For the third straight year students from Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School got huge bravos from the judges and walked away with some top honors and serious recognition during a recent national theater festival.`
BRAVO – the school’s fine arts and performing arts program – won a coveted Outstanding Production for “Schoolhouse Rock, Live Jr,” during the 2012 Junior Theater Festival. The three-day extravanganza, devoted to musical theater for young people, was from Jan. 13 through Jan. 15 at the Cobb Galleria Centre in Atlanta.
Eighth-grader Max Gonzalez took home a top honor as Outstanding Male Performer. Eighth-grader Maggie Lynch and seventh-grader Alex Frendt were selected as Junior Theater Festival All-Stars and performed “You Can’t Stop the Beat” from “Hairspray” (BRAVO’s spring production) with 130 other students during the closing awards show. Leo Weinberg, an eighth-grader, was named a Technical All-Star for his prowess behind the scenes.
It wasn’t just the awards that made the trip memorable for the 41 performers. The ensemble was asked to strut its stuff before as many as 3,500 people on the Saturday and Sunday of the festival:
- They sang “Nouns” from “Schoolhouse.”
- They did a junior-sized performance of “Finian’s Rainbow,” during the Disney Theatrical Productions’ New Works Showcase.
- Timothy McDonald, the founder of JTF, was so impressed with that performance that he asked the troop to perform "Finian's again during Sunday’s improv slam, a performance attended by executives from the NBC series SMASH.
- The group also sang “Seize the Day” from the musical “Newsies” with nearly 130 other youngsters. And four of the Brooks guys - Gonzalez, Alonte Williams, Emilio Amaya and Tommy Figel - led a “master class,” helping choreograph and prepare the kids for that number.
It all was pretty heady stuff for them but they handled all the pressure like real pros, said Tina Reynolds, BRAVO’s artistic director, who has guided the program for nine years.
Lynch said the ensemble brought its work – a production with different harmonies and choreography by Michael Jones and Dantriell Houston – to a whole new level. That helped make it fun to do, she said, and the energy and the great connections between cast members really showed in their work onstage.
“We just blew away the competition,” said Lynch who would like a career in performing. “Judges were amazed. Jeff Calhoun (who is directing “Newsies” on Broadway and was the adjudicator of BRAVO’s performance) said he now knew we were called BRAVO. He said he saw one family, not 41 individual performers. He said he wished Broadway actors he worked with had the same work ethic and commitment that we displayed. Those (comments) were so much better than getting any trophy. We’re still flying high from it all.”
Gonzalez said this year was phenomenal because there so many more opportunities for the ensemble to perform.
“The ‘master class’ was great because I got to teach so many kids to I could relate to. I had the greatest time doing it,” said Gonzalez, who would like to perform and teach theater. “What made it great, too, was that I was performing with all of my friends, we were a family, and it was great to come together to perform and story tell. We’re a family.”
Reynolds was confident that the students would pull out all the stops and perform like the real troopers that they were. Especially amazing, she said, was that half the cast of “Schoolhouse” was different from the one that put on the production in November.
“I felt they were really great going into it and about the performance they were bringing,” Reynolds said. “They were ready to go, the show was very strong and as tight as it was ever going to get. They really were wonderful. The opportunities they were given were incredible. We feel very fortunate for sure.”
The festival is sponsored by iTheatrics, a New York-based organization that takes Broadway shows and changes the keys of the songs to fit younger performers’ voices, shortens the scripts and in the case of such shows as “Hairspray” makes them G-rated.
Brooks was invited to participate four years ago because of the program’s reputation, Reynolds said, and has been back ever since. The festival this year drew 65 groups organized by schools, after-school programs, park districts and community-theater groups from around the country. Brooks competed against other middle schools and was the only school in Illinois invited to participate, Reynolds said.