Napa Valley College's Performing Arts department staged a triumphant return to live theater last weekend with “All Together Now!” a show consisting of a variety of songs from musicals well known, and obscure.
A selection was made available, free of licensing fees, by Music Theatre International (MTI), a company that administers the licensing for a great bulk of the American musical theater canon. MTI’s mission is to get musical theater into as many theaters as possible. While they cater to many professional theaters, they like to focus on programming for educational institutions like NVC.
Director Olivia Cowell and Musical Director Christina Howell told me that MTI gave very specific guidelines for use of the music. There would be 16 acts in the show, and Howell was able to choose from the material made available songs that would feature her actors’ strengths. “We really wanted everyone to have their moment in the sun,” Howell told me. For some acts, Howell arranged the music so that songs that might have been a solo, could be sung by more than one person, giving more singers time on stage.
Many of the artists are brand new. Since the theater program has been suspended for nearly two years, there isn’t a pipeline of students trained and ready to take to the stage. Because of this, “these students are hungry,” Howell said.
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While NVC’s three Zoom productions during the pandemic were very successful, Howell said that there are spontaneous things you can only get doing a live show. “The conversations in the hallways, or outside in the parking lot. It was so nice to hear the actors bonding like that. You just don’t get that over Zoom.”
Cowell followed up with, “for a performer, the theater really is your home. You’re there for class and rehearsal. You create a community. We didn’t have that during the pandemic.”
Cowell then told me that with the beginning of the show she wanted to open the show to give the audience the experience that the theater was coming back to life. In the first act, “Pure Imagination” from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the rising curtain reveals a stage completely bare with the entire cast in black. There isn’t even a wall behind the stage so the audience can see the loading dock usually obscured by the set. Then, as they sing about the fertile possibilities of an unchecked imagination, the screens come down, the curtains adjust and the stage is set for the show.
Howell and Cowell told me about the diversity of the cast and as the show progressed, I saw just how diverse it was. Not only were many races represented, but the ages of the actors spanned multiple decades and bodies were all shapes and sizes. It represented the entirety of the Napa community. Every skin tone, from the college aged to the retired.
What was really wonderful about the show, however, is that MTI chose songs from plays that have become fairly obscure.
The second act was “Writing Down the Story of My Life” from Junie B. Jones, The Musical. This show is about a sassy girl in first grade who keeps a diary of all her personal thoughts. We were transported to an elementary school classroom where Vienna Spezza as Junie sings about the thrill of writing in her diary.
Jonathan Blue sang “This is the Moment” from Jekyll & Hyde, an adaptation of the story by Robert Louis Stevenson. He wore a tweed trench coat and paisley scarf. Blue’s voice was incredibly powerful. It resonated loudly throughout the hall.
Next came “Spread the Love Around” from Sister Act. A flock of nuns in grey habits flitted around the stage like murmuration of starlings. We expect nuns to be very serious, so seeing them so joyful and silly is hilarious.
Emma Sutherland’s solo “Astonishing” from the rarely performed show Little Women, was astonishing in itself. Sutherland is a slight, diaphanous young woman. I had no idea such an intense voice could come from such a small body. She is not to be underestimated.
It was here that I realized the extent of the production. Each of the 16 actors had a special costume for every one of the ensemble acts. In “Seize the Day” from Newsies they wore 1920’s newsboy hats and vests. In “Take a Chance on Me,” from Momma Mia! they were decked out in glamorous 1970’s sequins and satin. In “Good Riddance (The Time of Your Life)” from American Idiot they had 1990’s grunge flannel shirts and guitars. And, in the final act, “You Can’t Stop the Beat” from Hairspray, they wore 1960’s hoop skirts and letterman jackets.
Kharolynn Pasqual-Smith had perhaps the most demanding song with “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” from Mary Poppins. Saying that word is one thing. Spelling it another. And saying it backward is even another thing, entirely.
The most kudos in the show should go to Colleen Clark, Toni Chiapetta and Bright Eastmen who, while their college years may be far behind them, danced and sang “Take a Chance on Me” as if it were 1977 and the song was just released on the radio.
When I spoke with Cowell, I could hear the subtext of relief in what she said. The performing arts are something that not only enrich an audience, but enrich the performers as well. Cowell told me, “In every show we build a family. Each show is a special little unit. I think that this one, being the first one back on stage, is special.”
For more information about theater at NVC go to performingartsnapavalley.org.
John Henry Martin is thrilled to be back in the theater. If you are too, email him at email@example.com