SURPRISE, Ariz. (April 22)—Vast spans of Arizona are uninhabited and, perhaps, uninhabitable. Signs along stretches of interstate highways advise motorists that exiting won’t do them any good, since there are no services to be found near the exit.
Likewise, when it comes to arts programming in the schools, only a few high schools in the state present a musical. Fewer than two dozen will be in attendance at Arizona State next month at a festival called ASU Gammage, which serves as a sort of Tony Awards for Arizona high schools. Even schools that attract artistically inclined students from the surrounding but out-of-boundary areas during an annual open enrollment period that ends in February, on at least this one occasion, have to purchase the rights to use the recorded accompaniment sound track, since an orchestra can’t be fielded at the school.
So it was this weekend at Valley Vista High School in the town of Surprise, Arizona, just outside Phoenix, as the Monsoon Theatre presented 9 to 5, the Musical, music and lyrics by Dolly Parton, book by Patricia Resnick, directed here by Taylor Sipos. With the drama departments in schools nearby suffering from the loss of key personnel or the possible elimination of the department, the school has become a magnet, without any official designation as such, for arts-oriented students seeking opportunities to perform.
And perform they did. Isabelle Hunsaker, for one, played the character of Judy, who begins work at a company where the office manager is a misogynistic, abusive bigot. She’s that rare high school student who—assuming you close your eyes and ignore the frequent missed lighting cues, the annoying stage blocking deficiencies, the toddler in the front row who wouldn’t stop crying during the entire First Act, and the absence of a live orchestra—could easily be on a Broadway stage, belting out an award-winning performance with a wide vocal range and, given the right moment and supporting cast, a personal style that commands attention.
One of the biggest problems with using a recorded sound track, besides the loss of an opportunity for educators to develop the skills of instrumental musicians, is that it creates too much dead time during the performance. A live conductor can simply compensate, or “comp,” by filling the time with incidental music. But with a recorded sound track, when the music stops, there’s nothing but silence. It leaves actors standing on stage, wondering what to do with their hands, trying not to make eye contact with the audience.
And that may have played a role in this musical in bringing about lackluster performances from most of the ensemble. Whether they were singing, talking with co-workers at their desks in the office, making typing motions with their fingers on invisible typewriters (the actual office devices can be hard to find these days, especially for use as a stage prop), or just moving about, their acting lacked any character development or stage presence. In fact, several conversations, even with lead characters, were difficult to follow due to the apathy of the actors.
The vocal solos, unlike the ensemble numbers, were performed for real, though, and if only the musical were an opera, I think Valley Vista would have brought it to life. When singers like Brecka Watson, who played Doralee, Ms Parton’s character in the 20th Century Fox film, and was a dead ringer in accent and personality for the country-western singer, stopped singing and started talking, their characters came apart. Joseph Cavazos, who played Hart, that sexist CEO wannabe, and also choreographed the musical numbers with help from Ms Hunsaker, Rachel Thomas, and Dana Kohen, completely laid into the vocal renditions but couldn’t convince us that his character was evasive about his illegal activities with women or with embezzlement.
The school will present three musicals in the 2016-17 school year, including Into the Woods and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, along with four non-musical plays. The title for the third musical should be announced over the summer.
First weekend done…fantastic job cast & crew of 9 to 5!!! pic.twitter.com/ZYOZXWjIq4
— Behind the Curtain (@VVHS_BTC) April 17, 2016