Over the years, I’ve seen far more performances of all sorts than I could ever write about. I’m very selective when it comes to writing about shows I’ve seen. I rarely write up the college or high-school shows I see. But once in a while I see a college or high school production that’s so nicely done, I want to acknowledge the young performers’ good work in print.
I hadn’t intended to write anything when an actor friend of mine and I decided to check out the student production of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Astoria. We’ve enjoyed past work at that school—one of New York’s great performing-arts high schools—and thought it would be fun. And we’ve both performed some Shakespeare when we were younger; we were curious to see how these kids would handle the Bard.
Shakespeare is challenging for actors of any age. So my friend and I decided to just observe quietly, not necessarily expecting too much. But it turned out to be quite a memorable production. (I’m really impressed generally with the level of work that I’ve seen at the Frank Sinatra School. They obviously put a lot of time and care into their productions.) I would like to take a moment to write a little something about what I saw. But to set it in context, let me first describe the way I’ve sometimes seen youth productions of Shakespeare done over the years.
The last time I saw a school production of Shakespeare—at a school that shall remain nameless—the kids showed no indication of knowing the meaning of the lines they were reciting. They gravely intoned their lines as if they believed they must be proclaiming SOMETHING OF GREAT IMPORTANCE AND GREAT SERIOUSNESS. They were reciting, in strictly maintained cadences, what they obviously had been told were SPEECHES OF GREAT SIGNIFICANCE, directed at us in the audience.
I’m sure the teacher/director who guided those kids imagined that this was a way of showing GREAT RESPECT AND REVERENCE for the mighty Shakespeare. But it just didn’t work. And it sure wasn’t what Shakespeare intended when he created plays that, in his lifetime, audience members of all different backgrounds understood and enjoyed. Plays that people went to see because they wanted to see them, not because they felt they “had to” or that this was some kind of “high culture” that was “good for them.”
But too often schools seem to treat a Shakespeare play as some kind of museum piece to be put on exhibit because it is historic.
I liked the way the young actors at the Frank Sinatra School breathed fresh life into the play. If time had permitted, I would have happily thanked each member of that large cast in person after the show for the pleasure they gave me. There were close to 20 kids on stage; I’m not able to list them all by name here. But what a fine ensemble! Each one helped make the show a success.
Each was an individual; I liked hearing all of the different voices and accents and inflections. Each one brought his or her own personality to the work. But—and this is a compliment–they were all performing the play in the same fundamental manner. As performers, they were all on the same wavelength. (Kudos to director Kelly Brady and company.) The characters were talking with one another–not offering orations directed at the audience. The actors all knew the material so thoroughly, they were able to speak their lines easily to each other, with utter naturalness, in a conversational way. They were giving us Shakespeare’s words. But they weren’t delivering speeches to us; they were interacting with one another the way people in real life do. And that made the play come alive for us. It wasn’t a historical relic. The characters felt like human beings, with the same sorts of feelings we all have. We could relate to them.
I’ve had some teachers tell me there’s no point in even having kids attempt to do Shakespeare–insisting that it’s all over the heads of kids and adding that performing it requires life-experience kids simply don’t have yet. Well, these kids seemed to understand the material just fine.
And while some great Shakespearian roles—like Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear—obviously do require greater life experience, As You Like It is actually an excellent play for younger actors (as these kids proved). It deals with young love and unrequited love and love that has to overcome barriers; and teens certainly understand these feelings. And they brought their understandings of these things to the stage.
Imogen Williams, in the leading female role, “Rosalind,” was just wonderful. It’s a terrific role—a dual role, actually, because she also has to dress as a guy (“Ganymede”) for much of the play, and convince everyone around her that she is a guy. And project a bit of mock-macho attitude. And Imogen Williams was thoroughly winning in both characterizations—as the girl who loves a guy but does not know if that can ever work out—and as “Ganymede,” trying to convince others that she’s a guy, and also trying to find out how the guy she likes, “Orlando” (Declan Schmidt) feels about her.
She was right on the money in both roles—sweet and eager, and appropriately funny, too, at times. And crushing on the guy she likes just the way a girl in high school might. The kids played the emotions so well, the play felt unexpectedly contemporary. And it was easy to enjoy. (I also couldn’t help thinking, as she carried off so well the guy’s role, of some narrow-minded right-wing politicians who rail against anything connected with cross-dressing these days; if such bigots had their way, performing this classic play would be illegal.)
Declan Schmidt was stalwart in the leading male role of the play, “Orlando.” It’s not quite as interesting or nuanced a role as that of “Rosalind”/”Ganymede.” (That’s not Schmidt’s fault; it’s just the way Shakespeare wrote the role.) The ardent, heroic “Orlando” is more of a one-note kind of a role, but Schmidt played that note just fine. The virtuous upstanding hero—who’s so smitten with Rosalind that he writes his love for her on one piece of paper after another, nailing his missives to the trees! (I just love it!)
I had no idea who I might see in this production when I entered the building. I was going to the only performance that fit my schedule this week. I happened to wind up seeing the “Orange Cast” for the production; I wished I could have gone again to also see the “Blue Cast” do As You Like It. (According to the program, the Blue Cast had Daniel Stowe—whose past work I’ve very much enjoyed—as “Orlando”; I would have liked seeing him again and it would have been fun seeing how two different actors handled the same role; maybe I’ll be able to catch him in something next year.)
I enjoyed seeing various youths in the cast make the most of their roles—such as Travis Saccenti as a young shepherd in love, and Annie Sullivan as a disdainful shepherdess, and Artem Lakhtikov as a country youth in love with a goat-keeper, played by Maya De La Torre.
They all got into their parts so well that I think that even if you didn’t understand a word of English you’d have been able to follow the plot fairly well (who was in love with who, who was rejecting who, who was angry at who, etc.) just from body language, and tones of voice, and how characters looked at one another. The actors projected the emotions of their characters so clearly, I quickly got caught up in the story.
And oh! I don’t want to forget Jason Schachner, who was incandescent as Touchstone, the court fool. He just lit up the stage. I’ve never seen him before. But what a memorable performance—just a delight! A perfect “Touchstone.” He sure found what was in that character. I smiled every time he came on stage. George M. Cohan, the top Broadway star of the early 20th century, once said that when he first conquered Broadway, there were other actors around with greater technical skills than he had but he won over audiences with his boundless enthusiasm and energy. Audiences just took to him. I thought of Cohan’s words, while relishing the irresistible energy and enthusiasm that Schachner brought to the stage.
I really enjoyed this production a lot. (I never judge youth productions by the same standards I use for Broadway pros; but these kids did a very good job.)
I might add that there’s an actor who works with me, who’s in his 20s, who could have learned a lot just from seeing Schachner’s performance. Because this actor once auditioned for the role of “Orlando” in a production of As You Like It; and when they cast someone else as “Orlando” but offered him instead the smaller part of “Touchstone,” he turned it down, saying he’d read the script and it didn’t look like much of a part. But in the right hands, it’s a terrific part; you can have lots of fun with it. You can shine in it (as Schachner proved). But this actor, who has a real knack for turning down roles, simply missed out. I’ve encouraged him to grab every opportunity he’s offered; that’s how you grow. My words haven’t reached him; seeing this production, with even the smallest roles carried out with gusto, might have taught him something.
Incidentally, the Frank Sinatra School’s production of As You Like It also featured the most realistic fight scenes I’ve ever seen on stage. And a lot of time must have gone into choreographing and practicing every move; the fighting was so exceptionally well-executed. (I was worried they were going to get hurt!) I haven’t seen fighting on stage so believable since the 2010 Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. (That’s the production in which Liev Schreiber punched Santino Fontana so hard one night in previews that Schreiber knocked Fontana off of the stage into the orchestra pit, seriously injuring him; Fontana’s understudy took over the role for the rest of the run.)
And the Frank Sinatra School’s production made good use of every bit of available space, with action spilling out into the aisles of the theater, not just the stage. So we felt immersed in the show. And they ended the performance with a dance that bridged past and present well, and left everyone feeling good.
You’ll find excellent work at New York’s respected performing-arts schools, like LaGuardia, PPAS, and the Frank Sinatra School. As I type these words, a video of the last musical presented at the Frank Sinatra School, Carrie, is available for viewing on the home page of the school’s web site (www.franksinatraschoolofthearts.org). That video won’t be up forever. But if you check it out, you’ll be impressed not only by the performances but also by the first-rate production values at the Frank Sinatra School. The lighting is actually better than they had when Carrie ran Off-Broadway in New York!
* * *
Broadway tickets have grown so expensive that many theater-lovers feel they’re being priced out of the market. But I’d encourage any theater-lover to check out shows at colleges and conservatories, and good high schools. Ticket prices there are very low. You may be pleasantly surprised by the quality of the work. And you may also wind up seeing some future stars.
I’ve seen countless shows over the past quarter-century, for example, at New York’s famed LaGuardia High School of Music & Arts, and the Performing Arts. One of the best productions I ever saw there featured a youth doing his very first musical in which he was so good that I decided to write in this column about the production and his performance; I felt he was someone to watch. That young student, Ansel Elgort, has gone on since then to star in such films as The Fault in Our Stars and West Side Story. (I even got to watch a bit of the filming of West Side Story.) His potential was obvious even in his student days—as I told him and his father back then.
In shows that I’ve created and on albums that I’ve produced, I’ve enjoyed working with plenty of Broadway pros; in many cases, I’ve actually known these artists since they were students. For example, Tony Award-winner Santino Fontana, who’s recorded for me, impressed me so much when he who was 17, I wrote that he was someone to watch. About Stephen Bogardus, who often records with me, has graced more than a dozen Broadway shows (ranging from Falsettos to White Christmas); he first dazzled me on stage when he was just 19. Tony Award-winner Celia Keenan-Bolger, who sang in my theater festival long before she made Broadway, impressed me so much the first time I saw her in a small role in a regional production that I got a picture with her, saying that I sorta wanted “future bragging rights” that “I knew her when.” (That framed picture still sits by my desk to this day.) I wrote that she made a tremendous impact in her small role.
Cody Green, who’s starred on Broadway in shows like Movin’ Out and West Side Story, was one of the best performers I ever saw at Juilliard. (I still have videotapes of him from his student days.) Daniel Talbott and Samantha Soule, two of my other all-time Juilliard favorites, told me one evening back then, when we were sharing a meal together, that someday they’d be making a movie together. It wasn’t just idle day-dreaming; they worked hard to realize their dream. And just last week, a feature film they co-wrote and co-directed, Midday Black, Midnight Blue, won two awards at the prestigious Beverly Hills Film Festival. The movie has found a distributor and will be out this summer! Soule acts in that film, along with Addie Johnson Talbott (who was Daniel Talbott’s girlfriend when I first met him and is today his wife).
It’s good karma to me that people like this—whom I’ve believed in since they were teens– have recorded for me. Daniel, Addie, and Samantha also wowed me with a “48-hour Play” event they did, in which they wrote, rehearsed, and presented short plays–all within just 48 hours! That was inspiring! And I’ve acknowledged them, with appreciation, in my latest book, Max’s Grand Adventure—a children’s book that I wrote within just 48 hours. I would never have tried to write and illustrate a book in just 48 hours had Daniel and Addie not invited me to see their unforgettable “48-Hour Play” event when they were young. So yes, I take young talent pretty seriously!
And yes, I hope that years from now I’ll be able to write in this column that so-and-so, who is now doing so well on Broadway or on TV or in film first impressed me when I caught that talented actor in a production I chanced to see at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts….
* * *
Emmy-winning filmmaker Barry Rubinow has a new film that’s now on the festival circuit, Banded Together. I saw it at the Montclair Film Festival and again, this past week, at the Ridgewood Guild International Film Festival. If its next festival screening were not so far away (out in California), I’d see it again. (I’ll look forward to the eventual DVD, Blu-Ray, or streaming version.) Rich in heart, and sentiment, and good music, this is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen tracing how young artists make the transition to become successful pros.
It traces the stories of eight musicians—friends from boyhood—and the inspiring musician who taught them all (Joseph Sielski), and how they honed their skills, putting in thousands of hours playing together at each other’s homes, and at school, and wherever they could find their gigs.
Each went in a different direction—one found a home on Broadway, where he’s played on more than 20 different musicals; another made his mark in the classical field; another wound up in an iconic rock band; still another wound up leading the high-spirited house band on Conan O’Brien’s TV show (besides freelancing with some of the best-known artists of our time); and so on.
They’ve all remained friends, they all remain committed to their art, and they all still sound amazing when they get together to play. The film tells the story of eight specific individuals (Jimmy Vivino, Jerry Vivino, Floyd Vivino, Lee Shapiro, John Feeney, Douglas Romoff, Jeff Venho, Frank Pagano), but their stories have a universal quality, and would inspire any youth with dreams of making it in the arts. Rubinow has tied everything together seamlessly, combining performance footage both old and new with interviews (Conan O’Brien adds welcome whimsy)–and lots of affection and respect for the artists.
I can’t claim to be wholly objective here because I’ve long known and liked several of the subjects of this film. But filmmaker Rubinow—whom I’d never met before this film—helps me understand even these old friends better. And he’s introduced me, via the film, to other creative artists I’d sure like to know. It’s a heartwarming film—portraits of eight artists as young men, if you will–and I hope it gets wide distribution. I like seeing people living their dreams. The eight musicians Rubinow has focused on are doing just that. And they—and Rubinow—tell their stories well.