"Americans All," a musical revue with music and lyrics by retired Orange County Judge James P. Gray, made its world premiere at Costa Mesa's Vanguard University on Sept. 16.
The production, which will run this weekend and next through Oct. 2, revealed budding, young talent from the Christian campus' award-winning department of theater arts.
Under the direction of Vanda Eggington, 10 theater and musical theater majors were brought together to collaborate with arranger Susan Boettger and Gray, the primary composer and lyricist, in creating an original musical. Gray writes a regular column for the Daily Pilot.
The production combines music, dialogue and poetry to examine and celebrate core American values, according to a Vanguard news release.
Gray, a long-time patron and supporter of Vanguard's theater program who lives in Newport Beach, used his first-hand encounters as an Orange County Superior Court judge to conjure the initial inspiration for the production.
"Honestly, the germ for the idea came when I was on juvenile court, because it became clear to me that many of our young people didn't even have a threshold [of] understanding about ethics and good choices and values that a lot of us take for granted," Gray said. "I thought, 'you know, it's awfully hard for me to preach from the bench, but if we had students in a fun way accent these things, then maybe some of the kids will at least get some of the points.'"
While Gray brought his opinions to the table, the college students added a youthful perspective to the show. They contributed their high school experiences and impressions to the performance.
The group effort gave rise to a powerful end result: a bridge in the generational gap, an opening of the lines of communication between America's youth and adults in a seemingly boundless debate over the country's core values.
The production uses high school detention, a setting of immediate unrest and teen angst, as a discussion space. Once the lights dim, we are brought back to that all-familiar classroom, now re-created with the phrase "Eschew Mediocrity" scribbled on the chalkboard.
The story is a classic case. A passionate teacher, Mr. Gray (named after the retired judge), anxiously seeks to change the lives of his students, but after several desperate attempts to communicate, he fears he is not getting through to them.
Charismatic Nick Lazaris tackled the role. His confidence allowed him to effectively carry the show with the poise and maturity of an actor far beyond his years.
The collection of students is your stereotypical cast of characters.
Sheila, the A-plus student; Mary, the head cheerleader; Preston, the jock; Brandijo, the burnout; Daryl, the goth; Micah, the golden boy; Michael, the computer geek; Troy, the comic book nerd; and Katelyn, the shy girl who later breaks out of her shell.
Not only was the casting spot on, but the costuming, coordinated by Lia M. Hansen, effectively enhanced each personality. This man-made high school microcosm taps into each high school label garnering different types of representation and individual voices on issues.
Throughout the course of the production, Mr. Gray covers many topics of contention in American society, including citizenship, the environment, family, education, prejudice and self-respect.
Stand-out moments include: "Everyday," a powerful, well-written duet with haunting harmonies portraying the plight of many adolescents who cry out for support and comfort; and "Pick it Up", in the style of "Stomp," emitted an intoxicating energy as brooms and trash cans hit the floor in a beat-heavy break down.
Also, Bretlyn Schmitt's choreography in the hip-hop style "It Just Takes One" was a highlight.
Performances by Sheila Jenkins, Micah Stratton, Preston Butler III, Katelyn Spurgin along with those of ace character actors Michael Fidalgo and Troy Iwata drove a strong connection among the company that transcended the vocals.
A robust vocal ensemble with a smooth harmonic blend characterized large production numbers like "We Call Ourselves Americans," a patriotic anthem in which Michael reveals the death of his father overseas in Afghanistan.
However, it was Brandijo Kistler's exceptional vocal performance in "Salaam" that stole the show. Her rich, enticing voice possesses a power and stylistic agility only heard from the most seasoned performers.
"Salaam," a Middle Eastern-style piece, and the Latin-inspired "Viva El Trabajo y la Paz," added significant musical diversity to the production and were executed by a solid four-piece band.
"Americans All" provides unsullied material for fresh eyes and open minds with writing that will make those young and old ponder the deeper meaning of life.
"I would like audiences to see it as a timeless piece in the sense that it's not just for kids in high school," said director Eggington. "Even as an adult I still need to hear some of these things as personal encouragement to not be afraid to make my own trail, to not be afraid to believe in myself, to not be afraid to dream. It seems like the older we are, the less we dream and it's never too late."
If You Go
What: "Americans All"
Where: Lyceum Theatre, Vanguard University, 55 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa.
When: at 8 p.m. Sept. 22-24 and Sept. 30-Oct. 1; and at 2 p.m. Sept. 24-25 and Oct. 1-2.
Tickets: $17 general admission and $14 for seniors and children. To buy tickets purchased, go to http://www.vanguardtickets.com or call the Theatre Department box office at (714) 668-6145.