Filichia Features: The Shuberts and the Students

Filichia Features: The Shuberts and the Students

Dozens of high-schoolers will never forget this winter night at the Winter Garden.

For “The Second Annual Shubert Foundation High School Theatre Festival” – held to honor plays and musicals produced in New York City public schools – took place on Monday, March 7.

On the other days of the week, School of Rock holds court here, but some connected with that hit were in attendance tonight, too. “Let’s have a hand for the School of Rock crew who came in on their day off,” said the emcee – who was no less than Alex Brightman, the sure-to-be-Tony-nominated star of School of Rock who also was toiling in the Garden on his off-day,

“I’m super-psyched to be here,” Brightman announced. “We’re all in this together, a community of friends who get to watch each other’s backs.”

And we would literally get to watch plenty of “fronts” when dozens of teen actors performed for us. Everyone here literally got his 15 minutes of fame, because a quarter-hour (and no more!) is relegated to each school to show its wares. So what the enthusiastic students and teachers saw were scenes from three plays and two Music Theatre International musicals.

But before that happened, Brightman introduced “an amazing chick,” a description that may have surprised the distinguished New York City Chancellor of Education Carmen Fariña.

“I love the arts,” she said, “although I can’t do any of them.” What Fariña can do, however, is get money to ensure that “Every New York City public school student gets the chance to see a Broadway show at least once.” This year, she also increased the schools’ arts budget by a significant $23 million.

Brightman pointed out that what we were to see was not a competition with winners announced – that had already happened to get these five schools here -- but a genuine festival. “Who knows how many here tonight will have careers in the arts?” he admitted. “What really matters is that kids get life skills and happiness skills – and theater can provide those.”

The Repertory Company High School for Theatre Arts, under the direction of Robert Bruce McIntosh, was only seven streets from home, but it was still quite a leap for its 22 performers and three crew members. It staged The Laramie Project, a play that will keep us from forgetting that 21-year-old Matthew Shepard died in 1998 at the hands of two homophobic thugs who recently marked their 17th year of incarceration of their two consecutive life sentences.

The script by Moisés Kaufman and his Tectonic Theatre Group occasionally employs profanity, but the usage is real and judicious. Even the audience’s most hard-hearted anti-gay member (should such a person have actually been in attendance here) would have been softened at the testimony of one witness: Shepard when found had blood completely covering his face aside from the flesh-revealing vertical lines, one under each eye, which were made from a torrent of tears caused by the unspeakable pain.

One scene had kids playing Westboro Baptist Church protesters who held signs that boasted such sentiments as “Matt’s in Hell.” Fred Phelps, the group’s leader, said the chill-inducing “God’s hatred is pure” without stopping to think that he had no right to speak for God. That The Laramie Project started by reminding us that “all the words were spoken by real people” made the experience resonate much more powerfully.

Next up was Fences, which meant an arduous commute for director Mayna Bragdon’s troupe from Humanities and the Arts High School in Cambria Heights – a good 45-minute drive away. But they were there in time to stage a powerful excerpt from August Wilson’s most acclaimed drama.

Fences takes place in the ‘50s, when African-American Troy Maxson’s baseball career is long behind him. He was born too early for the integration of baseball in 1947, and thus toiled in the far-less-lucrative Negro Leagues.

Now his son Corey has a chance for a college football scholarship, which Troy pooh-poohs.”The white man ain’t gonna let you get anywhere,” he insists. Is he doing his son a favor by not allowing him to have his dreams dashed or is he jealous that the lad might succeed in the way that he would have in a kinder, gentler era?

Xavon Ross, potraying Troy, was a good head taller than Taqee McDaniel’s Corey and of course decades too young for the role. That, however, isn’t the point of having high-schoolers do Fences. Like it or not, kids have to at least face the possibility that their parents don’t always have their best interests at heart. “How come you’ve never liked me?” son demanded to know of father, and Ross didn’t flinch an inch when stating “What law says I got to like you?”

Although the Winter Garden audience had teens outnumber adults by about 35-to-one, the gasp when Corey picked up a bat to assault his father showed that these kids have learned – perhaps from the arts -- that violence is not the answer and that two wrongs don’t make a right.

Matters got much lighter when LaGuardia High School for Music & Art and Performing Arts staged three numbers from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Now we’d not only see the work of a director (Harry Shifman) but also a choreographer (Joey Smith), both of whom did their students proud.

The character of Gaston has brains about the size of a Who in Seussical, but Jose Velazquez had the brains to play him without overdoing it. He had the brawn too as he knocked poor Lefou (the delightful Timothy Guzman) around the stage. As for Lorna Courtney who played Belle, let’s just say that if she’d auditioned to play Dorothy in the recent The Wiz Live! Shanice Williams might well have watched the show at home.

Does any musical teach more lessons or better ones? Don’t be deceived by appearances. It’s okay to be different from everybody else. Books can take you away from your troubles. Control your temper. And there are about as many more as the number of flavors that Baskin-Robbins is offering this month.

The Brooklyn High School for the Arts presented two scenes from one of the world’s most significant plays: A Raisin in the Sun. Back in 1959 when Lorraine Hansberry’s drama opened on Broadway, many white theatergoers who entered the theater were staunchly against the idea of blacks living in their neighborhood; by the time the play ended, they’d seen that they’d been utterly narrow-minded and that blacks certainly deserved to live in any neighborhood that they pleased.

In playing Lena, Sydney Plaza showed that Xavon Ross isn’t the only teen around who can create a mature character beyond one’s years. For that matter, although Lena’s son Walter Lee is “only” ten or 15 years older than Marcus Edward, the lad astonished in the way he expressed Walter’s subtext of denial even as he realized that he’d made a stupid decision. (Here’s another message: Be careful whom you trust -- although the theme of Don’t bow down to anyone is far more important and one that kids can never learn early enough. Raisin may be the first time that this is brought to their attention, making it all the more valuable.

An actor worth mentioning is Michael Desmangles, who played Bobo, the bearer of bad news. When the play is done in toto, it’s not a large role, but in this 15-minute segment, it certainly was. Considering how commanding this young man performed, we could see why director Lisanne Shaffer chose to bring this scene to the festival.

The evening ended with selections from Miss Saigon, courtesy of the Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn. Director Roberta Raymond and two choreographers – Amber Puglisi and Joannalys Santana -- did what makes life hardest for those staging a musical, for they double-cast their leads: John (Nolan Frontera; Marlon Gordon), Chris (Perry Pollard; Marco Varisco) and Kim (Rhieye Millare; Francesca Manligoy). Does anyone who creates a musical production for its students show greater love than by putting six kids in three roles in order to give more students big chances at the expense of so much more work?

As wondrous as they all were, special commendation goes to Jacklynn Judge who portrayed Ellen. Although every kid performing here was miked, Judge’s electronic device didn’t work, so she belted much harder to have the house hear her – and did. Hey, even when leather-lunged Barbra Streisand played here, she insisted on being miked.

Indeed, Brightman had earlier pointed out that the Winter Garden was the very stage on which Streisand once performed (in Funny Girl, of course). There she sang lines that were relevant to the students here tonight: “I’m the greatest star; I am by far – but no one knows it.”

Perhaps someday everyone will.

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You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Monday at, Tuesday at and Friday at His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at