Teens given a shot at a Broadway hit

Theater: With help of veterans, a young cast will perform "Les Miserables" - a play not usually seen on the student stage.

August 08, 2002|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Watching them rehearse in trailers behind Howard Community College's Smith Theatre this week was, frankly, a little frightening.

The floor vibrated, the walls shook, the lights seemed to flicker.

Just a few feet away, 40-plus teen-age performers blocked out their places, belted out complicated melodies with emotion, and gave everything they had to a musical they typically would not be allowed to perform.

"We just [worked on] the epilogue," said Broadway veteran Dawn Younker Reilly, the show's director. "I almost cried. They're that good. ... There won't be a dry eye in the house."

The teen-agers, who range in age from 13 to 18, are part of a professional theater camp started this summer by Toby Orenstein, who owns Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia. This is Orenstein's first stab at a camp that weeds out participants based on talent, although she has been running all-inclusive theater camps for a decade.

The group met three days last week to learn songs for an author-approved, student edition of Les Miserables, and now they are down to the business of mapping out their movements onstage.

"It's an intense schedule," said Parker Drown, a 17-year-old from Columbia. "It's more intense than anything I've ever done."

Troupe members have less than two weeks to learn their marks, get their costumes and pull the show together before they give their three public performances.

Student version

The Broadway cast had six weeks to do the same thing, but this show is a little different.

Some of the keys have been changed to accommodate younger voices, and some of the content has been cut so the running time is two hours instead of three. But the soul of the musical is intact.

"Every scene, in some aspect, is still in the show," said Reilly, who toured with the national cast of Les Miserables for four years. "There are just little nips and tucks to make it more suitable for kids."

Typically, community theaters would not get their hands on licensing rights to Broadway shows until they are well off Broadway, and Les Mis is going strong. A Columbia woman, Stephanie Waters, is performing as Cosette in the Broadway musical.

But a project by Music Theatre International (MTI), a New York company, makes it possible for some shows to fall into students' hands as long as their authors approve.

The first student-adapted Les Mis shows were put on by youths starting last week in Topeka, Kan., and Durham, N.C.

Bob Corrigan, spokesman for MTI, says 102 troupes - mostly affiliated with schools - have bought licensing rights to do the show in the next year. Another 576 requests are pending.

"If I were a teacher, I'd be salivating to do this show," Reilly said.

The teen-agers certainly are.

"This is the show that made me want to get into theater," said Mary Kate Brouillet, a 15-year-old from Glenelg. "I heard the music first when I was about 8 ... and ever since then it's been my dream to do it. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity."

Stiff competition

She and 139 others auditioned for the camp this summer; 43 were accepted.

"It's not like regular camp," said Caroline Bowman, 14. "Everyone here is really talented. We're all on the same level."

Orenstein said the idea behind the camp was to pool as much talent as she could and give the students the opportunity to work with professionals, such as Reilly and musical director Ross Rawlings, who directed national tours of Cabaret and the coming Fosse.

"I have always felt that teens can rise to any level of professionalism if you expose them to it," Orenstein said. "If you raise the bar of excellence, they'll meet it."

That is the challenge she gave her director, whom she knew from working with her before Les Mis.

"I'm trying to bring as much as I can to the plate without overfilling their heads," Reilly said. "But they suck it up like sponges. ... I keep looking at them and wondering who in this group I'll see on Broadway myself someday."

Toby's Summer Teen Professional Theatre Camp will perform Les Miserables at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 16 and 17 and 2:30 p.m. Aug. 18 at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre in Columbia. Tickets are $10, $8 for senior citizens and children ages 12 and younger. Information: 410-381-0700 or www.cctarts.com.

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