Rehearsals for the latest production by St. Thomas Playhouse's Summer Theater Project has been like looking into a window at a high school for the performing arts: grueling dance drills and singing practices with taskmaster teachers critiquing every move; tears, and cheers, strains and triumphs all in a day's work.
That's because the latest production is "Fame, The Musical" patterned after the 80s cult film about the famous High School of the Performing Arts in New York. This story follows a group of teens from all walks of life as they navigate demanding academic work while maintaining a rigorous artistic regimen. The choices they will make in the name of fame are inspired and tragic.
The choice to undertake the show this summer has brought unprecedented professional attention to these young actors, with experienced drama and voice artists traveling from as far north and east as New York City and as far south as Mississippi to serve as mentors.
Among them are former alums like Steph Sloan, who has been pursuing her music career while at Boston's Berkelee College of Music and is back to perform in "Fame," lead, and also appear at the Northern Rockies Folk Festival.
"What's special about this experience is that (St. Thomas Playhouse) picks shows that youth can relate to, and then they really guide you through the entire process, they make you dig deep," Sloan said.
The choice of Fame is what drew Millsaps College's James Martin out from his annual role as a voice teacher at the St. Thomas Playhouse Acting Conservatory, the away camp that focuses on the process rather than performance, and onto the stage and to serve as musical director for this show.
"All kids look to express themselves in their high school years," he said. "It's incredible that kids here have an opportunity to do that in an environment that nurtures the arts. It feels natural, not forced. That it's through a church is even better. They use the process to explore issues that are vital to the teens today."
A self-proclaimed prude, Martin said he at first balked at working with young people on "Rent," a musical that addresses drug use and AIDS, that the Project undertook a few years back. However, he said, after spending time with the theater company and seeing the dedication of the kids that gravitate to it, he decided that staging productions that deal with controversial topics is the right thing to do.
"I think any dialogue with young people with curious minds is a good dialogue. If you are having a conversation about a loaded subject, at least you are having a conversation."
The thread from stage to rehearsals is conversation about "the relationships of teachers and students and students to their art and how their art connects them to the rest of the world."
The music is complex, with ensemble singing and adventurous harmonies.
"It has a Broadway feel with all different genres, but it is very contemporary. It's full of everything," Martin explained.
Production Manager Sara Gorby said because Director Kevin Wade and Choreographer Peter Burke live in New York City, auditions were opened to a wider talent pool than ever, which is how Elgin Giles, who has performed in "Fame" elsewhere, was able to join this year.
"There's a mentorship that happens when you mix professionals and semi-professionals," she said. "It enhances the experience for everyone."
Giles said he is being pushed as a performer and inspired by the students.
"I like to be challenged, which Kevin and Peter do, and I like to challenge," he said. "These kids are amazing. I'm surrounded by brilliant, dedicated people who care about the integrity of the process and the show."
Burke is known to hold the crew to a high standard, Gorby said. "We're not just giving them a box step and a grape vine." The audience will feel the sweat equity of the actors when they see the production, which opens Wednesday, June 20, and runs through Saturday, June 23, at 7:30 p.m. at the Community School Theater.
To balance out some of the intensity of the effort, Martin said the film's memorable lunchroom jam session (the one that I led at my all girls' high school that got me suspended) has been added to this show.
"We have contortionists and all manner of spontaneous talent that comes out. These kids are so gifted, it's a nice way to let them feature their individual spar
And! For the younger set:
"Thoroughly Modern Millie, Jr."
A spunky musical with 90 children ages 4-13 singing and dancing their hearts out. The story takes place in the roaring 20s in New York City, a time of celebration and liberation for all, especially females. Millie comes to the city to find her dreams and meets friends and nefarious characters. The children of Company B Performing Arts Day Camp have been rehearsing for the last few weeks led by a professional team including St. Thomas' Playhouse's Sara Gorby, Co-directors Brett Moellenberg and Kristy Kuntz, Musical Directors Dorinda Rendahl and Alyssa Hershey and guest artist choreographers Peter Burke and Elgin Giles.
When: Thursday, Friday and Saturday, June 21-23, at 2 p.m.
Where: Community School Theater, Sun Valley.
Tickets: At the door starting at 1:15 p.m. $10 for adults, $5 for children.