A Boston middle school imparts valuable arts lesson

Music: Passion and commitment can make a real difference when there is only a shoestring budget, yet they can only do so much.

June 29, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The calendar year is only half over, but the 1998-1999 classical music concert season is completely finished. I have seen some impressive musical theater performances this past season -- among them a beautifully cast "Norma" (Baltimore Opera Company) and an unbeatable troika of Russian operas, Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" (the Washington Opera), "Khovanschina" (New York's Metropolitan Opera) and Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" (Baltimore Opera).

In some respects, however, the production that impressed me most was a performance early in June of Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" in Boston.

The venue was Umana-Barnes Middle School, the sort of inner-city institution in which rolls of toilet paper are secured to bathroom walls by heavy steel chains. The cast was a bunch of unknown 12- and 13-year-olds -- many of whom were born (or whose parents were) in places as far away as Haiti, Brazil and Korea.

Some of these kids were fantastic: 13-year-old Tizania Moccia, whose Reno Sweeney was so powerfully sung and impersonated that it made me remember that Porter had written the role for Ethel Merman; and 12-year-old Meredith Pierce, whose irrepressible singing and dancing in the chorus made believable old tales about the overnight transformation of a chorine into a star.

We all hear a lot of doom-and-gloom about the lack of arts education in the schools and -- what is even worse -- about inner-city kids who can neither read or even speak English.

Here were real-life denials of all that.

At least half of these kids, according to Boston school officials, came from homes where English was not the first language, and some of them could not even speak it less than three years ago. Yet they were confidently handling what are perhaps the most theatrically elegant, sophisticated and musically complex songs of American 20th-century popular music.

And who says money is needed for arts education?

These performances of "Anything Goes" cost the city of Boston nothing.

Umana-Barnes drama teacher Adam Brown put together this production (as well as productions earlier in the season of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and Frank Loesser's "Guys and Dolls") for a cost of only about $6,000 (including costumes, scenery, props and musicians).

"You don't need money for theater -- all you need is passion and hard work," says Brown, who raises all the money himself in the hours left to him after his full-time job as a Barnes-Humana teacher and his unpaid after-hours one as a theater director.

"You can make something out of nothing," Brown adds. "We beg and scrape for donations; we scrounge around for all sorts of stuff. More money wouldn't help us do better drama."

But what money would do would make such experiences as the Humana-Barnes "Anything Goes" more freely available to the people of the city of Boston and to cities everywhere in our country.

You can get something for nothing only when you have an Adam Brown (and the dozens of kids he inspires) willing to do for nothing what costs plenty in terms of passion and hard work.

But in Boston's 125 public schools, Brown says, there are only 30 certified theater arts teachers. He contrasts this with his own experience growing up in New York City 20 years ago, when every public school had at least one such teacher.

"We had almost everything," says Brown, 34, about the children of his generation. "My kids have almost nothing."

Enthusiasm, passion and talent are always more important than dollars -- but money never hurts.

Pub Date: 6/29/99

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