Judging from the magnitude of high school performing arts centers recently built in Northeast Arkansas, student theater and arts programs are gaining ground and getting some well-deserved recognition.
Student stage productions have long been relegated to a distant back seat behind athletic programs despite the required hours of extracurricular effort to which student actors and crews, just like student athletes, must commit.
While it’s been fairly commonplace to watch sparkling new gymnasiums, for example, or Astroturf football fields pop up at high schools sporting successful athletic teams, the arrival of state-of-the-art arts centers is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Just in and around Jonesboro in recent years, Nettleton, Valley View, Brookland and Harrisburg schools have all built impressive auditoriums complete with roomy backstage spaces, large performing areas and ample audience seating.
Jonesboro High School, whose auditorium was a model example when it was built decades ago, is hoping to follow suit and construct a performing arts center commensurate with its highly reputed fine arts department.
The JHS theater program joined an elite group of high schools nationwide in 2005 when it produced a jaw-dropping performance of the Broadway musical “Les Misérables,” and its tradition of packing the house each spring continued this year when it brought “Fame” to the stage.
“Fame” was originally a 1980 film about a group of students attending New York City’s fabled Performing Arts High School. The movie fared only respectably at the box office, but it won Academy Awards for both its score and title song. The musical adaptation premiered in 1988 in Miami and had a 264-performance run off-Broadway in 2003-04.
Requiring a number of songs by various performers, the depth of talent necessary to produce “Fame” can present a daunting challenge for a high school theater group. Once again the JHS talent pool rose to the occasion, and the result was a show overflowing with outstanding vocal performances and dance routines.
Only a couple of the nearly 30 “Fame” cast members were involved with the landmark “Les Mis” production. They were joined by classmates with plenty of other credentials, including several members of all-state choir and JHS’ 6A state championship dynasty dance teams.
“Fame” is a story about high school students, so the bulk of the cast was age-appropriate. Notable exceptions were the teachers’ roles, but even here director Krisie Holmes’ casting was flawless as teen-agers ably captured the mannerisms, language and tone of much older teachers passionate about their craft and their students.
Indeed, even though its numbers include an Oscar-winner, “Fame” is replete with songs that carry the story and showcase the performers in lyric and verse. Early in the musical, lead character Nick Piazza sings a fitting one called “I Want to Make Magic.”
Eons ago, my high school art teacher explained the magic of theater to me. Day in, day out, the actors, stage crews and musicians play their roles in a coordinated production without a safety net. Anything can go wrong (and often something does), but so much more always goes right.
In one of the truest manifestations of artistic expression, theater starts with a paper script and ends with a live experience, ranging the spectrum of human emotions as it unfolds. With “Fame,” the JHS cast mastered the enchantment, handling challenging singing assignments written for professional actors and delivering the plot’s pains and joys with compelling effect.
Who among the audience hadn’t once upon a time had a crush on an older student? A secret dream? A classmate who battled drugs? Most had once donned a graduation gown, too, and when the chorus cut loose in the song, “Bring on Tomorrow,” hearts were swelling throughout the auditorium, both in personal remembrance and in parental anticipation. (My senior daughter was next to me.)
The ovation was thundering as the cast reprised the musical’s signature song in triumph. Besides the curtain closing on the run’s final performance, it’s an added shame that neither this talented JHS crew nor any other Arkansas high school theater group can aspire to take the production “on to the Kennedy Center!”
That commendation is attained only through participation in the Critical and Awards Program, or Cappies, which currently has no Arkansas chapters. Neighboring Missouri has three.
The Cappies train high school theater and journalism students to attend shows and write and publish theatrical reviews in local newspapers. At the end of the year, the student critics vote on a large list of awards, which are presented at the chapter’s formal Cappies Gala. Each summer, top award winners from around the U.S. and Canada are invited to participate at the Cappies International Theater, where they perform shows at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
It takes only four schools to form a Cappies program, and it sure looks like Northeast Arkansas has enough theater programs—and talent—to apply.