Inspired Madness

Alice in Wonderland (Nobel MS)userpic=nobelWe’ve always said the Drama Department at Nobel Middle School (FB) is mad. This proves it. But mad really isn’t the right word. Perhaps, “inspired”. Let me start at the beginning.

As you know, I attend a lot of theatre. It runs the full range of experience and size, from shows in 20 seat theatres to shows in 4,000 seat theatres; from middle-school productions to community theatre to fully-professional “Broadway” experiences. I’ve learned that there is no correlation of “good” to any of these: you can have good theatre in middle-school venues, and you can have crap on the stage in Broadway-level venues. When you find a venue that does consistently good work, you keep coming back. The Drama Department at Nobel Middle School is such a venue. We got involved when our daughter was in 7th grade at Nobel and they were restarting the drama program (she’s in her 3rd year at Berkeley now, which makes it 9 years ago). Back then, the NMS program was on a shoestring with no administration support. But they were creative, the kids had fun, and with “An Evening With Shel Silverstein”… they were off. It is now 9 years later. This program has grown — solely on donations and ticket sales — to having a full sound board, microphones, and theatrical lighting. There are greater costumes and technical effects. They still (of course) have the enthusiasm of the kids. Most importantly, however, they have the leadership and the strong devotion to quality… and this comes across in their productions. They also reach out to the community for attendance. [Contrast this with Van Nuys HS, where our daughter went and where she was involved with their performing arts magnet. We haven’t been to a show since she graduated, and they haven’t reached out once.]

Now, this is a middle school. If you think back your days in Junior High (for that is what middle schools were for many), the school productions were… ehhh. That’s not the case here. But this also isn’t theatre fully at the intimate theatre scale or larger. After all, these are students and their interest and experience cover a wide range. I’d venture that most of the cast does not intend to take the theatre up as a career — they are just having fun on the stage and learning how to be comfortable in front of groups and the discipline required to perform (both of which are vital skills whatever their career). Others have strong talent — and are showcased in the lead positions. All, however have enthusiasm — and in many cases, that can make up for the inexperience.

One more thing on Nobel before I turn to the show itself. Most of us, when we left middle school/junior high, didn’t look back. This program is inspiring both parents and students to hang around and keep coming back. Many of the key artistic “off-stage” roles are done by either returning alumni students or parents of alumni. Examples in this case include the assistant director, choreographers, music director, set designer, costumers, and production assistants. That says a lot.

As I implied by the title of this post, this version of “Alice In Wonderland” is inspired madness. When I got the show program, I looked (in vain) for a writing credit or music credits. There are none. Based on the songs and some of the story aspects, the starting point was clearly the Disney Alice in Wonderland Jr. script (Wikipedia says of that version, “The stage version is solely meant for middle and high school productions and includes the majority of the film’s songs and others including Song of the South’s “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”, two new reprises of “I’m Late!”, and three new numbers entitled “Ocean of Tears”, “Simon Says”, and “Who Are You?” respectively.”) The stock MTI version, however, was (a) too short, and (b) didn’t involve enough kids. At that point the creativity came out. Some scenes were seemingly changed to involve more kids or be achievable on the Nobel stage. Songs and dances were interpolated from other Disney movies and edited into the story (such as “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat”). Other wild ideas where also interpolated — such as turning the end of Alice’s tears into an excerpt from the movie Titanic (and thus replacing “Ocean of Tears” with “My Heart Will Go On”) or adapting the Mad Hatter into a version of Frank N Furter, and the Mad Hatter’s party into a scene from Rocky Horror, leading into the Time Warp. There are numerous call-outs to past Nobel shows, and you have to be quick to catch them all. The adaptation is crazy and fun, and it will be unlike any other Alice you have seen.

Normally, I get annoyed when a script is tinkered with — especially if the book is treasured. I remember the first time that Nobel did “Wizard of Oz”, and not being that happy with some of the changes (when it resurfaced as “Not Yo Mama’s Wizard of Oz”, it was a bit better). But the tinkering on Alice worked for me. Perhaps it is because I have absolutely no memories of the animated Alice in Wonderland (and I haven’t read the books in a while). Perhaps because Alice is traditionally a mish-mash of scenes from the two Alice books anyway. Perhaps because Alice is supposed to be controlled craziness anyway. This version works, and works well. Still, I wish credit had been provide to the book’s original authors, the book tinkerers, and the composer/lyricist for each song.

Story is theory. Performance is execution. I should n0te that the performance we saw was officially the “Alumni Performance” — and in particular, it was a technically a “Final Tech Dress Rehearsal”. There were a number of technical and minor performance problems that were provided as notes to the cast via a talk-back at the end of the show or in later notes. For the sake of this discussion, we’re assuming that all of those problems will be fixed by Thursday’s opening. The one uncorrectable problem is the abrupt ending of Act I; this is likely because the one-act story was extended, and this made the chop for an intermission awkward whereever they put it.

As this is a large cast, I’m not going to talk about all the performers; rather, I’m going to highlight some performances and scenes that stood out. Partially, this is because with such a large cast finding something to say about each individual can be difficult; additionally, with such a wide range of performance experience and talent, not every performance stood out (this is especially true in the larger ensembles). So here’s what’s noteworthy:

  • From the opening scene, it is clear that the vocal quality of the “normal sized” Alice (Amanda Magaña) and her sister, Mathilda (Rebecca Radvinsky) is some of the best ever to grace the Nobel stage. These two young ladies had wonderful voices that were amplified clearly. You’ll enjoy their numbers
  • Another performer with both good voice and exemplary movement was the White Rabbit (Max Chester). In some ways, I enjoyed his movement more — in particular, his flip off the stage to land smoothly on the ground in front of the stage. An ambitious move for a middle school student, and well executed.
  • The “Titantic” scene was wonderful, both in the performance in the front and in the back, and in the vocal quality of the Dodo Bird (Shane Smith).
  • The dance and singing of the Caterpiller during Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah was great, especially from the Caterpiller’s head (Dani Johns). The remainder of the Caterpiller moved well (Hannah Protiva, Brooke Kier, Rachel Khoury, Taylor Carlson).
  • The adaptation of the Mad Hatter into Frank N Furter, and the guests into various Rocky Horror characters (Riff Raff, Magenta, Columbia) was inspired, although I wonder how well middle-school kids got the joke (especially the line about Steve Reeves). A special “well done” to the Mad Hatter (Justin Tuell) for his Frank and his vocal execution of the songs at the top of Act II.
  • I enjoyed the visual effects in “Every’body Wants to Be a Cat”.
  • Once I realized how they were treating the Cheshire Cat, I thought the interpretation was quite clever. The cat worked well as a narrator to move the story along.
  • The Queen of Hearts (Kamryn Siler) had the right sense of anger to her, and she did well on her songs.
  • Tall Alice was portrayed by a boy in costume; Brandon Moser deserves credit for taking the role and running with it (especially considering this is middle school).
  • There were a number of flowers in tights (who aren’t explicitly credited in the program) who were wonderful in their dances.

The performance cast consisted of: Alice (Amanda Magaña); Small Alice (Amanda Pipolo); Tall Alice (Brandon Moser); Cheshire Cat (Alana Dupre, Inaya Durfield, Jesse Pacheco); White Rabbit (Max Chester); Mad Hatter (Justin Tuell); Queen of Hearts (Kamryn Siler); King of Hearts (Robert Cerda); Tweedle Dee (Sam Katz); Tweedle Dum (Akshat Bansal); March Hare (Nick Aguilar); Dodo Bird (Shane Smith); Doorknow (Troy Richman); Mathilda (Rebecca Radvinsky); Caterpiller Head (Dani Johns); Caterpillar (Hannah Protiva, Brooke Kier, Rachel Khoury, Taylor Carlson); Golden Girls in Bloom (Charlotte Doolittle, Mandi Macias, Rena Rodriguez, Willow Islas, Jordyn Lowe); Jaberwocky Voices (Abigail Beck, Ellie Zahedi, Marena Wisa Wasef, Talia Ballew); Jaberwocky Silhouettes and Stray Cats (Dani Johns, Hannah Protiva, Brooke Kier, Rachel Khoury, Taylor Carlson); Rock Lobsters (Ariana De León, Julia Denny, Kevin Foster, Colby Haney, Kennaya Ndu, Elizabeth Ramos, Robert Cerda, Joann Gilliam, Jacob Lipman); Riff Raff (Anthony Tedesco); Magenta (Joann Gilliam); Columbia (Abigail Beck); Unbirthday Partiers (Ellie Zahedi, Talia Ballew, Jake Dalton, Spencer Goldman, Kyle Kaplan, Arno Nizamian, Colby Haney, Ellie Zahedi, Elizabeth Ramos, Jake Dalton, Joann Gilliam, Julia Denny, Kennaya Ndu, Kevin Foster, Kyle Kaplan, Marena Wisa Wasef, Spencer Goldman, Talia Bellow); Joker (Jacob Lipman); Guitarists (Jordan Russo, Zareh Shahinian).

The production was directed by Fanny Araña and Carolyn Doherty♦, assisted by Ryan Wynott♣. Remember, we’re dealing with middle school students — 7th and 8th graders — here. The directors did a great job of teaching these kids to act on a stage. Choreography was by Carolyn Doherty♦ and MRM (Madison Tilner♣, Ryan Wynott♣, Michael Lertzman♣). The movement and dance deserves some highlighting — much of it was quite good, and was well exectued by the students. Daniel Bellusci♣ was the music director; the pre-recorded music integrated well. House managers were David Manalo and Isabelle Saligumba; Stage managers were Tam Le and Hunter Hewitt.
[♦ … alumni parent; ♣ … alumni; ♥ … current parent; ♠ … other non-student; = teacher/alumni parent]

This production was a bit more technical than most, utilizing a few projections, strobes, and black lights. Technical direction was by Fanny Araña and the lighting design was by Artur Cybulski. No credit is provided specifically for sound design, but the sound crew lead was Stephen Rabin. I remember the days when the best amplification was a stand-up microphone on the stage, so we’ve come orders-of-magnitude far in sound. The final tech rehearsal had some great sound, but there are also some areas still needing correction by opening. That is to be expected, especially when working with people not used to microphones. The set design was by Ben Tiber♣, in consultation with Dennis Kull♠. The set was extremely creative, using odd angles and such to create the sense of “off”-ness. Costumes were by Larissa Kastansev♦, Sally Protiva♥, Megan Zahedi♥, Thea Carlson♥, and Debbie Sornborger♠ and were creative and worked well. Poster/program design by Sake Nizamian♥ and Kathy Tedesco♥. There are numerous other staff and crew credits that I’ll leave to the program.

Performances of Alice In Wonderland are Thursday 5/7, Friday 5/8, and Saturday 5/9 at 6:30PM, and Saturday 5/9 at 2:00 PM. Tickets are $5. The show is appropriate for all ages. Nobel Middle School is located at Tampa and Lassen in Northridge; the official address is 9950 Tampa Ave, Northridge, CA 91324. Enter off of Merridy.

One additional note that I included in my last Nobel writeup, and that I’ll include again: Thank you to the Nobel Administration. When this program started, the Nobel administration was at best neutral towards it. This attitude has changed as the program has proved itself. The Tuesday Alumni Night was an experiment that should be continued… for a number of reasons. First, it cements a love of students for their middle school. This is no little thing — our society encourages high school support, but middle school alumni are forgotten (take that, Paul Revere JHS — Pali contacts me, but you… never). Second, it provides the emotional sustenance for those that bring this program to life. Third, it bonds student to student. Fourth, and most importantly — from an administration point of view — it provides the school (which is now a charter school) with an alumni base to provide financial support. Think about the fact that the first cohort of students from this program are just about to graduate with their Bachelors Degrees (my daughter, who was a 7th grader the first year, is a junior). If they love this program, they love the school, and will be there to respond to fundraising appeals. This is no little thing at the middle school level, in a cash-strapped district that cannot afford the extras for the students.

I Support 99 Seat Theatre in Los AngelesOne of the arguments from AEA is that actors in a show that charges for tickets and has a budget must be paid. Alice in Wonderland is a clear example of the fallacy of that argument. People pay for tickets for this show. However, the only person who is paid is the producer, and she’s paid as being the teacher of the class, not the producer. Yet these are actors in a show with tickets — under the law, what is the difference between actors here, and AEA actors in a 99 seat theatre, or even non-AEA actors in a 99 seat theatre? None. But they are underage you cry. Children appear on stage all the time (look at Matilda, coming soon to the Ahmanson), and they are paid for it. AEA’s cry of “Labor Laws” is yet again proven false. Let’s work together to fight this “divide and conquer” approach, and develop an approach that works for all stakeholders.

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: This weekend brings “Words By Ira Gershwin – A Musical Play” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on May 9.  I’ve heard good things about the show. The weekend of May 16 brings “Dinner with Friends” at REP East (FB), and may also bring “Violet: The Musical” at the Monroe Forum Theatre (FB) (I’m just waiting for them to show up on Goldstar). The weekend of May 23 brings Confirmation services at TAS, a visit to the Hollywood Bowl, and “Love Again“, a new musical by Doug Haverty and Adryan Russ, at the Lonny Chapman Group Rep (FB).  The last weekend of May brings “Entropy” at Theatre of Note (FB) on Saturday, and “Waterfall“, the new Maltby/Shire musical at the Pasadena Playhouse (FB) on Sunday. June looks to be exhausting with the bounty that the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB) brings (ticketing is now open). June starts with a matinee of the movie Grease at The Colony Theatre (FB), followed by Clybourne Park (HFF) at the Lounge Theatre (FB) on Saturday, and a trip out to see the Lancaster Jethawks on Sunday. The second weekend of June brings Max and Elsa. No Music. No Children. (HFF) at Theatre Asylum (FB) and  Wombat Man (HFF) at Underground Theatre (FB) on Saturday, and Marry Me a Little (HFF) by Good People Theatre (FB) at the Lillian Theatre (FB) on Sunday. The craziness continues into the third weekend of June, with Nigerian Spam Scam Scam (HFF) at Theatre Asylum (FB) and Merely Players (HFF) at the Lounge Theatre (FB) on Saturday, and Uncle Impossible’s Funtime Variety & Ice Cream Social, (HFF) at the Complex Theatres (FB) on Sunday (and possibly “Matilda” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) in the afternoon, depending on Hottix availability, although July 4th weekend is more likely). The Fringe craziness ends with Medium Size Me, (HFF) at the Complex Theatres (FB) on Thursday 6/25 and Might As Well Live: Stories By Dorothy Parker (HFF) at the Complex Theatres (FB) on Saturday. June ends with our annual drum corps show in Riverside on Sunday. July begins with “Murder for Two” at the Geffen Playhouse (FB) on July 3rd, and possibly Matilda. July 11th brings “Jesus Christ Superstar” at REP East (FB). The following weekend is open, although it might bring “As You Like It” at Theatricum Botanicum (FB) (depending on their schedule and Goldstar).  July 25th brings “Lombardi” at the Lonny Chapman Group Rep (FB), with the annual Operaworks show the next day. August may bring “Green Grow The Lilacs” at Theatricum Botanicum (FB), the summer Mus-ique show, and “The Fabulous Lipitones” at  The Colony Theatre (FB). After that we’ll need a vacation! As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.