BWW Features/Reviews: Extraordinary Young Talent on Display in Act 2 @ Levine NEXT TO NORMAL
There's no shortage of theatrical educational activities in Washington, DC - particularly for teenagers. Among those are Studio Theatre, Signature Theatre, and Theatre Lab. Certainly, all of them have something to offer to students of all talent and experience levels - a sense of community, the prospect of honing a craft, and building friendships with other kids who share the same passions. Yet, in the past week I've been introduced to a program that clearly offers all these things, and - dare I say it - something even a little more unique at the Levine School of Music
Levine, often considered one of our nation's leading community music schools and boasting a faculty of over 150 teaching artists, has long included musical theatre classes/lessons among its diverse educational offerings. The relatively new Act 2 @ Levine Pre-Professional Program for exceptionally talented high school students - one of three Act 2 @ Levine offerings, which also include First Act, a program for 5-8 graders, and a Mainstage program for high school and middle school students - continues this tradition and steps it up a notch.
The Pre-Professional Program, founded and spearheaded by the ambitious Kevin Kuchar, is - per Kuchar - a highly selective, audition-only, process-oriented theatre program that makes use of the existing infrastructure at Levine, including faculty, private lessons, music theory classes, and masters classes with the best in the business. Upon acceptance, the students join what founding director Kuchar calls a year-long 'cast' that participates in three productions - two performing roles and one apprenticeship track. This year's cast - which completed its last production this past weekend - took on three popular contemporary musicals, Rent, Bat Boy (presented at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company), and most recently, Next to Normal. In addition, students perform in a jury-style showcase and critique before the casting and outreach departments at one of DC's most prestigious and well-known theatres, Arena Stage. Arena Stage also played host to its production of Next to Normal.
Artistic Director Kuchar, who was gracious enough to answer some interview questions from BroadwayWorld DC, noted that it's "the integration of the curriculum in the classroom [at Levine] with the hands on instruction, coupled with its growing relationship with our partner organizations that make Act Two @ Levine truly an industry-shaping musical theatre department." That said, Kuchar stresses that the focus of the program is not simply to put on a show and/or prepare a student to become "the next Broadway star," but rather to develop a "total artist" in each student and allow them to acquire skills they can use whether they choose to purse theatre in college or not. While he says that certainly some students go on to pursue degrees in some top musical theatre programs at New York University, Carnegie Mellon University, and Cincinnati Conservatory of Music among others, "many more" are also able to apply the skills they learned at Act 2 @ Levine in rigorous non-theatre oriented academic programs at Harvard, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania and beyond.
If the program's recent May 2013 production of Next to Normal is any indication of what Kuchar is doing right, I must say that he is doing a lot right. Next to Normal, an award-winning rock musical from Tom Kitt (Music) and Brian Yorkey (Book and Lyrics), is one of those contemporary musical theatre juggernauts. While it offers a compelling story - an average American family coping with tragedy and trying to overcome all obstacles with love and determination - it's one of those shows that, if presented by artists not up to the challenge, may leave the audience scratching its head as to why it's so beloved. It is fierce belting meets angst-filled dramatic acting. To say that it's challenging for the actor and director, in particular, would be an understatement.
Thankfully, Kevin Kuchar (Direction, Production Design), Josephine Riggs (Musical Direction), Jennifer Suess (Vocal Coaching), a hard-working crew of Act 2 @ Levine students, a five-member professional band (two keyboards, guitar, bass, and drums/percussion), and of course a talented cast of seven teenagers (with four alternating major roles), rise to the occasion. They put on something that's pretty remarkable especially when one considers the short rehearsal and preparatory time (about 4 weeks, according to one cast member). Riggs, who admitted that "time was of the essence" in putting the show together, is certainly right when she describes the production with one word - "dynamic."
While the design elements were naturally far from perfect - the set in particular was a bit too complex for the space and required some very hardworking teenagers to slip in and out during the show to remove things to the point where it served as a distraction - and the band did not rock out like one might have hoped, there were a lot of things that worked in this production. Let's start first and foremost with the two ladies who took on the matriarch of the Goodman family, Diana - a woman struggling with loss and Bipolar Disorder, among other challenges, at the center of this story.