter Anymore.”

Irvington’s production boasts a strong ensemble, and they have an unusual plethora of talented boys to round out the cast. The girls hold their own, too, with lovely harmonies one moment and wild screams the next.  Director Di Lorenzo has wisely kept the screaming to the bare minimum.

The young directing team of Di Lorenzo, and husband and wife team of Jennifer and Chris Olson as vocal director and choreographer, respectively, have a lot to be proud of. They’ve breathed some freshness into a chestnut of a show that could easily become a parody of itself.  Along with musical director Charlie Rodda and his enormous, 30+ piece onstage orchestra (an innovative feat in itself) it’s possible to get excited about “Bye Bye Birdie” again. 

Bye Bye Birdie performs at Irvington High School’s Valhalla Theatre March 14, 15, 16, 17, 21, 22, and 23. Thursday-Saturday curtain is at 7:30 p.m., Sunday matinees at 2:00. Ticket prices range from $12-$20; all seats on Thursday evenings are $10. For more information, see www.irvingtondrama.com.

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