BWW Review: Fall in Love with MacTheatre in ME & MY GIRL
I feel fairly certain that the general population of Austin is not yet fully aware of our booming teenage musical theatre culture; it is chock-full of talented, competitive, starry-eyed teens, diligently studying their craft in private studios and in local pre-college programs, waiting to land a coveted spot at some of the nations best colleges and conservatories.
Knowing this reality, I found it particularly puzzling as to why The University of Texas would no longer offer a Musical Theatre degree, when we have such a gigantic local pool of gifted young performers. But at the very heart of this community sits The McCallum Fine Arts Academy; a well-established stronghold for serious young performers who wish to pursue their craft beyond high school. McCallum is AISD's very own flagship fine arts academy. Awarded the top designation of National Grammy Signature School by The Grammy Foundation, this highly competitive school boasts some of the finest instructors and facilities, and students are given numerous opportunities for study and growth within their chosen field. It is also not uncommon for the instructors at this institution to sacrifice much of their free time for the love of their art and for the love of the pupils that they mentor. And so it comes as no surprise as to why ME & MY GIRL is such a strong production.
ME & MY GIRL, by Noel Gay and lyrics by Douglas Furber and L. Arthur Rose is set in the late 1930's and tells the story of an unapologetically unrefined cockney gentleman from Lambeth named Bill Snibson, who learns that he is the long-lost 14th heir to the Baronetcy of Hareford, its 17th Baron and 8th Viscount. In order to gain his inheritance of the title and estate, Bill must satisfy the very proper executors (Maria, Duchess of Dene, and Sir John Tremayne) by learning gentlemanly manners. If he doesn't, he'll be given an annuity and sent away. The Duchess thinks that she can make Bill "fit and proper" but has no interest in welcoming-in Bill's long-time, beloved Cockney girlfriend, Sally Smith. Bill is forced to choose between his inheritance and his true love. The musical ran for an impressive three years on Broadway and won three of its eleven Tony Award nominations.
Multi-talented director Joshua Denning proves to be one of the most detail-oriented high school directors that I've come across. As a highly trained performer, Denning knows exactly what audiences react to. He is known for creating larger shows, and his tastes tend to lean towards the larger, more dramatic sets that feel quite operatic in nature. His staging has an operatic flair, as well, as his large casts are skillfully placed within each ensemble scene, creating beautiful tableaus time and time again. This is certainly one of the most challenging skills for any director, and Denning excels in this regard. Right away, as ME & MY GIRL begins, McCallum's own Orchestra-under the direction of Carol Nelson-expertly performs the overture as projections of classic heart patterns magically morph with each musical shift from theme to theme, upon a gorgeous Austrian Puff Curtain. Right away, this one particular detail effectively transports the audience back in time. ME & MY GIRL contains no less than sixty-six members in the cast, and every performer moves with clock-like precision. These young performers also have such a brilliant, mature collective sound, that at times, I would forget that I was watching high school students at all; it was clear that Music Director Sarah Hirsch did a magnificent job with this cast. As a new member of the faculty this year, Ms. Hirsch comes to McCallum from Yale and NYU, and with her impressive resume as an accomplished composer of musical theatre, she is an exciting addition to McCallum's strong program.
Another new faculty addition this year, accomplished choreographer Natalie Jolly-Uehara is one of the stars of this production, as she has worked with Denning to create some of the finest choreography that I've seen in any high school musical. In scenes such as the joy-infused, full-ensemble number "The Lambeth Walk," the cast was so thoroughly rehearsed and well-choreographed, that I was reminded once again that McCallum raises the bar on high school musicals in this city; there was not one single weak link. This massive cast possesses both male and female "triple-threats", and Uehara is adept in getting the most out of her performers. A graduate of Marymount Manhattan, Uehara recently relocated to Austin from Honolulu, Hawaii. In Uehara's spare time every Saturday, she offers free tap classes to any student in the academy who wishes to "polish their time-step." It seems that her efforts have paid-off tremendously.
There are few high school programs I've seen that possess a fully functioning Tech Theatre program, in which the students themselves run all aspects of a production from wigs to sound board, from lighting to costumes, and of course, the heroic effort that it takes to physically build a larger more complicated set. The woman responsible for organizing this small army is none other than fearless leader Laura Kieler. Kieler is a magnificent Tech Director, as she guides the students through each step of every single facet of production. In this process, the students learn how to be self-sufficient, responsible crewmembers; after all, they must be ready to "run the ship" by themselves, as a well-organized team. In ME & MY GIRL, Kieler has guided this particular crew in the building of a large show, which used no less than 7 large set pieces. It was detailed and gorgeous. Hareford Hall was stunning; there was, however, a small issue in which most of the audience couldn't see any characters staged in the 2 upper windows because of the angles. My only other issue was the fact that the set for the central-London-district of Lambeth was almost too dreamy and "pretty"; so much so, that it was a little strange seeing any down-on-their-luck residents on the streets of this clean and charming neighborhood. It looked so idyllic, I wouldn't have minded moving there myself! (Admittedly, it wouldn't take much persuading these days.) As one might imagine, creating a production with sixty-six cast members and seven set units is no small feat, especially when the students themselves are responsible for the execution of the various duties. Kieler has done a magnificent job with these kids in such a major undertaking.
There are quite a few young performers who stand out in this production. Sophia Mullican, in the role of Lady Jaqueline Carstone, displays a fearless confidence within her character, while Till Simon plays the devoted Gerald Bolingbroke a smidge understated. At times, it is a bit hard to understand Mr. Simon, but his comedic timing is solid. Holden Crocker as Herbert Parchester is such a joy to watch, that one wishes for his presence in more scenes. Crocker is amazingly natural with RP dialect, and his timing is flawless. And as Charles Hethersett, the Butler, Tosh Arora surprises the audience as he delivers his one-liners with hysterical precision.
Playing the two beloved leading roles were Tristan Tierney as Bill Snibson and Anna McGuire as Sally Smith. These two incredibly talented young stars were simply charming. Though Tierney tends to repeat moves and mannerisms, he plays the role of Bill over-the-top with plenty of slapstick humor. Tierney's gorgeous, classically trained voice has a velvet timbre, and there is no doubt that he fully commits to his characters. Anna McGuire packs a lot of punch in her small stature; she is a joy to watch within her dance numbers, and she has a sizable belt, though she tends to deliver lines, both spoken and sung, at the same forte dynamic level. I would have loved to see a bit more vulnerability and variation in character levels, and a little more arc and intimacy within the connection between the two characters, since the story essentially revolves around their unwavering love for one another, and their willingness to sacrifice for it. Because the Cockney dialect needed just a little more polishing, diction was a bit hard to understand at times. One of my favorite moments of the evening took place in the pub scene, in which a multi-talented cast member playing the role of the pub pianist (Julia Blackmon) accompanied Sally before the orchestra took over. It was perfect; a classic move that took me right back to the Golden Age of the movie musical. This collaborative effect had such an intimate and warm quality. Then, in the next moment, I was reminded that this seemingly simple moment was made possible by the fact that McCallum has a diverse collection of students; these amazing kids are well-rounded in their training. It was such a great touch, and expertly handled by the cast members and the orchestra.
And lastly, a surprise...
I wasn't expecting to be so entirely blown away by one of the supporting roles, but I must give what is possibly the strongest performance of the evening to Hannah Young, in the role of Maria, the Duchess of Dene. It is truly impressive when a performer has the ability to pull something like that off. Young was grounded and thoroughly polished; her RP dialect was spot-on sublime...not over-done in the least, and she has a gorgeous silver-timbre in her soprano range, as well. The chemistry was wonderful between Ms. Young and Max Corney, in the role of her trampled husband, Sir John Tremayne. These two knew exactly how to play off of each other's energy, and the audience certainly responded to that.
It is no wonder that director Joshua Denning enjoys the larger shows; he has the ability to do them well. Denning and the rest of this impressive faculty have achieved new heights with ME & MY GIRL; their cast has spoiled me for all others. Run, don't walk...catch one of the final performances before they abscond back to Lambeth!
ME & MY GIRL performs at the McCallum Fine Arts Academy at 5600 Sunshine Dr, Austin, TX 78756, now through March 5th. Show times are Thursday - Saturday at 7 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets: $15 general admission, $12 seniors, $7 students. For tickets and information, please visit www.mactheatre.com.