Oh Auntie Em, There’s No Place like Johnson Theater!

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For much of America, the High School Musical is a cliché, the subject of abundant and tender good humor.  Both television and the silver screen have had their fun with the concept of high school students singing and dancing their amateur hours across the stage.  To be fair, there have also been times where the take was not so genial, and when the hurtful drama of adolescent relationships has been the target of a screenwriter’s pen.  But generally speaking, thinking about musical theater involving high-schoolers brings indulgent smiles and gentle memories.

Unless, of course, you’ve been to a Norfolk Academy Winter Musical in the last decade or so.

This year’s edition is The Wizard of Oz.  I saw the initial performance last Wednesday and, like T. S. Eliot’s famous traveler, “knew it for the first time.”  It is a production beautifully choreographed, wonderfully acted, and presented in costumes and onstage sets a professional performer would envy.  It is an enterprise breathtaking in scope.  We had invited members of the Cornerstone Society (alums more than 50 years beyond graduation) to attend, and at the end they were agog.  Each had the same questions. How can we do this?  How do the thirty-some odd Munchkins or Emerald City denizens know where to go? How can we make people fly? How do the kids remember all those lines?  And most importantly, who taught those students to sing so beautifully?

I realized I had become spoiled over the years, and had gotten used to something very special, if not unique.  First of all, the theater itself is spectacular.  I remember when my sister, who made a life out of writing, producing and directing high school musicals at the Madeira School, visited Johnson when it was 2/3 complete.  She shook her head, emitted a low whistle, and said, “I feel sorry for whoever has to put on shows in here.  That person is going to have a hard time living up to this.”  Well, I don’t know how hard it has been, but first Ron Newman and now Caroline Bisi have put on shows every single year that more than live up to the space in which they are presented.  Oz may be the finest yet, although I can bring to clear recognition scenes and numbers from over three decades of shows.

There’s Tim Oliver and Brianna Yacavone singing “Tonight” from the West Side Story balcony.  There’s Amelia Zontini screeching, “Oh Nathan!!” at a befuddled Jason Kypros in Guys and Dolls.  How about Richard Crouch, stunning the crowd (none of whom had any inkling he could even sing) in the opening number of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, a role magnificently reprised a decade later by Michael Protacio, who has made a legitimate career out of his perfect, pure tenor.  Then there’s Lex Booth and Rebecca Nelson, locked in a romantic, whirling dance to the tune of Beauty and the Beast.  And more recently, Maggie Pecsok soars off to Neverland as Peter Pan. I simply don’t have room to list every show, and no disrespect is meant to those shows absent here.

The point is I can recall them all.  And like Oz, each has been an artistic achievement. I, we, have grown accustomed to the excellence of these shows. When we meet someone for whom Oz was a first, we realize again how much talent–student and faculty, on and off the stage–comes together in the Tucker Arts Center.

There’s one other aspect to this, a subject I tend to dwell on in these musings.  The Tin Man is being played this year by Rice Webb.  He’s wonderful in the role.  He’s also the same little guy that sat in my Ancient History class four years ago and wracked his brain to solve Zeno’s paradox.  Seeing that young man, brilliant but once pre-adolescent and timid in Middle School, have the confidence to dance stiff-legged and joyous while singing, “If I Only Had a Heart,” makes my job deliciously satisfying.

This school changes its students, or, better yet, arranges things in ways in which students can change themselves.  The Winter Musical stands as annual proof positive of this.  Caroline Bisi, Dean Englert, Elbert Watson, and all the other adults involved with its production are not, in the end, just putting on a play.  They are bringing young men and women into a fuller life.

And we get to stand and applaud.

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