Learning is a Journey | “Into the Woods” @ Nobel Middle School

Into the Woods (Nobel Charter Middle School)userpic=nobelLife is a journey, and there are many lessons to be learned along the way. A number of these lessons are captured in Stephen Sondheim‘s 1987 musical Into The Woods, which is currently trodding the auditorium boards at Nobel Charter Middle School (FB) in Northridge. Last night, we went to the Alumni Night performance of the show (essentially, a preview for a receptive audience before opening; our daughter was involved with their charter productions the first two years). I’ll note that this was the first production under new leadership for the Nobel Charter Theatre Arts Department. The founding teachers have moved on to bigger and hopefully better things: Fanny Araña to the position of Magnet Coordinator for Van Nuys High School, and Jean Martellaro to the English Department at Porter Ranch Community School. The Nobel Drama program is now under the direction of Kat Delancy and Artur Cybulski (FB); this production was not only a trial by fire for the students, but a trial by fire for the teachers as well. They certainly didn’t choose something easy for the first show, but that’s the Nobel way — bigger and better, every time.

Into the Woods, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, is not an easy show. Unlike past Nobel shows, Sondheim shows have complex melodies and complicated lyrics. They also tend to have much deeper meanings within. Into the Woods is one such show. Although relatively accessible through its use of common fairy tale tropes (Jack in the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, the Baker and his Wife, and many others), Sondheim and Lapine weave these multiple stories into a morality piece, teaching many life lessons about the distinction between the fairy tale world and the real world. If there was any overriding themes to the piece, they are embodied in the statement that “Children Will Listen”, and “Be Careful What You Wish For”. It is at times a dark and foreboding piece; there are numerous meaningless deaths. It doesn’t hide the horror in the stories, but ends on an uplifting note (unlike, say, Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd) — you can teach your children. Whether the middle-schoolers performing this were able to pick apart all the lessons in this show I don’t know. I hope that its development provoked some interesting discussions. I’m of the firm belief that theatre can teach more than drama — it can challenge the mind and the spirit, it can be a space to explore dangerous ideas in a safe way.

I’m not going to try to summarize the plot — you can read it over on the Wikipedia page.

Most schools, when presented with a piece such as Into The Woods, retreat to the safety of the licensed “Junior” version. This brings the running time down from three hours, and is essentially just the first “happy” familiar half. It eschews some of the more questionable themes that one might not want to expose to young minds (never mind the fact that those minds have been long exposed to those themes through the Internet). The Nobel Drama team opted instead to license the full version, and pare down much — but not all — of the second half. In particular, they excised the notion of the princes cheating on their wives and of the affair in the woods. They also changed some words here and there (I particularly remember Jack’s mother’s line, where the word “touched” was changed), and I noted that some songs (in particular, the reprise of “Into the Woods” at the end of Act I) were cut (removing my favorite lines, “The closer to the family, the closer to the wine”, and “Slotted spoons don’t hold much soup.” — always great advice to remember). But those unfamiliar with the show probably wouldn’t catch all of that.

They also made some changes particular to a middle-school large cast: they split the narrator into two, and preserved the movie’s distinction from his being the old man, and they added a choral ensemble that came in on major numbers such as “Into the Woods”. This worked just fine; I particularly liked the effect of the ensemble on the show.

[ Note: Unlike my other writeups, I’m not going to attempt to link all the performers. Few, if any, will have professional pages; it seems odd to be linking to Facebook pages of middle-school students. Plus, there are so many of them 🙂 ]

Before I talk about the performance, I must note that this was a middle school cast, at a public school. There was a wide variety of talent, much of it raw. Some songs and performances were a little bit off, but this was head and shoulders above the typical middle school performance you might expect. This being a school and not professional, I’m not going to cite any particularly weak performances (especially as this was essentially a preview and problems are still being worked out). I will note, broadly, the importance in a Sondheim show of making sure that all the words of the song are clear, and that they are said/sung in a way that the audience can here them. There’s lots of hidden meaning in those words; for impact, they need to be clear.

Within the performances, there were some gems I would like to particularly highlight. First and foremost was the production’s Cinderella, Natalie Chavez. She had a very strong voice and handled the songs wonderfully; she also performed and emoted well. Her performance of “No One is Alone” was just spectacular. She is someone I hope will continue in the field — she just really impressed me.

Also strong in both vocal and performance were James Averill’s Jack and Harmony Nielsen’s Witch.  Averill impressed me from the start in the opening prologue with his strong, clear voice, and he seemed to be having a lot of fun with the role. Nielsen was also having fun with the role, and her “The Last Midnight” was just great.

Also worthy of note were the princes, Joseph Gelardi and Derek Bradford. They had the performance aspect down great, capturing the essence of “we’re charming, not sincere”. Quite fun to watch. Also good performance-wise were Gannon Ripchik’s Baker, Sarah Borquez’s Baker’s Wife, and Nina Krassner-Cybulski’s Red Riding Hood.

Jordan Ellison and Erin Miller did a good job as the narrators.

In the smaller character roles were Kylie Hamuel (Cinderella’s Stepmother), Halle Milewski (Florinda), Niaz Bashi Shahidi (Lucinda), Nikki Eaves (Jack’s Mother), Lauren Shane (Milky White), Anthony Dakarmenjian (Cinderella’s Father), Emma Hogarth (Cinderella’s Mother), Everett Zisch (Steward); Jacob Gilliam (Wolf); Kishi Sugahara Strahl (Granny); Jillian Jergensen (Rapunzel); Anthony Carmona (Mysterious Man); Ashlyn Paulson (Witch Double); and Nina Jackson (Giant). A few notes here. Strahl’s Granny was particularly cute. I wasn’t that crazy with the directorial choice for “Hello Little Girl”, although I can understand why it was done. The song was played more for humor; the original notion of a creepy menacing “dirty old man” probably wouldn’t play well with middle-school parents. However, it made the song a bit odd (not to mention that one of the other Nobel Drama Charter members, Quest Zeidler, will always be the wolf to me).

The ensemble consisted of: Melissa Ascencio, Lila Kutchinsky, Jillian McKie, Kayla Mohammadi, Juliana Moore, Liam Naumann, Ashlyn Paulson, Grayson Ries, Zoe Stone, Samantha Biedes, Zoey Francis, Savannah Garrick, Laila Haney, Jahnie Hoffman, Sam Khader, Liana Mzrakyan, Delaney Palitang, Kira Pospeshil, Manny Sosa, Bobbi K Smith, Faith Alhadeff, Dahlia B. Delgadillo, Maya Frank, Samuel Goldenberg, Caitlyn Halpern, Ashley Kho, Kaven Prosperi, and Sophia Tedasco.

Kat Delancy and Artur Cybulski (FB) served as the directors and producers. The choreography was by Abi Franks, Kamryn Siler, and Daniela Johns.

Turning to the technical side: Long gone are the early days of the program, with no microphones, and lighting that couldn’t be adjusted and was overloading the electrical system. This performance had theatre quality sound and full theatrical lighting, reflecting work by sound engineer Tommy Chavez and Lighting Designer Artur Cybulski (FB). As this was a preview, there were some balance problems between the music and the vocals; those should be adjusted by tonight’s opening performance. The scenic design of Ben Tiber and Artur Cybulski (FB)  was also very strong, with one of the best sets I’ve seen at Nobel in ages. Again, I remember the early days of building the set for Grease; my my how this program has grown. Costumes and props were  on loan from Golden Performing Arts.

The Technical Theatre team consisted of: Tiffany Ly and Iona Pitkin (Stage Managers); Josh Pereira, Jenna Doubt, and Brooklyn Burgess (Assistant Stage Managers); Carol Ann Balkcom, Kaira Muzila, Sara Hameed, Vana Boghsian, Samantha Orozco, Julia Williams, and Yume Johnstone (Costume Crew); Josh Pereira, Adam Parra, Jackson Pfau, and Amrit Saund (Sound Crew); Aiden Martirossian, Amir Abuayash, Krisha Ande, Pamela Galleguillos, Caitlyn Missakian, Jas Singh, and Evelyn Morrissey (Light Crew); Chloe Koda, Ashley Metelski, Starlet Meza, Sydney Redmond, Celest Trejo, Emma Fernandez, Aidin Callas, Alexis Bohn, and Avi Saidiner (Set Crew).

There were numerous other adult production staff, but you are likely tired of all these names by now.

There are three more performances of Into the Woods that you can catch at Nobel: Friday and Saturday at 6:30 PM, and Saturday at 2:00 PM (the Thursday performance is ending as I type this). Tickets are available at the door.

P.S.: If you want to see a professional production, note that Into the Woods will be coming to the Ahmanson Theatre in April. Discount tickets are currently on Goldstar.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts 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 am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), the  Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB).

Past subscriptions have included  The Colony Theatre (FB) (which went dormant in 2016), and Repertory East Playhouse (“REP”) (FB) in Newhall (which entered radio silence in 2016). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  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:  December theatre continues with a staged concert of Wonderful Town being performed by the LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion. The next week brings the CSUN Jazz Band at the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC), and Amalie at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). The third week of December brings  The King and I at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). December concludes with an unspecified movie on Christmas day; and a return to our New Years Eve Gaming Party.

Turning to 2017, January currently is quiet, with just Zanna Don’t at the Chromolume Theatre (FB) on January 16. We may get tickets to Claudio Quest at the Chance Theatre (FB) on January 28. February 2017 gets back to being busy: with Zoot Suit at the Mark Taper Forum (FB) the first weekend. The second weekend brings 33 Variations at Actors Co-op (FB). The third weekend has a hold for the WGI Winter Regionals. The last weekend in February brings Finding Neverland at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). March quiets down a bit — at least as currently scheduled — with the MRJ Man of the Year dinner,  Fun Home at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) at the beginning of the month, and An American in Paris at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) at the end of the month.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.


But It’s In a Middle School. I’m So Confused.

High School Musical (Noble CMS)userpic=nobelLast night, as I was driving the van home from work, I was listening to one of the many podcasts on my iPod. In this case, it was one of the Ensemblist podcasts, specifically one of their rehearsal reports on the soon-to-open The School of Rock. In this report, Jessie Swimm (one of the swings) talked about how they had been doing constant changes to the production throughout tech, and the gypsy run was going to be the first time they had put everything together. I thought about this last night at the Alumni Performance of High School Musical at Nobel Middle School (FB) — which was only the second time (IIRC) that the cast and crew had done a complete run through of the show, after adding in lots of last minute transitions and dealing with technology problems.

Before I go further, you’re probably wondering why I’m attending an alumni performance of a middle school musical. The answer is that my daughter was heavily involved with this program during its first two years, and as I write up all shows, as a drama parent-alumni, we’re considered special. We get to go to the alumni shows, and provide some comments to the cast and crew. What that means for you, dear reader, is that I’m going to operate on the assumption that most of the minor correctable problems that we saw last night will be worked out when the show opens on December 3rd.

I will note, however, that the show has one major uncorrectable problem — which given where it is performed is probably not a problem for most. It is, unfortunately, Disney’s High School Musical. This means we’re dealing with a Made-for-TV musical not originally designed for the stage, and designed specifically for the sort of audience that watches the Disney Channel. I’ll give you an example. As the show opens, we have our two protagonists, Troy and Gabriella, talking about the wonderful person of the opposite sex that they met on school break, and not telling their friends how they were a completely different person away from school… and not realizing they were now at the same school. It was expecting them to start singing “Summer Nights” (but this isn’t Grease). At another point in the show, all the kids are on their telephones exchanging gossip about a budding romance between the main characters. Again — “The Telephone Hour” from Bye Bye Birdie, anyone? The storyline is also quite predictable: not only do our protagonists get to star in the show, but they get to star and excel in their individual activities as well, …. , and all their friends end up coupling with their equivalent in a different clique that they hated before. Yes, a happy ending, but just so Disney.

Oh, what is the plot? MTI, the licensing company, summarizes it as follows: “It’s the first day after winter break at East High. The Jocks, Brainiacs, Thespians and Skater Dudes find their cliques, recount their vacations, and look forward to the new year. Basketball team captain and resident jock Troy discovers that the brainy Gabriella, a girl he met singing karaoke on his ski trip, has just enrolled at East High. They cause an upheaval when they decide to audition for the high school musical, led by Ms. Darbus. Although many students resent the threat posed to the “status quo,” Troy and Gabriella’s alliance might just open the door for others to shine as well.” Here’s the full detailed summary from IMDB. Then again, if you have kids, you’ve probably seen it over and over. You might have even heard the music (I’ll admit that I do have the album — a number of the songs are quite catchy). Who wrote it? According to MTI, the book is by David Simpatico, and the music is by (take a deep breath): Matthew Gerrard, Robbie Nevil, Ray Cham, Greg Cham, Drew Seeley, Randy Petersen, Kevin Quinn, Andy Dodd, Adam Watts, Bryan Louiselle, Faye Greenberg, Jamie Houston, and David N. Lawrence.  IMDB credits the original film to Peter Barsocchini.

So you know my opinion of the show. I went in not expecting much from the book. But it is not my expectations that matter. This is High School Musical, after all. It is being presented in a middle school. Parents are not the audience: other kids are. This is just the type of show that the kids will enjoy.  Not just “will”, but “do enjoy”. The other alumni at the show we saw were having loads of fun with the stereotypes and the first kisses and the holding hands. They don’t want deep drama. Kids like fluff, and this will be very popular.

Even if the characters are stereotypes, exaggerating the comical characteristics of each group for humor instead of seeing people as people. Wait, that sounds like the plot of the show. Hmmm.

In any case, the show will succeed if the performances succeed, and this is one case where the enthusiasm of the kids comes through. We were at an early show, but began to see how performances improved as the audience reacted and had fun. We were a small audience. With a full audience of peers, these kids should be great.

One advantage of reviewing a middle school show is that I don’t have to link all the kids names — they won’t have professional pages and you don’t link to a tween or early-teens Facebook. So lets talk about some of the strong points, and just go clique by clique, in program order.

The Cheer Squad consisted of Daniela Johns [Varsity Captain], Harmony Nielsen, Inaya Durfield, Jeannhel Odero, and Taylor Briones. This was a very energetic group of girls who had some strongly athletic moves and flips.

The Jocks consisted of Maddex Tortorici [Troy Bolton], Akshat Bansal [Chad Danforth], Joshua Pereira [Zeke Baylor], Colby Haney, Gannon Ripchick, Jacob Gilliam, Jordan Ellison, and Justin Godinez. The adult “jock”, Coah Bolton, was Kevin Foster. Maddex Tortorici, in his first singing performance, got to play the lead. He actually did a very good job performance-wise, and his duets with Gabriella were quite nice. Also strong was the tall fellow playing his best friend, whom I’m guessing was Akshat Bansal.  Kevin Foster did a great job as the coach.

The “Braniacs” (a horrible word) consisted of Mandi Macias [Gabriella Montez], Payton Blanks [Taylor McKessie], Julia Denny [Martha Cox], Anthony Carmona, Carolyn Lindsay, Isabella Tapia, Jillian Jergensen, Kylie Hamuel, Sarah Borquez, and Thadiel Zancoli. Mandi Macias was great on stage, performing very strongly and having a great voice. I also enjoyed the performances of both Payton Blanks and Julia Denny.

The Thespian Clique consisted of Brooke Kier [Sharpay Evans], Shane Smith [Ryan Evans], Abigail Beck [Kelsi Nielsen], Arno Nizamian, Daniella Jones, Jordyn Lowe, Nareg Hanessian, Natalie Chavez, and Timi Akinsola. The real standout here was Abigail Beck’s performance as Kelsi. She demonstrated a lovely voice and seemed to be really into the role. Brooke Kier was good as Sharpay, but the character as written is a bit overdone, which probably tempered my reaction (translation: she performed it well, but I wasn’t crazy about the character). The reactions of Shane Smith to Brooke were quite fun to watch. The adult teacher, Mr. Barbus, was played (if not overplayed, but again, that’s how it was written) by Sam Katz. Sam captured the intentional comedic aspects of the character well.

The Skater Clique consisted of Adam Jacobsen [Jack Scott], Gavin Riley [Ripper], Amanda Pipolo [Mango], Carlie Birnbaum, Chirstina Povolotsky, Kyle Kaplan, Nina Krassner-Cybulski, and Rana Amet. Adam Jacobsen was fun to watch in the radio booth, and the whole crew did some great acrobatics on stage. Their interaction with the cheerleaders was fun to watch.

The last group was the Wildcat Band, which was actually the award-winning Nobel Drum Line and Advanced Band. They consisted of Anthony Collado, Aurora Torres, Benjamin Maines, Brandon Azoy, Christina Sottile, Gabrielle Martinez, Gilberto Cornejo, Iman Khan, Kenny Ceron, Moises Sabido, Noah Chisom, Owen Jennings, Scott Robinson, Spencer Mandel, Travis Jackson, and Venessa Villegas. It was a joy to see these musicians there — I strongly believe in live music where ever possible. I encourage Nobel to seriously consider incorporating the music department into these productions. It really does make a difference.

I’ll note there was some very good performances of songs, especially in the large group numbers. There were also some wonderful dance moves. I still think Nobel does remarkable shows for a middle school. This year seemed a bit of a building year, with a lot of new performers who are just starting to grow. That’s fine — this is a middle school, after all, and these kids aren’t professionals. But they are learning wonderful skills that will serve them whatever their careers, and they deserve our support.

Turning to the production credits: The set design was by Ben Tiber, and worked really well — lots of welded steel and steps and risers, with clever integration of backdrops to establish place. I’m guessing the Wildcat costumes were rented, given their quality and the pinning on the back. The remaining costumes, which I’m sure the students created, worked well to establish their character’s looks. Kat Delancey was the music director. Choreography was by Carolyn Doherty and Midison Tilner. Prop Coordinator was Kamille Flack. Lighting Designer was Artur Cybulski. There are loads of additional production and crew credits, so I’m only going to list the traditionally listed ones: Vivian Chu was the Stage Manager, and Jaden Weinstein was the House Manager. The production was directed by Fanny Araña, Carolyn Doherty, and Ryan Wynott.

High School Musical runs at Nobel Middle School in Northridge through Saturday, December 5th. Should you go see it? If you have a tween or a teen — go. They’ll enjoy it, and they’ll get a kick about the quality that can come from their peers. If you’re not connected to the youth of American, it still is worth seeing — if you can get over the fact it is HSM— just to see the quality that can come out of a middle school that is actually not a performing arts magnet. This is all parents and volunteers and dedicated teachers, working with dedicated students, that create the magic. So, translation: yeah, go see it, even if it is HSM.

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. 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 am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I subscribe at three theatres:  REP East (FB), The Colony Theatre (FB), and Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  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: December starts with High School Musical at Nobel Middle School (FB) (running December 1-4) — this is a middle school that does surprisingly good productions (although we may be biased a little — our daughter was there for the first two years of their program). It is followed by “El Grande Circus de Coca-Cola” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on December 5. During the week I become a producer, when we present The Nigerian Spam Scam Scam as the dinner entertainment at the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC). The weekend after the conference sees us at the NoHo Arts Center (FB) for Theatre 68 (FB)’s production of Who Killed Santa?, which sounded so warped as to be either extremely funny or extremely stupid– should be fun to watch! The third weekend of December brings the touring company of “If/Then” at the Pantages (FB). The last weekend of December has “The Bridges of Madison County” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), and Nunsense at Crown City Theatre (FB). I’m just starting to plan 2016 — I’ve been waiting on the Repertory East Playhouse (“the REP”) (FB) schedule. So far, January shows “Bullets Over Broadway” at the Pantages (FB) on January 9; “Stomp” at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB)  on January 24; and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on January 30. There is also a “hold” (i.e., dates blocked, but awaiting ticketing) for “Louis and Keeley – Live at the Sahara” at The Geffen Playhouse (FB) for either January 2 or 16 (pending tickets on Goldstar). There is currently nothing on the schedule for February, except for February 28, when we are seeing The Band of the Royal Marines and the Pipes, Drums, and Highland Dancers of the Scots Guards at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). March brings “Another Roll of the Dice” at The Colony Theatre (FB), and has two potential dates on hold for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) (pending Hottix). 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 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves.



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.


Go, Go, Go, Go

Joseph and His ... (Nobel MS)userpic=nobelWay back ago, in the dark ages of 2007, a theatre arts program was revived at my daughter’s then middle school. Two English teachers, Fanny Araña and Jean Martellaro, brought back a theatre arts program, and with nothing more than enthusiastic students and parents (of which we were two), these teachers energized students and created a spark of learning through theatre. That program had borrowed lights on overloaded extension cords, no sound to speak of, and a hastily assembled set. Jump ahead seven years. This program now has professional quality lighting and sound, professional quality sets, and a large cadre of students coming back as Alumni to teach and help run the program. That qualifies as a success in my book.

Needless to say, we’ve been attending and supporting these programs since Day Zero. So it wasn’t a surprise that, even thought our daughter is safely back at UC Berkeley after Thanksgiving, we were invited to the first Tuesday Alumni Night performance of their latest show, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat“. As I’m likely dealing with the TL;DR generation, here’s the bottom line: Especially considering this is a middle-school production, go see this. You’ll be blown away by the production values, which rival any high school or community theatre production. Although the book has its weaknesses, the enthusiasm makes up for it; although the kids are not professionals, they do an excellent job that far exceeds middle-school production expectations. But then again, you would expect no less from the Nobel Middle School Theatre Arts program.

If the production has one major weakness, it is an unavoidable one: the selected show. “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” is a late 1960’s pop cantata, 35 minutes long— it was the first published work by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber. After the success of Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, it was rewritten and lengthened with some novelty musical numbers — but at its heart, it is a simple pop cantata, essentially sung through. It tells the Biblical story of Joseph from the incident with the coat of many colors through the brothers return to Egypt through pastiches of musical styles, and is — to put it succinctly — cute. It requires some strong lead vocals, and has loads and loads of choral parts. This is why it is a great middle school show. I have the original pop cantata album, and I saw the 1982 tour (with Laurie Beechman  and Bill Hutton) when it was at the newly remodeled Pantages theatre  — in fact, I think it was one of the first shows after the remodeling. Since then, it has been lengthened a little each time it hits Broadway again. This adds material, not depth. But none of this is anything to those who license it can change (but who would deny me the fun of railing against Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber). Further, for most people (and, truthfully, even for me), this is a fun little show.

So, you ask, how did Nobel do with the show. First, please note my observations are based on an Alumni performance — essentially, a preview night. They asked for notes from the audience, which we gave. So I expect that the performances this weekend will be even stronger and better than what I saw. As a result, I will withhold some of the comments on things I expect to be easily resolved by Thursday night. You should also be aware that these kids are not professional actors, singers, or dancers. They are middle school students who have had some training. Their voices are good with glimmers of great and occasions of not-so-great. There are some wonderful dancers (I recall some particularly spectacular ballet moves); and there are some who are a little less so. There are some who give great performances to accompany what they are saying, and there are the occasional few who overemphasize or underplay. But considering these are kids — and we’re talking the 12-14 age group here — they are doing remarkably well. I will say their performances soars over some high school performances I have seen.

Traditionally, in Joseph, the powerhouse player is the narrator. This requires a strong belting voice — something you rarely find in a public middle school. The directors (Fanny Araña, Carolyn Doherty, and Daniel Bellucci) wisely decided to change the single narrator to a quartet. The result worked quite well. The four narrators — Alana DuPre, Amanda Magaña Kamryn Siler, and Rebecca Radvinsky — worked very well together. They sang with good strength and quality, and added strong acting and emoting to their performance (making them quite fun to watch).

At the heart of this show, however, is Joseph (Jake Dalton). Joseph not only is the center of the action, but has quite a few key songs (including some of my favorites, “Close Every Door” and “Any Dream Will Do”). As Joseph, Dalton played the role well, and his singing was reasonably good. I kept hearing an odd slightly British accent, which I didn’t know was the student or the coaching. I commented on that, so it might be corrected. There were also some odd phrasings to my ear, but that could just be due to over-familiarity with the original cantata and the 1982 OBC (Original Broadway Cast). Other than being plagued by microphone problems, there were no major issues and Dalton did very good for a student.

Joseph’s brothers (Reuben (Shane “Squishy” Smith); Simeon (Colby Haney); Levi (Arno Nizamian), Judah (Kasha Bansal), Dan (Anthony Tedesco), Naphtali (Jesse “The Rock” Pacheco), Gad (Troy Richman), Asher (Nicholas Aguilar), Issachar (Brandon Moser), Zebulun (Robert Cerda), and Benjamin (Max Chester)) all played their roles well. As they were unamplified, they could use a bit more oomph in the choral numbers (but, again, that may be addressed by opening night — it could also be addressed by increasing the pickup on the drop microphones). A few of the brothers got leads in the songs; I was particularly taken with Smith’s performance in the French Bistro number (“Those Canaan Days”).

The wives (Talia Ballew, Taylor “Cookie” Carlson, Willow Islas, Hannah Protiva, Marena Wisa Wasef, Kennaya Ndu, Ellie Zahedi, Elizabeth Ramos, Daniela Johns, Rachel Khoury, Amanda Macias, Ariana DeLeon) and the chorus (Abigail Beck, Amanda Pipolo, Charlotte Doolittle, Inaya Durfied, Joann Gilliam, Jordyn Lowe, Julia Denny, Rena Rodriguez) were less distinguishable as characters — they are not called out by the story by name, and provide mostly background voices. I did like the chorus in the black leotards, although when they came out carrying the jail cell it looked like a scene from Chicago: The Musical. There were some particularly good dancers in this crew — especially the ones adding ballet moves. Alas, I couldn’t identify the good dancers by name. As with the brothers, a bit more oomph in the choral numbers would be good; drop microphone pickup can be adjusted to compensate. There were also some good performances by the three ensemble members acting as waiters in the French Bistro scene.

Rounding out the cast were the other minor characters: Pharoah (Justin Tuell), Potiphar (Jacob Lipman), Mrs. Potiphar (Brooke Kier), the Baker (David Gomez), the Butler (Spencer Goldman), Jacob (Samuel Katz), and the guards (Kevin Foster, Kyle Kaplan). A few comments here. Tuell was good, but could amp up the Elvis impersonation (one wonders how much this generation even knows about Elvis, sigh….). The character is intended to be overplayed, but less as “the King” and more as “Elvis, the King” (thankyouverymuch). This may be addressed by opening. Kier did some lovely dancing as Mrs. Potiphar; I found it interesting the (necessary) middle school script change of “come and lie with me, love” to “come and be with me, love”. I had forgotten that Jacob was more of a be seen than heard role — he has a snippet of a song in the opening and is thence quiet (although he performed quite well).

Musical direction was by Daniel Bellucci, a Nobel alumni. This was less of a “musical” direction (as in orchestrations) and more in the form of vocal direction. Bellucci had a lot of work to do — a large cast of kids who likely had little to no vocal training, doing a sung-through show. I think he did remarkable. Although there were some odd phrasings at times, and a few kids who had voices that were occasionally off, the result was spectacular for less than a semester’s worth of work and untrained talent. I don’t think you can compare vocal quality here to Equity and trained actors; for what these kids are, they did extremely well (and you’ll be very surprised). The one musical problem was more on the other side: this was intended as a sung-through show, not a typical musical where there is space after each song for applause and scene changes. As a result, the musical transitions were very abrupt and jarring, especially the spaces between songs. Some of this was unavoidable — at a school production, you have to plan for applause after each song (parents and students being proud of their offspring and friends); some might be addressed through some soundtrack editing.

Dance in this show was very good. The choreography, by parent Carolyn Doherty and Alumni students Madison Tilner, Ryan Wynott, and Michael Lertzman (MRM) worked very well. They were able to take advantage of those students with dance training, and even those without formal training moved well.

The remaining aspects of the show were primarily technical. The sets were spectacular, reflecting the transition over the 7 years. They were well constructed, realistic looking, worked well, and established place very very well. Credit goes to long time Set Consultant Dennis Kull, as well as Alumni set designer Ben Tiber assisted by parents and alumni on construction. Props (coordinated by Kamille Flack) also worked well. Costumes worked well — I particularly liked the white outfits worn by the narrators, the black leotards previously mentioned, the Elvis outfit, Jacob’s outfit, and the general desert clothing of that era. No credit is given for costume and makeup design, but the costume lead was Tam Le.

Sound and lights reflect the tremendous growth of this program — even more remarkable when you realize there is no funding support from LA Unified. This is all from parent contributions and grants. The lighting, which in the early days were some side lighting trees on overloaded extension cords and no ability to program lights (or even get to overhead lights) has grown to professional lights, on professional fixtures, with professional software. This worked effectively to build and convey the mood. Credit goes to Lighting Coordinator Terry Meadows, Lighting Designer Artur Cybulski, and Alumni Lighting Consultant Nicholas Carlson. Zarah Shahinian was the crew lead for lighting, and David Manalo and Isabelle Saligumba were the crew leads for spots. Sound is also markedly better than the early days, where there were about three stand-up mikes. Today, there are about 8 wireless microphones, two hanging microphones, and a full sound board. In general, the sound worked well, although there was a balance problem between the music and the voices at times. That may be corrected by opening night. There was also a lot of wireless microphone static, especially on Joseph’s microphone and Pharoah’s microphone. This could be placement or interference; again, I expect it to be corrected by opening. Credit here goes to Sound Consultant (and Alumni) Michael McNabb, assisted by Stephen Rabin (crew lead). There were numerous additional supporting technical credits, which I’m not going to list. I will note that Tam Le also served as stage manager, and David Manalo as house manager.

This was the first show that Fanny produced on her own; well, not really on her own, as she the help of a lot of Alumni, plus her co-directors. She did a great job, but we still miss Jean (Ms. M) (who is off in Vermont on a leave of absence). A birdie says she will be back in town for the weekend performances — we might not stay for the performance, but might just drop by to say “hi”. Fanny deserves kudos for her work on this — pulling middle-school children into a coherent team for a production such as this is worse than herding cats. However, the teams and the relationships that this intense activity builds in the kids changes their lives forever; it also changes the teacher. You could see Fanny last night just soaking up the love that 7 years of students have for her. Financial rewards for teachers are nice and necessary to sustain the family, but my belief is that the best teachers get the sustenance for their heart and spirit from the success and love of their students.

One last thank you to be acknowledged: 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.

There are four performances of “Joseph“: Thursday, December 4 through Saturday, December 6 at 6:30PM, and Saturday at 2pm. Tickets are $5, available through the Nobel Student Store or at the door. Additional contributions are welcome. Nobel Middle School is located at 9950 Tampa Avenue in Northridge, CA 91324 (Cross-streets are Tampa, Merridy, Vanalden, and Lassen). Enter off of Merridy.

[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.]

There’s no theatre on the books this weekend; I’m heading off to the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC) in New Orleans. When I return, it will be “She Loves Me” at Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim in the afternoon, followed by an Austin Lounge Lizards concert at Boulevard Music in Culver City on 12/20. Right now, there is only one show booked for January 2015 – “An Evening with Groucho” at AJU with Frank Ferrente; additionally we’ll likely have the first show of the REP East (FB) season: “Avenue Q“.  Ticketed productions pick up in February, with “The Threepenny Opera” at A Noise Within (FB) on February 15, “The Road to Appomattox” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on February 28, the MRJ Man of the Year dinner on March 7, “Carrie: The Musical” at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB) on March 14, a hold for “Drowsy Chaperone” at CSUN on the weekend of March 21, “Newsies” at the Pantages (FB) on March 28, followed by Pesach. 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.


Can’t Stop These Kids

Hairspray (Nobel Charter Middle School)userpic=nobelYesterday was a double theatre day. The first show was at one of our favorite amateur venues: Nobel Charter Middle School. Our daughter went to Nobel; she was involved with their theatre arts program from the beginning of its revitalization about 7 years ago. Since then, we’ve seen this program grow and grow, improving sets, lights, sound. The Spring 2014 production of “Hairspray” was one of their most astounding productions to date. Although not perfect (after all, these are middle school students at a school not dedicated to theatre), the potential talent here was a delight to see.

For those unfamiliar with the story, the musical Hairspray is based on the John Waters film of 1988. The story concerns a “hefty” teenager in Baltimore MD in the early 1960s. Not a stellar student, she lives to dance on the Corny Collins TV show (think “American Bandstand”). She also has no problem with integration, and works to integrate the show… which causes a furor in 1962 Baltimore. This non-musical movie was made into a musical stage production in 2002, with music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman and a book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan. That production won many Tony awards, and was remade as a movie musical in 2007. You can find the full synopsis here, if by some chance you haven’t seen one of those incarnations. When I first saw the production in 2004 at the Pantages, I thought that this musical would have a long life on the amateur stage (high school). It appears I was right — this month alone there are numerous productions in Los Angeles (in addition to Nobel, the LA Weekly had an ad for a Venice HS production next weekend).

Watching the musical on the Nobel stage, one of the things that struck me were the changes that were made. Part of these changes were due to the fact that Nobel licensed the “Junior” version, which tones down a lot of the sexual innuendo and implications for a more “pure” middle/high-school audience. Examples of these changes were the reworking of lines like “they padded their cups, but I screwed the judges”. Some songs were removed (such as “Big, Blonde, and Beautiful”), and others were either shortened or reworked slightly. These changes I can understand, although the purest in me chafes a bit (and believes that, at least in Los Angeles, the students would understand all of what was cut — perhaps this is more to protect the parent’s impression of their students). The other change was a bit more interesting. During the opening, I noticed they changed “negro days” to “ethnic days”. When I inquired about this change, I discovered that it was made because the program didn’t have enough African-Americans to fill all of those roles. This was discussed in the class, which decided to make the change to “ethnic” (the other word debated was “minority”). I found this a telling observation on LA Unified, as well an interesting teaching opportunity. For those unfamiliar with LA Unified’s history, in the 1970s busing divided the district. There was much white-flight to the valley, who objected to inner-city students being bused to their lily-white districts. Those of us who lived through the era remember the fights that ensured. [As an important aside, I’ll note that the fights were not over Hispanics attending the schools; “inner-city” was a euphemism for blacks]. Magnet schools were created not as an educational quality mechanism, but an integration mechanism: supposedly the programs would be so good they would act as “magnets” to draw minorities voluntarily to the valley, and to draw whites to the inner city. It is a telling reflection of both the effectiveness of magnets, and the changing demographics of Los Angeles and its population,  that the Nobel program had to change to “ethnic”. The second aspect of this was the fact that the historical fights in Baltimore were not over mixed “ethnic” dancing, but specifically black/white dancing. Although there are shows where color-blind casting can work (I’ve heard tell of it being done for “Once on This Island“), there are others where it just breaks the story. I hadn’t realized when I first saw it that “Hairspray” was one of those shows. I shudder to think how this show is tackled in the states on the great plains. Interesting thoughts (and probably ones the rest of the audience didn’t notice).

Janelle Miller. Link from Benjamin Timor's public Facebook albumAs I wrote earlier, the performances in this show were just astounding. Most astounding was the lead, a young lady named Janelle Miller, as Tracy Turnblad. For someone so young, she had a powerhouse voice and handled her songs with ease, grace, and fun. She also gave a strong dramatic performance, and seemed to be having a wonderful time with the character. You knew this young lady was great from her first unhesitating notes of “Good Morning, Baltimore”. I hope this young lady goes far in all her endeavors — she has loads of talent.

The rest of the leads weren’t shlumps either. Another strong performer was Alana Gardett DuPre as Little Inez Subbs, who also demonstrated a great singing voice in her numbers, as well as a great performance presence.  Also giving great performances were Matthew Bacon as Link Larkin, Andrzej Krassner-Cybulski as Seaweed Stubbs, Harry Harutyunyan as Wilbur Turnblad, and Morgan Knight as Edna Turnblad. All were very good in their musical numbers, and inhabited their characters quite well. Bacon had a nicely suave performance as Link and handled numbers like “It Takes Two” quite well; similarly Krassner-Cybulski’s handled Seaweed’s number (“Without Love”) well. The Turnblads (Harutyunyan and Knight) did a spectacular job with “(You’re) Timeless to Me”. I do need to make a comment regarding Edna Turnblad, however, completely unrelated to Ms. Knight’s performance (which was great). The traditional casting for Edna is as a man playing a woman, echoing the original casting of Divine in the role (Harvey Fierstein in the stage musical). Casting a woman in the part breaks a number of jokes in the songs, which play up Edna’s non-traditional size and non-traditional looks. It was interesting to see how the effect changed with a lady in the role.

Continuing with the leads who gave good performances: Rounding out the lead positions were Claire Frankland (Penny Pingleton), Emily Alexander (Amber Von Tussle), Rebecca Radvinsky (Velma Von Tussle), Justin Tuell (Corny Collins), and Jasmine Moore (Motormouth Mabel). All of these young men and women played their characters well and acquitted themselves well in their musical numbers.

Of the remaining large cast, there are a few additional performances I would like to highlight. The three Dynamites, Aaminah Babatunde-Bey (Judine), Alishia Maghreiva (Kamilah) and Joann Gilliam (Shayna) gave a very strong musical performance; whichever of them did the primary vocal on “I Know Where I’ve Been” was astounding. As the matron, Rose Meyers was a bit hesitant at first, but hit the final notes of “The Big Dollhouse” with surprising power and clarity. Lastly, Frenchy Wane was fun to watch for the enthusiastic way she attacked the role of the gym teacher.

Rounding out the large cast were: Jennifer Sarkisian (Prudy Pingleton); the Council members: Max Chester (Brad), Rachel Khoury (Tammy), Braden Harness (Fender), Kamryn Siler (Brenda), Jason Foster (Sketch), Charlotte Doolittle (Shelly), Ryan Wynott (IQ), Leanne Langston / Taylor “Cookie” Carlson [Sat. Matinee] (Luanne); the studio crew: Troy Richman (Orville), Brendon Harrington (Cobbs), Jacob Lipman (Nibblet); Emilio “Bongo” Godinez (Newscaster/Principal); Eli Leyberman (Mr. Pinky), Emma Cassella and Talia Ballew (Mr. Pinky’s assistants, Violet and Rosie); Brett Jariabek (Prison Guard); the detention students: Michelle Villalobos (Beatnik Chick), Kennaya Ndu (Lorraine), Jessie “The Rock” Pacheco (Gilbert), Fernanda Lopez (Cindy Watkins), David Gomez (Thad), Shawn Wadhwani (Duane), Spencer Goldman (Stooie), Juliana Barba (Tamika), Devine Moore (Dominique), and Marena Wisa-Wasef (Tanya); and the citizens of Baltimore/high school students: Nancy Turmell (Wendy), Leila Musleh (Tina), Gigi Mkchyan (Nicki), Emily Borses (Katie), Jake Dalton (Danny), Sammy Wane (Jeannie), Anthony Sottile (Johnnie), Taylor Carlson (Cookie), Willow Islas (Carrie), Hannah Protiva (Fancy), Robert Cerda (Barrrry), and Brandon Moser (Denny).

Choreography was by Carolyn Doherty, assisted by Madison Tilner (9th grade) and Ryan Wynott (8th grade), with Harry Harutyunyan, and Leanne Langston as Dance Captains. The dancing was quite good, considering that most of these kids are probably not skilled dancers. Daniel Bellusci (12th grade) as music director, assisted by Iona Della Torre. The music was prerecorded and likely supplied by MTI.

Turning to the technical side: every Nobel production improves upon the previous ones in these areas. From the early days of simple sets and backdrops, just a few lights on overloaded extension cords, and barely audible sound, yesterdays productions was 1000 times better. Professional quality sets were designed by Dennis Kull and constructed by Huan “Papa” Chu, Barrrrrry Borses, and Roman Jariabeck, with significant period props that Nobel has never had before. Artur Cybulski‘s lighting design was spectacular, and I thought I saw a few new LED lights on the stage. This, folks, is where your donation dollars go, so donate if you can. The sound was the best of any Nobel production to date — credit should go to Isaijah Johnson (9th grade) and his sound crew who miked the performers well, tuned the auditorium, and ensured there was no difficulty in hearing people. The costumes by the Nobel Drama Mamas seemed appropriately period.

A special call-out to the folks who did publicity on this one: the poster (designed by Michelle Franks) was one of the best ones yet, providing performance dates, prices, and addresses. Katelyn Bauer also made a wonderful promotional video (follow the link — it really is good). This was the first show that Nobel had formal tickets and prices. This is a good thing, but may have impacted donations. I suggest, for the future, that they raise prices (Venice HS was charging $10 at the door, and Van Nuys has charged $10 in the past, and I think this performance was better than any HS performances), and consider a higher price yet for better seating. To address the fears for the parents of students that cannot afford, vouchers for a discounted “parent price” could be provided. Those who can should consider writing a check to this program — contact Fanny Araña for a donation address or mail a check to the school to her attention.

Fanny and JeanThe production was produced by Fanny Araña and directed by Jean Martellaro (assisted by Harry Harutyunyan (8th grade)). Fanny and Jean have been the cornerstone of this program since its inception. They have inspired hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students with their energy and enthusiasm. They are examples of what teachers should be.

Alas, the last performance of “Hairspray” was last evening.  Keep an eye on Nobel Middle School for an announcement of their Fall 2014 production.

[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 Theatre and Concerts:  Following “Hairspray“, we went to Burbank to see “The Lion in Winter” at The Colony Theatre (FB). That write-up will be posted shortly. Next weekend brings both “Porgy and Bess” at the Ahmanson and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at REP East (FB). The next weekend brings the musical Lil Abner” at LA City College (directed by Bruce Kimmel, with choreography by Kay Cole). The last weekend of May is currently unscheduled: Karen is helping Erin move, and there’s not that much calling to me from Goldstar. June is busy. It starts with a CDF Conference for Karen while I see The Fantastiks at Good People Theatre (FB). We lose the following weekend to a Bat Mitzvah. The remainder of the month brings “Stoneface: The Rise and Fall of Buster Keaton” at the Pasadena Playhouse (FB) on June 22, and “I’m Not Just a Comic Genius” at Secret Rose (FB) on June 27. July will be busy: “Ghost” at the Pantages (FB) on 7/5, “Return to the Forbidden Planet” at REP East (FB) the weekend of 7/12, “Once” at the Pantages (FB) on 7/19, “Bye Bye Birdie” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on 7/26, and “Family Planning” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on 8/2. August then remains quiet as we work around vacations and such, but things start to get busy again in September and October. More on that later. 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.



Nothing Fishy Going On Here

Little Mermaid (Nobel MS)userpic=theatre_musicalsBy now, you’ve figured out we go to a lot of theatre, of all shapes and sizes. Our range runs from intimate shows to Broadway houses, and from middle-school to professional productions. We’ve seen professional groups do amateur jobs, and we’ve seen amateurs do top-notch works. One of the groups we’ve seen grow over time is the Theatre Arts Department at Nobel Charter Middle School (FB) here in Northridge. We were there when they started back up — our daughter was in their inaugural production back in 2006. Back then, they were a group with lots of energy but little resources — sound was three stand up microphones; lights were on a tree on the side with a shared extension cord, and costumes were rummaged from here and there. Eight years later, they have full professional lighting and a lighting board, a full sound board and wireless mics, professional quality sets and costumes (made by parents, not rented), and still lots and lots of energy. This is all paid for by voluntary contributions, not LAUSD. At its heart are the two same great teachers:  Fanny Araña and Jean Martellaro.

All this means is that when Nobel announces a production, we do our best to stop on by and see it. So last night, we were in a standing-room-only middle school auditorium (700+ people were in attendance) watching a large group of kids perform their hearts out doing “Disney’s The Little Mermaid” musical (technically, the Jr. version, best as I can figure out). You know what? They did pretty good.

I could attempt to summarize the story of “The Little Mermaid” to you, but it’s long and complex, and I’m dealing with the TL;DR generation. Suffice it to say that the musical version is slightly different from the animated cartoon, and you can find a good summary of the musical version on Wikipedia. Differences include changes in sequences, addition of a number of new songs by Alan Menkin and Glenn Slater (in addition to the original songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menkin), and some simplification for the stage. Most of the book by Doug Wright remains. The Jr. version shortens the production a bit more, and cuts a number of songs (both from the original movie, such as “I Want The Good Times Back”, as well as new songs such as “Positoovity”); the song cuts are how I identified this as the Jr. version. I’ll note that I’ve never actually seen the animated movie in its entirety, although I’ve heard the score.  By the time my daughter was the age she was watching Disney animated movies, this had just gone back into the vault. So I’m really only familiar with the property from the stage musical.

With a production this large, it is hard to single out everyone from the cast. Further, understanding this is middle-school production, there are the expected flaws — these are neither trained singers nor actors, just kids putting on a show.  The occasional flats, changing voices, and inaudible lines are more than made up by the enthusiasm and joy on the faces of these children as they learn skills and confidence that will serve them well all their life. But there are a few performances I want to single out in various ways, before I list everyone. Note that I’m not going to try to link to all the kids.

As I just said, there were a few performances deserving special note: Leanne Langston (Ariel) had a remarkably strong voice, and was a spectacular dancer (demonstrated in the “One Step Closer” number, with her equally strong partner, Ryan Wynott, as Prince Eric). Another strong singer and performer was Alishia Maghreiva as Ursula, who did a great job of projecting malevolence. On the comic side, Harry Harutyunyun was strong as Sebastian — although he kept having microphone problems, you could tell this young man could sing and move well. Also strong comically were Jasmine Moore as Scuttle and Andrzej Krassner-Cybulski as Flounder. Also extremely strong as a choral group in the “Daughters of Triton” number were the mersisters: Alana Gardette-Dupre (Aquata), Rebecca Radvinsky (Andrina), Claire Frankland (Arista), Emily Alexander (Atina), Morgan Knight (Adella), and Allana (Lexi Gardner). I was also impressed with Janelle Miller as Chef Louis in the “Les Poissons” number, and the comic antics of Frency Wane as Dim-Sum. Lastly, I want to highlight Rachel Khoury as the seagull Gullible — not as much for her performance on stage, but watching her entertain pre-show and during intermission, staying in character and just having fun with the audience.

Rounding out the large cast were: Grimsby – Brett Jariabek; Ship’s Pilots – Matthew Bacon, Jason Foster; Sailors – Janelle Miller, Nancy Turmell, Rose Meyers, Charlotte Doolittle, Marie Verdin, Leila Musleh, Jacob Lipman, Jennifer Sarkisian, Gigi Mkchyan, Fernanda Lopez; King Triton – Braden Harness; Seahorses – Eli Leyberman (Seabiscuit), Emily Borses (Flicka); Seagulls – Jake Dalton (Awkward), David Gomez (Gulliver), Max Chester (Awkdorable), Rachel Khoury (Gullible), Sammy Wane (Awksome); Eels – Justin Tuell (Flotsam), Aaminah Babatunde-Bey (Jetsam), Anthony Sottile (Gruesome), Michelle Villalobos (Ransom), Frenchy Wane (Dim-Sum); Carlotta – Gigi Mkchyan, Babette – Jennifer Sarkisian; Yvette – Fernanda Lopez; Chefs – Nancy Turmell, Rose Meyers, Charlotte Doolittle, Leila Musleh, Jacob Lipman, Taylor Carlson; Princesses – Claire Frankland, Emily Alexander, Rebecca Radvinsky, Alana Gardette DuPre, Lexi Gardner, Morgan Knight; Lagoon Leads – Matthew Bacon, Jason Foster; Water Wizards – Emilio “Bongo” Godinez, Shawn Wadhwani; Water Faries – Fernanda Lopez, Taylor “Cookie” Carlson, Kennaya Ndu, Talia Ballew; Water Reeds – Willow Islas, Kamryn Siler, Hannah Protiva; Sea Creatures/Lagoon Animals – Jesse Pacheco, Devina Moore, Brendon Harrington, Spencer Goldman, Brandon Moser, Robert Cerda, Emma Casella, Troy Richman, Juliana Barba, Marena Wisa-Wasef, Kennaya Ndu, Marie Verdin, Leila Musleh, Jennifer Sarkisian, Janelle Miller, Nancy Turmell, Gigi Mkchyan, Talia Ballew, and Renee Rubanowitz. Whew! Large cast!

Technically, every NCMS production is a step beyond the last. We’ve seen this program go from few resources to lots, and along the way, these younguns’ are gaining technical training — and they come back and help the program. In particular, the lighting for this program (designed by Noelle Sammour, assisted by Artur Cybulski as lighting consultant) was very good (and the technical team had no missed lighting cues that I saw). The sound, designed by sound consultant Isaijah Johnson (9th grade) had a good design and cues were executed well, but it was sabotaged by the sound-swallowing characteristics of the Nobel Auditorium (alas, not much can be done about that), and the fact that the actors were not used to microphones (causing them to sometimes work, and sometimes have static) (and that takes time and experience to address). The set was remarkable, especially when you consider it was built by students. The set design was by Benjamin Tiber (9th grade), and was constructed under Huan “Papa” Chu and Barry Borses. The costumes, designed by Larissa Kazantsev, were clever and worked well.

Rounding out this team was the tech crew: Stage Manager – Gio Roberto, Set Manager – Dana Rubanowitz, Set Crew – Ranveer Dhillon, Luca Goldenberg, Brandon Huetter, Eunice Kim, Alexandra Kopatsis, Tam Le, Aaron Nguyen, Estrella Palacios, Isabelle Saligumba, Andrienne Santiago, Tal Sisso, and Karla Vasquez; Prop Crew – Justin Borses, Casey Donchez, Kara Glaser, Jacqueline Harris; Costume Crew – Adi Ankori, Tal Ankori, Sarah Khorsandi, Hailey Matthew, David Manolo, Lilly Eaves, Christopher Sarkissian; Sound Crew – Jacob Zonis, Alyssa Crocker, Michael McNabb, Stephen Rabin; Light Crew – Aaron Nguyen, Andrew Petrak, Zarah Shahinian, Skyler Won, Nicolaus Carlson (9th grade); Spot Operator – Neema Zahedi.

Direction was provided by Jean Martellaro, assisted by Harry Harutyunyun (8th grade). Choreography (which was very good for a middle-school production) was developed by Jenna Beth Stockman and Madison Tilner (9th grade). Daniel Bellusci (12th grade) and Iona Della Torre were the music directors, and Dennis Kull was the technical director.

There are two more performances of “Disney’s The Little Mermaid” (Jr.), both today: 2pm and 630pm. If you live in the area, go on out and support these kids and this great program. Noble Charter Middle School is at 9950 Tampa Avenue in Northridge, at the intersection of Tampa and Lassen. The auditorium is 1 block N, off Merridy Street.

[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 Theatre and Concerts:  Tomorrow I leave for New Orleans and the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC). When I return we have an interesting play, “Sherlock Through the Looking Glass“, at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (FB). December, as currently scheduled for theatre, concludes with “Peter and the Starcatcher” at The Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Of course, there will be the traditional movie and Chinese Food on Christmas Day — right now, the two movie possibilities are “Saving Mr. Banks” opening December 13 (meaning we can use group discount tickets), or “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” opening December 25. I’m also interested in “Inside Llewyn Davisfor both its soundtrack and its story (based off the live of Dave Van Ronk). None of the other December releases look worth the money (I’d rather see “August: Osage County” on the stage, thankyouverymuch). Looking into January: The first scheduled show is on January 18: “Mom’s Gift” at The Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre (FB) in North Hollywood. The following weekend, January 25, brings the first show of the REP East (FB) 10th season: “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change“ (which we last saw at REP in 2006). February 8 will bring “Forever Plaid” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). The following weekend, February 15, is being held for Lysistrata Jones at The Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim. The last weekend of February, February 22, is currently being held for Sutton Foster at the Broad Stage (FB) in Santa Monica (if I can find discount tickets). March brings “Sex and Education” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on March 8, and “Biloxi Blues” at REP East (FB) on March 29. It may also bring “Harmony” at The Ahmanson Theatre (FB) on March 22. The end of the month (actually April 5) bring “In The Heights” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, Musicals in LA and LA Stage Times, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.



Wanting To Live Forever

fame-ncmsuserpic=theatre_ticketsBack in 1980, I saw this wonderful movie Fame, and fell in love with the music. It was subsequently made into a TV series (which I also watched regularly). In the 1990s, the original producer, David De Silva, of the movie conceived of bringing Fame to the live theatre stage. For some reason (I can’t seem to find out why), he chose to have the story rewritten. The new book by Jose Fernandez, with music by Steve Margoshes and lyrics by Jacques Levy, rewrote the story along similar lines to the movie, but changed character names and a few plot elements. I had acquired the American cast album a while back, and so I was curious about seeing this version. Further, the version was being done by one of my favorite groups, the Nobel Charter Middle School Theatre Arts Department, so I just had to go see it.

Before I go on about the show (which we saw Saturday night), a few words about Los Angeles Unified and some special teachers. In any school and school district, there are teachers that change lives for the good. One of those is Cliff Ker, who runs the LAUSD’s Academic Decathalon program. Two others are Fanny Araña and Jean Martellaro, who run the theatre arts program at Nobel. Our daughter was involved with this program its first two years (2006-2007, 2007-2008), and it changed her life; the program has continued to change the lives of children for the good. It was demonstrated this year when a student at Nobel (Aria Doherty) died due to huffing. She was in the Theatre Arts program, and these two teachers brought the students together as family to help them move through and past the tragedy. We need some way to celebrate teachers such as these; we need more teachers like these two remarkable women.

Back to Fame: after years of doing more traditional musicals (Annie, Wizard of Oz, Grease), Nobel decided to tackle something much more complex: a musical about students at the high school of performing arts in New York … with music that was decidedly unknown to the students. They licensed the Fame Jr. version, which cut out some of the more problematic aspects of the story (the heavy sex references and the drug references), and had to further adapt the story when they lost one of the lead actresses (the aforementioned Aria had been cast as Mabel). They edited the story slightly, keeping the main plot and interpolating two numbers from the original movie. In general, the story worked well, although the larger cast did make it difficult to always figure out the characters and their personalities.

For those unfamilar with the musical version, you can find the synopsis of the Jr. version on the MTI page. Nobel further adapted the story by interpolating some additional songs, such as “Hot Lunch” from the movie, or a wonderful acapella version of “It Don’t Mean a Thing”.  The loss of the Mabel Washington character also meant the lost of “Mabel’s Prayer”; this resulted in a need to interpolate “Out Here On My Own” from the movie. Note that the Jr. version is decidedly tamer than the adult version; you can find the synopsis of the adult version in Wikipedia.

How did Nobel do with this? Well, one measure of the quality of the show is the audience. Usually at middle and high school shows, the audience is screaming and yelling when their family members come on stage. This audience was quiet. They were caught up in the performances and were treating this like fully professional theatre. I’ve only seen that at one other high school performance — when Van Nuys HS did Evita. The audience was believing these characters, and that says something about the performance.

That said, this was a middle school production. One doesn’t expect full Broadway quality — middle school kids (and especially middle school kids at a general education school) are not perfect. Voices will be off at times, dances will be off, and they are not experts at the acting craft. These aren’t professional actors, but students giving their all. Taking that into account, this was a very good performance. I’m not going to attempt to name every student in the extremely large cast and crew. But I would like to highlight a few.

First, I was just blown away by the performance and singing voice of Gianna Lowe as Ms. Bell, the dance teacher. She was just great. Also strong were the leads — Miaya May (Carmen Diaz), Andrew Lewis (Schlomo Metzenbaum), Berna Amet (Serena Katz), Jason Foster (Nick Piazza). All performed great, and for the most part, sang very strong. Also strong were the dance leads — Leanne Langston (Iris Kelly), Jeremiah Coleman (Tyrone Jackson). Another small role that I particularly noted (and I’m not sure who was doing this) was the drummer during the “Hot Lunch” number — he was particularly good. This was either Devon Delgado or Ben Goldman (they didn’t name which character it was). (As I side note, I did appreciate seeing the names of the movie characters as minor roles in this production). I’ll also note that the entire company was wonderful in the full choral numbers — I particularly liked the finale version of “Bring On Tomorrow”, which was just beautiful.

Technically, this production represented the continual evolution of the technical side of Nobel. There was strong lighting and reasonably good sound. The sets worked quite well, and the costumes seemed appropriately period.

Although there are too many students to name, some of the adult helpers are worth mentioning. The production was directed by Fanny and Jean. Choreography was by Carolyn Doherty (Aria’s mother). Sara Greenberg was the music director. Brian Bengler consulted on the technical aspects of the production. Set design was by Dennis Kull, and lighting design was by Rebecca Bonebrake.

Lastly, I’ll note that the production was dedicated to Aria Doherty, who as I mentioned, died while the show was in rehearsals. There was a very touching write-up in the program, and the students gave a very touching speech about her at the end of the production.

Alas, we saw the last performance of Fame, although you can order a DVD of the show.

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts:   Next weekend brings “Falling for Make Believe” at The Colony Theatre. The last weekend of May brings “To Kill a Mockingbird” at REP East and The Scottsboro Boys” at the Ahmanson Theatre. June brings “Priscilla – Queen of the Desert” at the Pantages, and (tentative) Sweet Charity at DOMA (although DOMA may be replacing it with “Nine“). June will also bring a Maria Muldaur concert at McCabes.  July is currently more open, with “9 to 5 – The Musical” at REP East in the middle of the month, and “Legally Blonde – The Musical” at Cabrillo at the end of the month. August is currently completely open due to vacation planning. I’m also keeping my eyes open as the various theatres start making their 2013 season announcements. Lastly, what few dates we do have open may be filled by productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411, or discussed in the various LA Stage Blogs I read (I particularly recommend Musicals in LA and LA Stage Times).


An Unnecessary Tragedy in Northridge

userpic=hugsThis morning, before I left for work, I posted a link to an article about the death of 14-year old Aria Doherty in Northridge. As I eat lunch, I’d like to expand on the article. Aria was an honors student at Nobel Middle School [FB] (a few blocks away from our house, and the middle school our daughter attended).  She died Monday night, after “huffing” from a can of compressed air used for cleaning dust out of a computer. According to KNBC, she’d been home alone for a couple hours when she inhaled the duster. Her older sister found Aria in bed with a can of compressed air still attached to her mouth, her nostrils taped shut. A plastic bag was found nearby. The “huffing” had sent Aria into cardiac arrest. Her parents Richard and Carolyn Doherty said they were caught completely off-guard. The Doherty’s kept no dangerous weapons in their Porter Ranch home, stored prescription drugs under lock and key, and recently purged their home of all alcohol. They talked to their teen daughters about the dangers of substance abuse. They had never found any evidence that she had huffed at all; they believe this was her first time. Doherty was a straight-A student, ambitious and very active at her school. She was active in the drama department; we had seen her in at least 3 productions in small roles.

Those of us in the broader Nobel community — parents, students, alumni, parents of alumni, teachers — are spreading the word about this tragedy so it does not happen again. Parents and children need to understand inhalant abuse, what huffing is, what products can be used, and most importantly, how to prevent it.

Trolls are also out there referring to the students that do this as stupid, or to the parents as stupid, and blaming everything under the sun for the problem. They are doing this just to incite comments. Ignore them. Stupidity is not involved.

Here are a few key points, as I see it:

  • This is not a “ban the products” situation. Far too many products useful to society can be used to “huff”, from air freshener to compressed air to correction fluid. It is not practical to ban or limit them.
  • Stupidity is not involved. Immaturity is a different question. We forget that middle-school and high school students are not yet mature. In fact, the human brain often does not finish maturing until the 20s (or even later for men). They may look mature and have mature bodies, but they do not always make mature judgements. Even if our young people are educated about the facts and the dangers, they may still make the wrong risk decision and try this.
  • Peer pressure — to do right or wrong — is often important. Fitting in both in behavior and look is important at this age. Often, but not always, friends can provide clues.
  • The most important thing you can do is to keep the lines of communication open. This is hard for parents of teens, where your child often wants to push away to establish their own identity. Make it clear that you are always there to discuss a risk decision, and indicate that you won’t be judgemental. You will present them with all sides of the issue, and trust that their judgement will make the right decision (moreso as they get older and demonstrate they make the right decisions).

With this tragedy, parents will be holding their children a little closer tonight, grateful they are there. We can’t for a few more days, as ours is still off in Berkeley. So I’d like to publically note that I’m proud of our daughter with respect to her decisions. Although we don’t always agree with them, at least she talks to us about them and considers what we have to say before making her final choice.