Show of Force


Local High School Theater Productions Rival Broadway

Wiping the smiles off their faces, the 40 students on stage at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Md., do as their teacher instructs and channel intensity.

Over the next three minutes or so they hurriedly tiptoe across the stage, maneuvering into alternating formations and warning the audience about the horrors of the demon barber on Fleet Street.

Arms raise to the sky in one swift motion as the music builds and the voices go into rounds of verse.

“Sweeney was smooth, Sweeney was subtle. Sweeney would blink and rats would scuttle,” a cluster of high-pitched females almost chirp out.

When the number is over, the room pauses.

“Tell me how you felt about that,” their vocal coach Dominic Traino comes forward and asks, his tone refusing to give away his impressions.

When no one loudly states their opinion, he answers his own question. “I thought it was just OK,” he volunteers. “I’m used to seeing college productions and professional productions. And you’re just as good as any of them…. I need you to do this like it’s your job.”

Given a reprieve, the company members take their places and belt out the musical’s introduction once more. In Traino’s eyes, there’s a marked improvement, and he lets them know that they are capable of pulling off an awesome feat: performing “Sweeney Todd,” the Stephen Sondheim production that theater experts agree is an extremely rigorous show for veteran actors, let alone high schoolers.

“This will be one of the hardest things you’ll ever do on stage,” Traino concludes. “But you can do it. Every time the company sings together it’s like Halleluiah.”

The rehearsal is a window into the increasingly demanding world of high school theater. Whereas at one time student productions were a mere extracurricular affair, these days some high schools take their plays and musicals very seriously, staging elaborate numbers that practically rival Broadway.

In the Washington region, Bishop McNamara, an 850-student private school in Prince George’s County, has become known for its emphasis on fine arts, particularly theater. Drama department head Mary Donahue came to the school two years ago when the former director left and coincidentally her dance-loving daughter expressed an interest in attending the school.

Donahue said it had always been a dream to put on “Sweeney Todd,” the dark tale of a murderous London barber that was also made into a recent movie starring Johnny Depp and directed by Tim Burton. A few years back, while she was a drama professor at Georgetown University, Donahue’s students staged the dramatic show, but she allowed a student to take on the role of direc-tor.

The timing felt right for Donahue to be at the helm of this production at Bishop McNamara.

“The movie came out so there was so much interest in ‘Sweeney Todd,’” she said. “And it also helped that Music Theatre Inter-national put out a version of the show that high schools could do, although we’ve looked and looked and looked and it’s really as difficult as the original, just trimmed down a bit.”

In recent years, the same modifications have been made to such legendary shows as “Les Miserables” so that high schools can secure the rights and give them a try on their stages.

Students at Bishop McNamara have been excited by the challenge of the show, according to Donahue. Dillon DiSalvo, who plays Judge Turpin, says the students expect huge crowds. “A lot will come expecting the movie, but that’s not what we’re doing,” he explained. “The play is more of a dark comedy, where the movie is just dark.”

This time around, more students tried out for spots in “Sweeney Todd” than in previous productions, which made the process of casting and cuts even more suspenseful. Now that the selected students are in full practice mode, the lead actors at times devote up to six days a week to the show, between singing rehearsals and technical days, when costumes and sets are built.

Donahue, who has spent 30 years teaching theater in the D.C. region, is accustomed to productions at the college and university level. She said the biggest adjustment with high school plays is that the shows are nearly as grand in scale, yet she doesn’t have separate staffs or departments to take on ticket sales and other details.

“We really do it all,” she said.

Across in Virginia at Wakefield High School in Arlington, theater teacher Chris Gillespie says he feels that the region’s emphasis on arts and culture — through its wide array of performance companies and museums — is why high schools are devoting more energy to their theater programs.

His school has also become renowned for its active and elaborate productions. This fall, Wakefield students are staging “High School Musical,” which is much more family friendly than some of the school’s past productions, such as “Guys and Dolls” and the more serious “The Boys Next Door” about mentally handicapped individuals living on their own.

“Every show is a different creature. The kids bond around the show and around each other,” Gillespie explained. “ For this show the kids are the most energetic I have ever seen.”

But perhaps the most unique element of Wakefield’s program is a long-running partnership with Signature Theatre that allows students to work with area professionals. Gillespie’s predecessor began the effort more than a decade ago. The way it works is that in the beginning of the school term, students audition for a slot in a Signature play. Once selections are made, a professional playwright is brought in to write a completely new script that’s custom-made for the students involved.

Signature directors then work with the student cast, and the results are performed for all the other schools in Arlington over the course of a week.

“The great experience with my kids is not only do they get to work with a professional director and professional playwright, they also get professional actors in the play with them,” Gillespie said. “It’s quite an opportunity.”

Throughout the year, theater lovers can also choose between taking one of a handful of drama-centered courses or participating in after-school theater productions, such as “High School Musical” this fall and “A Chorus Line” in the upcoming spring.

Gillespie said in-class students also get to take part in various other productions. Currently the one-act play that’s getting their attention is “Psycho Beach Party,” which satirizes ’60s beach flicks and also throws in a host of Hitchcockian references. The plan is to bring that work to all-day Virginia state theater workshops and conferences, a usual practice for the school.

Later on in the year, the high school will tackle the one-act Civil War-era play “Wind Chimes,” which was written by a Wakefield senior. Gillespie said that beyond instructing students in acting and set design, he tries at every turn to help them in writing the plays that will get stage time. “Wind Chimes” is a perfect example of this.

Come next year, Wakefield will take on its biggest endeavor yet. The hope is to stage a major musical that involves all three Arlington high schools. Preparation has only just begun and rights for the plays have yet to be secured — but the excitement is already building.

“The idea is to do something on a bigger scale, something that as individual schools we’d have a difficult time doing,” Gillespie said. “It will be an all-county affair.”

About the Author

Dena Levitz is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.