The curtains rise on Gunn and Paly musicals

The year is 1934, and aboard the luxury ocean liner the S.S. American, sailors and starlets gad about, flirting and hatching secret plans. Everyone seems to be having a ball, dancing about with mops and belting out lusty show tunes.

It's when the seas get rough that things begin to fall apart: Some sailors sway left while others go right. A few simply stand stock still and look around blankly. There's a wave of nervous giggling.

"Who's on book?" a voice eventually cries.

"I am, but I don't know where we are!"


"Dude!" exclaims director Jim Shelby, Gunn High School's veteran theater instructor, his tone a mixture of equal parts affection and exasperation.

Next week, the curtains will rise on "Anything Goes," this year's musical-theater production at Gunn High School. Today is the first day they've rehearsed with a rough version of the set: an impressive tiered structure representing the ship, with vertiginous staircases rising to platforms high above the stage where key scenes and dance numbers will take place. The set is clearly adding an element of excitement to rehearsal, and Shelby struggles to rein in the attention of 43 giddy teenagers.

"We need to stay focused, people," he calls from his seat in the house. "Take a deep breath."

One hour later and four miles across town, a butler in tails approaches two dapper gentlemen, proffers cocktails from a tray held aloft and then scoots away, tap dancing the entire time. Here at Palo Alto High School's Haymarket Theater, dress rehearsals are underway for this year's musical-theater production.

Last spring, Paly junior Will Kast had never heard of "The Drowsy Chaperone." Tonight, Friday, March 6, Paly's theater department opens its production of the show -- an uproarious parody of 1920s musical theater -- with Kast playing the lead character, Robert.

For those who aren't familiar with it: "The Drowsy Chaperone" had its stage debut in 1998 and made it to Broadway in 2006, where it won a series of accolades, including Tony Awards for Best Score and Best Book and a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical. Originally written as a gag wedding gift for a theater director and his fiancée, it was simply too good to remain an inside joke. The production is a play within a play, and tells the story of a lonely modern-day theater lover who puts on a record of his favorite musical in an attempt to cheer himself up. Known simply as Man in Chair, he narrates the musical as its characters come to life, transforming his drab apartment into a snazzy Broadway set.

Now a senior, Kast described his part in "The Drowsy Chaperone" as a dream come true: It's his first time playing the lead in a musical, he's learned to tap dance for the role, and in one of his main numbers -- "Accident Waiting to Happen" -- he even gets to roller-skate blindfolded across the stage.

Yet for all the razzle-dazzle, what Kast and so many of his 31 fellow cast members talk about isn't just the thrill of treading the boards: It's the joy of being part of the theater family.

"The Paly theater community is very close-knit," Kast observed. "By the time you're a senior, you've had great experiences with just about everyone and usually end up marrying or proposing to about 10 percent of your classmates onstage, so it's hard not to get close with the group." And even aside from the social benefits, Kast said, there's a certain self-assurance that transfers from the stage to the rest of school life.

"Knowing that I can break out into song and dance at any moment gives me a strange burst of confidence from time to time," he admitted. "It isn't something that I would ever do, but knowing that I can helps me relax and stress less."

"The Drowsy Chaperone" will likely be the last musical performed in the old Haymarket Theater, which was built in 1918 and seats 520. Construction is now underway for a new performing-arts center adjacent to Embarcadero Road. The new theater will seat close to 600 and will include an orchestra pit, full fly loft and green rooms, among other amenities.

The last musical to be performed on the Haymarket stage also marks the first musical-theater production at Paly in two years, since their 2013 production of "Into the Woods" tied for first place for set design in the Stage's Top Honors Awards.

It's a similar story over at Gunn High School, where next weekend, "Anything Goes" opens on the Spangenberg Theatre stage, following 2013's "Legally Blonde: The Musical," which ran away with BroadwayWorld.com's San Francisco Bay Area Award for Best Production Performed by Youth.

Since musicals are a biennial affair at both Paly and Gunn (unlike other theater productions, of which there are four annually at each school), there's a special excitement surrounding auditions, casting and rehearsals for these major productions, not to mention the student (and in some cases professional) effort that goes into set design and construction, costumes, props, lighting, sound, choreography, vocal direction and instrumental performance. In addition to large casts, both shows boast a full live orchestra and a huge stage crew.

With shows going up just one week apart, one might think the Gunn and Paly theater departments would feel a sense of rivalry. That doesn't seem to be the case at all. The schools collaborate on an annual theater trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, and both send student delegations to the Northern California Thespian Leadership and Tech Conference at Santa Clara University each year.

Here on home turf, despite their packed schedules, theater students make an effort to support each other's shows.

"Announcement, people!" one cast member called out at the start of rehearsal at Gunn last week. "'The Drowsy Chaperone' opens at Paly next Friday. They're offering us comps to see the production, so let me know ASAP if you want a ticket!"

Both "The Drowsy Chaperone" and "Anything Goes" are set on the Eastern seaboard in the early 20th century, introducing a range of particular theatrical challenges: period costumes, dated dance styles and era-appropriate New York accents. Though they're nearly a century removed from the characters they're playing, students at both schools seem smitten with the whole interwar period aesthetic.

"It's so good," said Gunn senior and the show's student director Dakota Baker, speaking about Cole Porter's music for "Anything Goes." Baker's responsibilities range from helping Shelby run rehearsals to rewriting entire scenes to make them more politically correct for contemporary audiences.

Meanwhile, senior Sondrine Bontemps, who plays Bonnie in the production, pointed out that part of what gives "Anything Goes" its infectious, madcap energy is the fact that it was written during the Great Depression, when Americans needed a good distraction from significant financial stress.

"People went to the theater to escape their lives," Bontemps noted, "so naturally, this show is nothing but fun. I love the huge dance numbers in this musical. It's extremely exciting to have an entire cast tap dancing on stage."

Like Kast in Paly's production of "The Drowsy Chaperone," Bontemps sees a connection between the no-holds-barred spirit of musical theater and the management of school and life stressors.

"High school can be overwhelming at times, and I believe it's essential to find a welcoming and supportive group of people where you feel you belong," she said. "Theater isn't just a group; it's a family."

For Bontemps, musical theater feels like a way of life: She just finished auditioning for university musical-theater programs across the country, and plans to pursue musical theater professionally after graduation. The same is true of Paly senior Cara Kienitz, who plays Broadway star Janet van de Graaff in "The Drowsy Chaperone," and who recently accepted a scholarship to attend New York University (NYU) as a performing-arts major.

"Janet has been one of my dream roles for a very long time," Kienitz said. "I love playing her because of all of her fun dance numbers and her over-the-top personality.

"Theater has made me more outgoing," she added. "I have decided this is what I want to do for a career."

Yet students like Kienitz and Bontemps are actually in the minority. Most students, said Paly musical director Kathleen Woods, go on to vastly different careers, and think back fondly on their high school theater days.

Among those who think of theater more as a hobby than a career path is Hannah Nguyen, a Paly senior and stage manager for "The Drowsy Chaperone." During dress rehearsal, she slipped away for a few minutes to talk about why she chooses to spend her extra-curricular time in a dark theater, calling cues.

"I just really like the community of theater: People are passionate and driven to do well," Nguyen explained, adding that she hoped to continue to pursue theater in college as a side activity. Up on stage, the cast launched into a big dance number.

Though she was an actor in the Paly musical production two years ago, Nguyen said it's working invisibly behind the scenes that really gives her satisfaction. "If something goes wrong, everyone looks your way, but if it goes right you can take credit," she said, before excusing herself and hurrying back to her job.

According to Woods, "Only about five to seven kids a year go on to become professional actors, directors, filmmakers or theater teachers, but theater education is good for everybody." The seasoned theater instructor has been teaching since 1980 and joined Paly eight years ago; Shelby has been with the Gunn theater department since 1983.

For Shelby, the best reward is seeing the way his students learn to work together over the course of rehearsals.

"A large production like this one is like a large snowball that needs pushing down a hill," he noted. "It's a challenge to get it rolling, but once it starts and picks up momentum, there is just no stopping it. There is so much joy coming to rehearsals every day and hearing Cole Porter's peerless music, which the cast has truly learned to love. It's a real privilege to be part of helping these great kids learn about working together, whether they're musicians, techies or singer-actors tapping their hearts out, and finding essential truths about ensemble, focus and bringing their A-game ... and then when it crystallizes into a brilliant, show-stopping number, it just doesn't get any better than that!"

Shelby and Woods' devotion to teaching and enthusiasm for musical theater is mirrored in their students, who spend 10 hours each week in rehearsals and even more in the weeks leading up to the show, which becomes nearly a full-time job during production.

For some, that level of commitment is daunting, but students say the long hours and hard work are well worth it.

As junior Julia Axelrod, who plays Angel Serenity in "Anything Goes" at Gunn, explained, "Being in a show takes a lot of time, so it forces me to be more efficient and on task regarding school work. Theater is also an incredible confidence booster, and a lesson in teamwork and thinking on your feet."

Axelrod also described the theater community at Gunn as a place where students who might appear to lack commonalities discover a shared interest and mutual respect.

"The theater community is so diverse, and there are so many different types of students, but we are super close because we spend so much time working together," she said. "Theater is a safe place; everyone is kind and accepting, and stepping into the theater provides an escape from the outside world."

And while creating a make-believe world on stage may not seem to have much to do with one's personal and emotional life, Axelrod pointed out that acting can help get to the heart of things.

"An aspect of theater is examining characters' relationships and emotions," she noted. "I've felt much more aware of my own emotions and relationships with others since I started theater."

What: "The Drowsy Chaperone" and "Anything Goes"

Where: Palo Alto High School's Haymarket Theater, 50 Embarcadero Road, Palo Alto, and Gunn High School's Spangenberg Theatre, 780 Arastradero Road, Palo Alto

When: "The Drowsy Chaperone," Friday, March 6 to Saturday, March 14, with shows Thursday to Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.; "Anything Goes," Thursday, March 12 to Saturday, March 21, with shows Thursday to Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Wednesday at 4 p.m.

Cost: $10-$15

Info: Go to palytheatre.com or call 650-329-3857; go to gunntheatre.org or call 650-354-8258.

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Like this comment
Posted by Andrew
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 5, 2015 at 10:44 pm

Wait... I'm pretty sure Paly did Into the Woods in 2013, not Gunn. I'm so pretty darn sure cause I was in it and Gunn did Legally Blonde that year. I hope I'm not going insane....

Like this comment
Posted by gunnstudent
a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on Mar 5, 2015 at 10:47 pm

Legally Blonde and its awards were through Gunn and Into the Woods and their awards was a Paly production. If you could make that quick correction, that would be wonderful!

Like this comment
Posted by Elizabeth Schwyzer, Arts & Entertainment Editor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 6, 2015 at 9:09 am

Hi Andrew and gunnstudent: Thank you so much for altering me to this error. I have made the correction in the online story.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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