Later today I'm going to the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival at DeSales University to see the musical Oklahoma! (and before you point out that you weren't aware Shakespeare had written about a US state before it even became part of the union: the festival isn't only about Shakespeare plays - every year there are a few additional offerings to draw in subscribers).
This reminded me I never wrote about the musical Chicago, which I saw at DeSales in April shortly before I left for Paris, this time as part of the regular theater season for the university - meaning all the roles were played by DeSales students. (At the Shakespeare Festival the key roles are usually played by professional Equity actors who come to the area for the occasion.) So, here is a long overdue post about a fantastic program and a hidden gem of the local area.
The university has an extremely strong theater department, the graduates of which often find themselves in successful performing arts careers throughout the country. If you know me - or have been reading this blog for a while - you know I particularly care about giving young people a chance in making their dream a reality, and so it gives me great pleasure to state the following: the DeSales productions never, ever miss. The students always, always shine. Forget about Broadway - this is where you want to buy tickets, and they are an order of magnitude cheaper.
A more developed version of my thoughts would be: it has been my experience, in every single show I have attended, that the young men and women in the theater and musical productions at DeSales - whether during the academic year or as part of the Shakespeare Festival - deserve enormous acclaim for their extraordinary performances.
This of course is not only due to them, but to the great creative and technical crew that provides them with the environment to show off their talents on stage in such spectacular manner, and delivers - day in and day out - productions that are consistently of the highest quality. I've seen Broadway productions that bored me to tears or pushed the definition of awfulness into never-treaded-before territory. DeSales, with its amateur cast and small budget, outshines them regularly. (This is not something the people in charge seem too eager to advertize, given that antagonizing the world of commercial theater could hurt their graduates' chances of getting a job.)
I feel that at DeSales the director is more likely to remember how important it is for the students to shine in their roles to attract agents and job offers, and so puts them first instead of putting himself first, while directors of Broadway plays may go on an ego trip because they're aware of the productions that came before theirs and want to distinguish themselves somehow.
Theater-goers, though, "only" want a memorable experience and don't care about how this production differs from the ones that came before. (See my previous post about Phèdre for more details...) I'm glad that I'm not the only one to know that DeSales theater is the hidden gem of the area: the Chicago run was sold out even before it opened. The students deserve to play to a full house.
(Photo credit: Morning Call.) So, back to the students. I can't single out every one of them for praise, so I'll keep my comments for the main characters, shown in this picture by the Morning Call. (I wish there were better pictures of the students online but apparently no one thought of making them available.)
First of all, you want to remember the name Phoenix Best - the girl on the right in the picture. She's a rising junior majoring in theater at DeSales (a sophomore during the production run), and she stole the show as Velma. One day she's going to be a star. Whenever she's cast in a future DeSales production, do not think twice and get a ticket.
One of the greatest pleasures in returning to DeSales for theater again and again is that you see students in different roles during their tenure at the university - it makes you feel you're walking a bit of the road with them. I'd enjoyed seeing Julia Pfender (Roxie) in The Tempest at the Shakespeare Festival last summer; also, John Cappelletti (Billy Flynn) had been a superb "bad brother" Jonathan in the hilarious Arsenic and Old Lace.
Many actors witness their love for the stage getting stamped out of them as they progress in their career. Perhaps too many disappointments are to blame, too much hardship. But when you watch a DeSales production you can see what Broadway theater could be like, if actors and director and technical crew always hit the mark, if the pure joy of acting never faded.
So remember these names: Phoenix Best, Julia Pfender, John Cappelletti, and buy yourself tickets for next season.
Update 6/30: What a surprise to discover at DeSales that Phoenix Best was also part of the cast of Oklahoma! She played Ellen, and needless to say, she was wonderful. I was also thrilled to recognize some familiar faces, such as (pictures of all available here):
- Erick Huertas, whom I'd already seen in South Pacific and The Tempest, and who - having just graduated from DeSales and planning to move to New York City for a career in TV/film acting - deserves as much success in the Big Apple as he'd had in Pennsylvania,
- Kaitlyn Kurowski, a 2011 DeSales grad, whom I'd seen in Pride and Prejudice, and who shines in roles of beautiful, "bitchy" women (the competitor of the leading female character, in other words), and seems destined for great things on TV or the silver screen,
- Jequery Slaton, also an alumnus of South Pacific,
- Leah Poyo, also an alumna of The Tempest,
- and probably more I didn't have a chance to recognize because of the make-up and the costumes!
I'll also take this opportunity to mention some incredible performers who made their first appearance at the festival this year:
- Doug Carpenter is a heartthrob with a splendid voice in the leading male role of Curly, as well as the winner of the 2011 American Traditions Competition and 2013 Lotte Lenya Competition, a graduate of UNLV and UCLA, and a regular on regional stages in such coveted roles as Camelot's Lancelot, West Side Story's Tony, Miss Saigon's Chris and Pride & Prejudice's Mr Darcy.
- Sean McGee played the dim-witted Will Parker, who has trouble raising and then holding on to the $50 that will allow him to marry the woman he loves, and frankly he was hilarious through and through, but especially in the "Oklahoma hello".
- Fran Prisco as the peddler Ali Hakim was phenomenally funny. He just was. I was bent in two from laughing during his scenes with Will Parker, and people around me were laughing so hard too they had tears in their eyes. I can't believe anyone anywhere - including Broadway - can play that role better than him.
What a privilege to have attended that show! If you're in the area and care to see it too, it closes today Sunday June 30, so don't wait!