Home > Past Buzz > The Price of Fame
By Brigid Alverson
Friday, June 3, 2005
When the cast members of "Fame" were asked to bring 1980s clothing to a photo shoot, some of them were a little puzzled by the odd request.
"I wasn't born until 1990," notes Lynn resident Presilah Nunez.
Real life meets musical theater this week, as the North Shore Music Theatre's production of "Fame: The Musical" gets underway with a cast that includes 12 local high school and middle school students. While the NSMT hosts many youth productions, this is a rare opportunity for the young people to be part of a professional production in the main theater: The students are working alongside a cast of professional singers, dancers and musicians from New York, many of whom have Broadway and off-Broadway experience.
Of course, "Fame" is not about just any high school. It's about the High School of Performing Arts in New York City, and the students in that school are as talented and ambitious as they come. Again, theater meets real life: Many of the students in the NSMT production have been acting, dancing and singing for years. They auditioned with the same routines as the professional actors and competed against 150 of their peers to get spots in the Youth Ensemble. Most of them have already set their sights on a professional career, so they are relishing the chance to rub shoulders with real actors, and perhaps to get a glimpse into their own futures.
"We get to see these New York actors doing their craft," says cast member Jacob Liberman of Needham.
"... and we get to be in numbers with them," adds Nunez.
"... and if we have any questions, this is their job," points out North Andover's Kelly Buck.
"... and they are really friendly," notes North Reading resident Alex DeLeo.
The older performers have been generous with their time, the teenagers say, explaining to the youngsters how they started their stage careers, even offering to sit down and discuss colleges and applications. "Some had to break from their families and move to New York," says Liberman. "Some had parents that were really supportive. It's been real inspirational for us to be working with them."
Perhaps the highest compliment the director and the professional cast have paid the Youth Ensemble is this: They expect the students to act like professionals, and they treat them like peers.
It began with the auditions. Members of the youth cast are proud that they had to audition with the same song and dance numbers as the professional cast. "That was very cool, to find out we were in the same ballgame as they were in," says Liberman.
Once rehearsals began, the younger cast members were expected to show up on time and learn quickly. "It's much more strict and to the schedule than our high school shows," says Peter Romagna. The Burlington teen and other members of the Youth Ensemble had to set aside their normal high-school stuff - including, for cast member Amanda Rodhe of Manchester, the prom - to accommodate the rehearsal and performance schedule.
If the adults have high expectations, it's because the stakes are lofty. NSMT's theater-in-the-round format makes mistakes impossible to hide. "The audience is all around you," says Nunez. "You can't hide anybody. Everybody has to have talent - you can't hide a bad dancer in the back."
"It proves that theater is a team sport," Liberman says. "When you have audience members, cast members and musicians next to you, you might mess up a line but you have everyone supporting you. The round proves everyone has to be tight, everyone has to know the lyrics, everyone has to pull out that grand jete cabriole."
Keeping it real
For director Richard Stafford, including the teenagers was a way to bring the community into the production. But he has another motive as well: It's good for the other actors to be around some real teenagers.
"From the very beginning, it was important that the New York actors have some day-to-day sense of what being in high school was like," Stafford says.
"They are really young looking, but we are at that level mentally," says Buck. "Being ourselves during break helps them be younger."
Not that these are your typical high-schoolers. All the students in this production have been performing for years, in school plays, youth theater and at the NSMT's own Youth Performance Academy. Nunez has won several youth-theater awards and has already signed a modeling contract. Liberman, who has been acting since he was 12, is only 10 weeks away from getting his Actors Equity card, the sign of a true professional, although he may defer it until after college. Even Romagna, who is performing at North Shore for the first time, has been doing high-school and youth- theater productions since he was 13.
So the kids onstage can relate to the characters in the musical, who are hard-working, ambitious and grabbing their first chance at the big time.
"The show is about us," Nunez says. "It's about our lives. I think we have all said a character basically relates to us."
"I'm Serena," says Rodhe, who wants to be in musical theater someday. "She's in the acting school, and she's shy."
"Richard was talking about the opening scenes when he was talking to the New Yorkers - 'It's life or death if you don't get into this school,'" Buck says. "He's like, 'Teenagers are, like, I will kill myself if that boy doesn't ask me out,' and I was like, 'Oh yeah!'"
Acting like a professional
It's close to 6 p.m. on a rainy evening, and the cast has been working since morning. The professional actors began rehearsals around 10 a.m., and the teenagers joined them after school.
The cast watches appreciatively as Eric Anthony, who plays Tyrone, performs a high-energy song and dance routine. Twice. Then it's time to rehearse a scene change.
The bell rings, or it would if there was an actual bell. Instead, someone says "bell rings." The actors walk onstage. Some carry folding chairs; one jumps on a table. It all looks spontaneous - the first time. But getting 20 people onstage is a complicated task. Stafford and associate choreographer Jonathan Stahl watch the entrance, then stop everyone and make some changes - add a chair here, change a position there. The cast members pick up their chairs and walk offstage.
" Bell rings." The music starts and the actors walk onstage to the same positions as before. They set up their chairs. The young man jumps back on the table. "Let's do that again," says Stafford, who needs to make a change.
Nobody rolls their eyes. The Youth Ensemble members blend smoothly in with the rest of the cast, finding their places onstage along with the others, appearing as spontaneous and relaxed the third time as they did the first.
For the younger cast members, working with the professionals is a taste of real life. "They learn that I start at 3 o'clock. I don't start at 3:05," Stafford says. "They need to know whether they are carrying book, whether they are going from aisle eight to aisle six or six to eight. It's a lot of information to learn quickly, but it's the way it is."
The Youth Ensemble has surprised him. "I didn't think they would pick up things as quickly as they did," he says. "It's very important that we work from an organic place with this show so it doesn't feel like it's put on. It could be very false. So I gave some basic instructions - walk over here, talk about something at school. They pick it up very quickly."
That's because they take it seriously. "We have to do lines, blocking, things you keep in your head," Nunez says. "You have to be mature with these people from New York. You can't be jumping around."
The class of the future
With maturity comes commitment, and the youth cast members have given up a lot to be in this show. "I don't remember the last time I went out with my friends," says Nunez.
All the members say that parents, teachers and friends have been supportive. "Every time I go to debate class, my teacher says, 'I'm coming to see you on June 9,'" says Rodhe.
" My whole school wants to come," adds Buck.
The youth cast members are earnest about keeping up with their schoolwork, even if that means cutting back on social activities. "You'll usually find that when young people do professional theater, their grades go up," Liberman says.
"The New Yorkers are so focused on what they do," says Buck. "Part of this process is that we have to take care of our grades so we can get into college."
The students see acting school as the next step toward a career on stage. DeLeo, who is in middle school, plans on going to a performing arts high school, then a college with a good theater or dance program.
"Then I'll go to England for a year and get a master's and star in my own Broadway musical about me," he says.
Buck, who is a junior and perhaps a bit closer to reality, has been studying hard for the SAT test so she can get into New York University - the same school that cast member Julie Craig attended. "She said she would talk to me anytime about college and the application process," Buck says.
In the show, as in real life, the youth ensemble is the next generation. During most of the show, they mingle with other performers, a few in one scene, a few in another. At the end, they all come together when the graduating students - the professional cast - pass on the torch.
"They are really pivotal to that," says Stafford of the Youth Ensemble. "This is the time we see them all together with the others in a fairly static way, meaning they are not moving from one place to another, they are representing this class of tomorrow."
The class is ready for its close-up, ready to be the performing acts class of tomorrow in real life as well as onstage. "It's what I love to do," says Liberman. "It's what makes me happy. If you are doing what you love and working for your passion, that is one of the best things that can happen in life. That's one of the things we are learning from the adults in the show."
"Fame" runs at North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly through June 19. Tickets are priced from $30 to $63. Performances are Tuesday-Sunday. For show times, tickets and information, visit www.nsmt.org, call 978-232-7200 or visit the Box Office in person at 62 Dunham Rd. Beverly.
Brigid Alverson is a freelance writer.
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