Sunday, May 16, 2021

Valley Vista musical is a star in a sky of darkness


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.

9 to 5, the Musical closes tonight at Valley Vista High School. (Voxitatis)

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.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.


  1. I feel you may have been distracted by that crying baby and missed some truly great performances. For example did you not hear the crowd applaud and cheer while Roz (played by Allison Belsan) was still singing. She was fantastic! Did you miss the way the 3 leads harmonized beautifully together? Or the drunk Margaret and how wonderfully she played that role, she stayed in character the entire time. Yes the ensemble was not top notch but the majority of the kids performing in this production are freshman and for some it was their first time on a stage. As for Mr. Hart, Joey, how hard it must be in this day and age to pull off that type of character. There are no real people that he can pull that character from. He did a fantastic job and again it is a learning environment. Yes using a track is difficult and transitions can be improved but this is high school theatre and this is where the love of the stage and building a craft begins.

    [Editor’s note: I agree with everything you said. The individual effort and performances were fantastic, AND much work (learning, love of the stage, etc.) remains going forward. I look forward to seeing this group again in the 2016-17 school year, and thank you for pointing out the wonderful singing again. Nothing in a review should be taken as commentary on the actors but on the adults who are teaching them. For example, it’s not Joey’s fault he had no one to pull his character from but the fault of the adults who didn’t provide him with good enough direction. There’s real talent here, and increasing the level of teaching by the adults will show in an improved performance on the stage.]

  2. I honestly don’t even know who you think you are. This is a high school performance not Broadway. This whole review mentions a lot of things we were unable to do. Live music? Opera? You’re crazy. And there were no “invisible” typewriters. If you had any eyes it was clear that the silver and brown boxes were typewriters. We do not have enough money to buy real typewriters. If we were going to have live music we would ask our band class for VOLUNTEERS which would probably be 1 or 2 people because they have other stuff to do with their lives. And I honestly don’t think you were really watching the show. You only complimented Isabelle and yes she was good but all our leads were freaking amazing. Thank you for coming to see the show but think about what we actually have to work with and realize we are JUST a high school.

    [Editor’s note: Any musicians who would volunteer to play in a pit orchestra would learn a lot as musicians, and that education is the point of our schools. That’s all I meant by suggesting the theater and vocal music areas of the school, having decided to go through the tremendous effort and expense it takes to put on a musical like this, should consider meeting other educational objectives for as many students at the school as they can get out of that tremendous investment.]

  3. Thank you so much for this review! I felt it was a very honest and accurate review for the show! It’s great to have constructive criticism for high school shows! Once again, I appreciate this review and hope you do more in the future!

  4. it’s nice to see an honest review in a world filled with sugarcoated ones! We as highschoolers and actors need to realize that not everyone is going to love the work we do and that taking constructive criticism is very effective! Thank you so much for this review and hopefully it will help advance our program in the future!

    [Editor’s note: I wish there were a law against sugarcoating stories in an educational setting, but I think schools would be the worst offenders of that law, followed by parents. Anyway, I just want to thank YOU for the work you did to bring this wonderful entertainment to the world. The singing was totally awesome, and I could have written several paragraphs about Joey, Roz, Violet, and so on. Unfortunately the acting didn’t measure up to what I have seen across the country. I have attended more than 1,000 high school musical productions in my life, and the musical talent at Valley Vista is among the best I’ve heard. Joey was incredibly expressive and should give vocal performance serious consideration as a vocation or avocation going forward. Any flaws with the acting or lighting (several lines were delivered in dark portions of the stage), though, are not commentary on students but on the teachers. I think the student actors did an amazing job, I wish you had more freedom to express yourselves musically instead of having to follow a pre-recorded track, and I hope I get the chance to see a production next year.]

  5. Thank you for such an honest review. I think this program needs more reviews like this one! I agree with everything you said! And I do believe the problems reflect on the parents and directors of the show. The club has had a problem with the new director and teacher of this club since day one, and I think the quality of the shows have gotten worse since she arrived at the school as she refuses to work with the students and let them speak their mind about what shows they’d like to see going on and where they’d like to see the club go in the future. The leads in this show and the last one were very well prepared and put on an amazing performance! Having been a part of both shows, I’ve seen that the director will focus all her time on getting the leads to where they need to be and will spend little to no time with the ensemble to where they can be at opening night and still not have been taught 2 songs of choreography leaving them to be awkward on stage or cut from the number all together. I feel the program has some very talented and dedicated actors but is lacking in the adult leadership area.

  6. I would like thank you for coming to our show and holding us at a higher standard than we are used to being put at. I think you made some excellent points about our performance. It’s a great experience for myself personally to have my work critiqued by someone who has seen a number of high school performances. We worked very hard on this show and while I think with what funding, commitment level, and experience we all had we put on a good show for our audiences, I agree there is room for improvement and likewise with any show. Thank you for your honesty.

    [Editor’s note: And thank you for yours. I thoroughly enjoyed this production (I don’t have time to develop reviews for shows where the students don’t put in the effort the leads and YOU as the director clearly put in). It was wonderful to see you in action, and although my work takes me far away from Arizona for another 11 months, I really look forward to seeing a show at Valley Vista in the future. I mean that with all sincerity. This is a dedicated group of students and staff, and they know that the level of enjoyment (and learning) increases every time you get better at the performance—acting, dancing, or music.]

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