Friday, March 2, 2007
Evita at CCHS: Argentina comes to Concord
While most students were taking a little time off last week, CCHS was a hive of activity as over 100 students spent their February vacation powering through a ramped-up schedule of rehearsals and technical work to launch their upcoming production of Evita, which opens tonight at 7:30 p.m. in the CCHS auditorium.
On Thursday of vacation week at midday, the kids were getting hungry. They were restive, struggling to hold their concentration as George Kendall, drama teacher and director of the show, put them through their paces for "one more scene." Al Dentino, band director, music teacher, and longtime conductor for CCHS musicals, promised his pit orchestra that they could go to lunch "right after we finish this number." Kids, including some younger siblings, were everywhere, moving through the warm, dark auditorium, draped on stairs, relaxed in the seats. Stage lights brightened and faded as they were tested and focused, and stage manager and junior Eric Johnson of Carlisle dashed onto the stage to fill in for a missing cast member and then off to attend to backstage business. In the aisles, students practiced dance steps, adjusted clothing, watched the onstage action, text-messaged. Through a door to the hall, more kids were visible, carrying costumes, paintbrushes and tools, rushing into the old home-ec kitchen for lunch. It might have seemed a scene of utter chaos, except that everyone had something to do and was doing it.
The story of Eva Perón
Last Thursday, Evita was in good shape, and that is saying a lot. This is not an easy musical on any level. Andrew Lloyd Webber's music and Tim Rice's lyrics tell the story of Eva Duarte de Perón (1919-1952), wife of the Argentine dictator Juan Perón. One of five illegitimate children, she rose from a life of poverty and degradation and an undistinguished career as a stage and radio actress to marry the widowed dictator. She never held a government post, but as Perón's wife, she became an iconic figure in Argentine politics. Acting as de facto minister of health and labor, she raised money through her own foundation for hospitals, orphanages and schools and championed the working poor. In the course of her short career, she alienated most of Argentina's élite society, whose resources she plundered, but managed to maintain such popularity among the working classes that they tried to have her canonized after her death from cancer.
Inspired by this dynamic character, Webber and Rice wrote the groundbreaking biographical musical Evita that opened on Broadway in 1978. The highly-charged political story challenges high school students to understand and bring to life Eva Perón's ambitious and meteoric rise and the often Machiavellian workings of her husband's military-backed Peronista Party. The
More than a musical
To add to the puzzle, the musical is written in opera form, with no spoken lines, so that the entire story is rendered musically. Director Kendall chose the show largely because of this particular challenge, to give his students a chance to explore and perform characters and plot presented entirely in song. "I have the students for four years," he says. "I want to give them exposure to as many genres of music and theater as possible in that time. It's a way of keeping theater alive for them. Even if they don't go on in the field as a career, they'll appreciate live theater, go to see it, and pass it on to their own families." Unlike former Rice-Webber collaborations such as Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita is not a rock opera, but encompasses a wide variety of contemporary musical styles. Kendall affirms, "It requires good musical training" and the ability to adapt to different musical genres as a way to tell the story. The maturity and mastery of the music push the performers to their best. Carlislean Owen Callahan, a junior, plays Juan Perón, a role that will demonstrate a prodigious development from his theatrical beginnings as Sky Masterson in Carlisle's seventh-grade production of Guys and Dolls Jr. The starring role of Evita is played by Concord senior Annalee Mulhall, a seasoned performer having played Maria in West Side Story in 2005, and Jenny Lind in Barnum last year at CCHS.
Vocal ranges, Kendall says, are "challenging, and the music polishes inherent talent." To showcase the talents of the actors at CCHS, Kendall added songs that were not yet written for the original Broadway production, but appeared in later London productions and in the 1996 movie version starring Madonna. In addition, he reassigned one or two songs written for certain characters to others, to create singing roles for new characters and display more CCHS talent to the audience.
Evita also calls for a children's chorus, performed in this production by nine Carlisle sixth graders — Sarah Means, Jasmine Khayami, Susannah Krapf, Camilla Vilain, Anya Kaufman, Alison Yousefi, Jacqueline Gray, Harriet Ketchen, Sadina Videlock and Alexandra Mundel — and one Concord student, Elana Israel. Kendall relishes this chance to include the younger students, to give them a chance to "see where they'll be going and what they'll be capable of" when they get to CCHS.
Onstage performers are only part of the whole picture here, of course. Dealing with an opera means an enormous commitment by the orchestra as well, because there is no moment without music; they play through the entire show. In the Evita orchestra there are 26 talented students, playing a full range of instruments from bass guitar to harp. Concord's John Eldridge, pianist, even arranged some of the music. Carlisle's Emily Fritz-Endres, a clarinetist who is a second-year "pit" veteran, effuses about the chance to play Evita. "It's really an exciting thing to do: we're all an integral part of it, all the time." In many ways, the orchestra is the star of the show. Playing through well over 300 pages of music, they certainly have the largest role. Conductor Al Dentino says that the orchestra began work "a couple of weeks before the holidays," and has rehearsed "every Thursday night." Kendall credits conductor Dentino with supporting the choice of Evita, despite its considerable challenges. "Al told me," he says, "that our kids can play anything. And they can."
Working behind the scenes
Behind the scenes of Evita is a large crew of "techies," students who build the set and execute its decoration and design and run lighting and sound. Kendall says that he is fortunate to work at CCHS with a strong group of "tech-savvy" students. "I can give them a concept, and, with guidance, they can execute it." Stage manager Johnson designed the Evita set with such a concept. Last Thursday, it was nearly finished and lighting and sound were well along too, showing the hard work, efficiency and organization of the technical crews. The impact is extremely impressive, practical and far more sophisticated than most high school technical efforts. During Thursday's rehearsal, stage, lighting and sound crews were already a formidable team, working together to create the visual and audial effects and seamless transitions that underpin and enhance the performers' work.
There is another behind-the-scenes crew of supporters to the CCHS musical too. On Thursday a legion of parents was very much in evidence, working on costumes, testing make up, and serving a hot homemade lunch to everyone. One hardworking mother said they are there every day during February vacation, feeding cast, crew, directors, and themselves (when they get a chance). George Kendall expressed deep gratitude for the services of these dedicated people. "In my second year here at the school I am still humbled, and so pleased, with how supportive everyone has been for this program, from the superintendent to the parents to CCPOPS. We could not do the kind of work we do, get the kids to do the kinds of things they're capable of, without the support of all these folks."
Every year, CCHS musicals are a tremendous success and a testament to the creativity, talent and dedication of everyone involved with them. This one is going to be stunning. Tickets are still available, so make it a point to see Evita. Performances are in the CCHS auditorium tonight and tomorrow, March 2 and 3, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, March 4, at 2:30 p.m. and on March 9 and 10, at 7:30 p.m. and March 11 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets for all performances are $15, $10 for students and seniors. All seats are reserved, and tickets may be purchased online at www.ticketstage.com or by calling 1-978-341-2490. Tickets are also available at the door.
© 2007 The Carlisle Mosquito