Championship performance

Posted on April 18, 2014. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , |

This year I’ve had the pleasure of watching two Jonesboro High School athletic teams capture 6A state championships.

In November, the Lady Hurricane volleyball team prevailed in a 5-set thriller over Benton. And in March, the boys’ basketball team stunned a powerful Parkview squad that hadn’t lost a game in Arkansas all season.

Saturday night, I saw another JHS championship-caliber performance, but because the students were wearing costumes instead of uniforms, there is no trophy to bring home for their efforts.

High school fine-arts programs are on the upswing, as evidenced by recent investments in performing-arts centers across northeast Arkansas. The new JHS facility is the latest and grandest to be completed in this area, and choral director Krisie Holmes continued the school’s tradition of ambitious stage productions by selecting the longest-running Broadway musical as the center’s inaugural spring show.

The Phantom of the Opera needs no introduction among the theater-going faithful. The tale of a tragic love triangle involving a masked musical genius, his beautiful young soprano student and the wealthy suitor competing for her affection debuted in London in 1986, and arrived on Broadway less than two years later. It’s renowned not only for its sensational Andrew Lloyd Weber score (with delightful Charles Hart lyrics), but also its lavish sets, technical feats and lush costuming.

Since R&H Theatricals licensed a high school version in 2010, only 50 or so performances have been attempted by students in the entire country.

On the JHS stage, in scene after scene the striking and innovative set construction and costuming rivaled the actors’ vocals. From the Phantom’s boat on the misty subterranean lake beneath the Paris Opera House to the glitzy New Year costume gala to the somber sepulcher of Christine Daae’s father, the JHS production crew achieved breathtaking illusory opulence.

In addition to state-of-the-art stage mechanics and equipment, the new JHS Performing Arts Center’s sound system gave full voice to the cast and orchestra. The Phantom’s deep organ chords swelled up from his dungeon lair to reverberate in my chest. Advanced wireless microphone technology allowed all performers to showcase their tremendous vocal talents loud and clear.

The Phantom’s songs require complex range and delivery, as he shifts from love-struck and affectionate moments to angry and sinister ones, and Christine’s operatic arias run up and down the octaves (literally, at one dramatic moment in the play).

Each character is matched with masterly musical assignments that are both memorable and defining: the power and scale in Carlotta’s grandiose “Prima Donna,” the flustering new theater owners contending with the Opera Ghost’s demands in “Notes,” and the ensemble songs like “Masquerade,” whose lyrics and choreography were simply visually and vocally overwhelming.

The JHS teens nailed them all.

“The Music of the Night” (probably the show’s best-known song) — an absolute triumph by the Phantom.

“Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” — Christine brought down the house.

“All I Ask of You” — Raoul made young girls in the audience shriek.

The roar of the applause as the Phantom finished belting out, “It’s over now, the music of the night!” (with role-originator Michael Crawford intensity and timbre) rivaled that which accompanied the state volleyball winning kill and the buzzer signaling the state basketball victory.

Even before the curtain call, patrons and parents were standing in ovation.

To play off the Phantom’s phrase, an achievement beyond imagination had occurred.

Nobody who had seen a Phantom Broadway or national touring production would have thought a bunch of high school kids in Jonesboro, Ark., could pull it off—unless, like me, they had seen the JHS production of Les Miserables in 2005.

Now, as then, the scores of students comprising the cast, production crew and orchestra deserve more accolades than just a cheering crowd. Like star athletes, several cast members are heading off to prestigious college music and theater programs on scholarship.

But they get no championship ring or media write-up, and it’s time they did.

Arkansas needs a Critics and Awards (Cappies) chapter so that performances like the one I saw Saturday night could have a chance for recognition at the national annual Cappies Gala held in the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

The Cappies program promotes and develops both theater and journalism students—who attend shows at other schools and write original reviews for publication in supporting newspapers—and rewards student theatrical accomplishments at a chapter awards gala involving local VIPs.

The teacher-mentored student critics vote to identify five nominees in 35 categories ranging from technical areas such as sound, sets, lighting, costuming and choreography to performance classifications such as lead and supporting actors and vocalists. Overall “bests” for song, play and musical are also presented at the chapter gala, at which students perform musical selections and sketches from nominated shows.

We do a great job recognizing student athletic talent, as evidenced by the state championship trophies displayed in the JHS gym lobby.

I hope that before long there are some star-shaped Arkansas Cappies awards being given to talented Arkansas theater students. They work and practice and sacrifice like athletes do, and the best of them deserve some statewide applause.

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