Normally, when I see a production, by the end of Act One I already know what I am going to write in my blog assessment. Last night, I went to see Centerville High School’s production, SWEENEY TODD, with my son, my dear theatre colleague, and three Cedarville University theatre students. After a post mortem (post-production conference) at Bill’s Donuts, I still had no idea what I was going to write about this production.
I spun around some ideas last night, even writing an outline. By 2:30am, I was ready to call it a day, deciding to tackle a SWEENEY TODD blog until the morning. However, I was still wide awake, mulling over the experience. This is what good theatre does to me… and for me.
And, here it is morning. 7:51am. I’ve decided to just write. I’ve no outline to guide me, only the moments and experiences swirling through my mind to inspire me.
First, I want to commend several students, and all around great guys I dearly love for their exceptionally strong work, and for being the kind of young men that makes me proud to know them:
David Emery (voice student) who portrayed Anthony
Rob Shisler (piano student) who played electric keyboard/organ/celeste in the orchestra
and David Corson who played Judge Turpin! The big question of the night: Who knew the extraordinary lighting designer could act and sing? I’ve known David since he was a tiny little fellow, and I was so excited to see him as Judge Turpin!
I am so very, very proud of these three young men. David E. and Rob are sophomores, for which I am so thankful for two more years. David C. is a senior, and like his older sister, Amy, who was a piano/voice student with me for twelve years, will be off to college and a career in technical theatre. I am eager to observe David’s college experiences, and see his career blossom.
I’ve never been a solid fan of Stephen Sondheim. I’ve performed the role of The Baker, twice, and Rapunzel’s Prince, in INTO THE WOODS. I’ve seen four or five productions of SWEENEY TODD. Except for Centerville’s production, I’ve slept through most second acts for lack of interest in the show, poor performances, or both. I respect Sondheim’s work tremendously, and marvel at how beautifully, and cleverly he writes lyrics, but I am just not a student of this great master.
Last night, I turned a corner, and for the first time, enjoyed a production of SWEENEY TODD. Most productions are labored. Centerville’s production was anything but labored. If there was anything labored, it was my breathing toward the end due to the increasing excitement of the show’s conclusion, and marveling at the exceptional talent surrounding me in all aspects of this production. These students took an incredibly complicated, difficult and heavy-themed work and presented it with a seemingly sheer little-effort. The work behind the product was ever apparent, but their delivery was remarkably at ease.
Centerville High School’s theatre department is a mini-conservatory. It’s the preparatory training ground for Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, and musical theatre programs at Wright State University, Baldwin Wallace, Carnegie Mellon, University of Michigan, and other reputable college theatre programs. The program, headed by director and theatre educator, Joe Beumer, and the man of many hats, Mike Cordonnier (producer, set-designer, teacher, facility coordinator, technical director/adviser), maintains the philosophy of student-driven productions. The sets are built by students, and many of the fine props/set pieces were student designed. The barber’s chair was actually a senior project for several students. On our back stage tour, led by Mike Cordonnier, my little troupe of thespians marveled, continually dropping our jaws and shaking our heads when we discovered the secrets behind the stage magic we had just witnessed. Professionalism is felt in every corner of the facility, and productions, and I too often forget these are high school students.
The key ingredients to this successful program? First of all, the right adults are in key positions to teach, train and encourage. Centerville City Schools supports the performing arts, and insists on hiring educators who are skilled in this particular area (theatre). Where most schools simply assign an English teacher to direct the plays, the wood shop teacher to build the sets, and art teachers to paint sets, Centerville places experienced, and trained theatre educators at the helm. I am always delighted to see many hands coming from various areas throughout the school to support the performing arts; however, the Centerville formula, and philosophy carried out by the directors, and other staff members, cannot be topped.
The next step is to provide these students a vocational experience – teaching, training, and letting the students gain the experience by doing. Had I not known the background to CHS’s formula, I would have assumed the sets, and all technical aspects were handled by adults trained in technical theatre. Instead, the sets, and all the technical aspects are handled by superbly trained students, educated and encouraged by adults trained in technical theatre. When I first met CHS graduate, Jackson Gallagher, now a junior at Carnegie Mellon, I was astounded by his complete mastery as a high school lighting designer, as well as his working knowledge of so many technical aspects of theatre – the boy was a genius. These past several years, I’ve come to realize this department is full of Jack Gallaghers.
Centerville’s pit orchestras are second to none. Although I’ve never seen the score to SWEENEY TODD, I am certain it is horrendously difficult. With my piano student on organ, celeste and synthesizer for this production, I had a glimpse of the complexity of Stephen Sondheim’s musical magical madness. There were moments when the featured brass sections were both chilling, and breath-taking. The orchestra deserved its own standing ovation in this production.
It’s been twelve hours since I experienced SWEENEY TODD. I still cannot seem to capture, in words, this particular experience. By week’s end, I will have seen four musicals, and I am sure I will need a break; however, I am nibbling at the idea of attending SWEENEY TODD next weekend. As my friend, Suzanne Grote, said, “SWEENEY needs to be seen several times. Even as many times as I’ve seen it I am still finding something new in his [Sondheim] work.”
Yes, I actually need to inject my musical fever with some more Sondheim, however, I want to marvel at the talents of these students and their mentors who know how to master magic and create a marvelous experience.