NWSS kicks off its Sunday shoes

Students bring Footloose musical to the Massey Theatre stage, Feb. 25 to 28

Don't be misled by the dark confines of this small lower-level room at New Westminster Secondary School.

Dreams are born here. Born and nurtured and grown into reality thanks to the passion, energy and enthusiasm of a group of teachers and students with a mission.

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That mission? To offer up musical theatre at the highest level on the Massey Theatre stage.

They're just days away now from the opening night of Footloose, which runs Feb. 25 to 28 and draws upon the talents of some 100 students as cast, crew and band members.

Enthusiasm is spilling out all over from the small group of students who've gathered to chat to The Record about this year's production.

"It's been crazy! There's so much energy between everyone," says Noah Wright.

The Grade 10 student is parlaying his choral singing background into the lead role of Ren, the Chicago boy who moves with his mother (played by Sophie Labrosse) to a small farming community where they discover strict rules - including a ban on dancing.

(Yes, if that plot sounds familiar to those of us - ahem - of a certain age, it's pretty similar to the 1984 movie upon which it's based - and, for the record, Noah promises he'll do Kevin Bacon justice.)

The affable teen admits to being a newbie to the world of musical theatre - the closest he's come thus far is performing with Los Castores Mariachi Band (where, incidentally, he performs alongside Jolene Bernardino, who is in Footloose as Vi Moore, the mother of Ren's love interest).

"This is really my first experience with the stage production and acting and singing," Noah says. "It's so different from just standing on a stage in front of people, singing."

What's made it work for him, he says, is the talent that surrounds him onstage.

It helps that his onstage best friend, Willard, is played by his real-life friend Isaac McAndless-Davis.

"We feed off each other," he says. "It's a give and take."

Noah also has Grade 12 student Howard Dai next to him as Rev. Shaw Moore, the father of the rebellious girl who catches Ren's eye - and Noah credits Howard for helping him "go through the process of changing from Noah to this Chicago boy."

For Howard, the musical has come with the special challenge of playing someone entirely unlike himself - an uptight, middle-aged preacher.

"Physically, it's the complete opposite of who I am," he says with a laugh. "I have to ground myself, to constantly be aware of my physicality. I am not Howard, every part of my body is not Howard."

His onstage daughter, Ariel, is played by Grade 9 student Sarah Labrosse - who, despite her youth, has already amassed a lengthy resumé that includes dance lessons with the Northwest Academy of Performing Arts, classical voice studies, piano and trumpet playing, and performances with Royal City Musical Theatre, Gotta Sing! Gotta Dance! and ShowStoppers.

"I've had such an amazing time working with Sarah," Noah says.

Sarah - who, in person, comes across as sweeter and softer-spoken than the hard-edged rebel Ariel - says musical theatre has always been on her radar.

"I just liked singing when I was little," she says, noting that her elder sister - yes, that's Sophie, who plays Ren's mother - got her interested in it, and they did Royal City Musical Theatre's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat together.

She admits to being shocked to having been cast in a lead role, given her youth.

"It's really awesome," she says, her dark eyes widening. "I've gotta live up to other people's expectations."

Keira Jang, a Grade 10 student, plays Ariel's sidekick Rusty.

Keira, like Sarah, already has a lengthy resumé in the performing arts. She's been dancing and singing since she was three and acting since the age of five, and she started getting serious about theatre at the age of seven. She's been in multiple pantomimes with the Fraser Valley Gilbert and Sullivan Society, and she's also appeared in productions with both Theatre Under the Stars and Royal City Musical Theatre.

She was thrilled to bits to discover that this year's NWSS musical would be Footloose.

"It was very exciting when I found out," she says. "I love it. When my mom found out, she was very excited, because she loved the movie."

Keira adds that the casting of the production has been excellent and that the quality of the show is going to be just as high as anything she's been in in the past.

"It seems still very professional, everyone is so committed to the production. Everyone is exceptional with everything," she says. "The production itself is so professional."

And she notes that quality isn't just on the performing side but the technical side as well.

Which is where Andie Lloyd comes in. The Grade 12 student is serving as assistant stage manager and production assistant - which means she's overseeing just about all aspects of the behind-the-scenes and organizing work.

"I angry-text them when they don't show up to things," Andie jokes, adding that the job has entailed a whole lot of stress and a whole lot of work - but it's worth it in the end.

"The production side of it is really, really polished and great," she says.

For every one of the students involved, the musical is an enormous time investment - there are rehearsals every day at lunch and after school, plus one full-day rehearsal each weekend.

All of the students are quick to point out that if it's a lot of work for them, it's even more so for the team of teachers leading them - the same production team that has brought previous NWSS musicals Annie, Bye Bye Birdie and Grease to the stage.

Director Frances Monteleone works alongside vocal coach Kelly Proznick, orchestra conductor Steve Clements, choreographers Lindsay Waldner and Peter Ha, stage manager Juliet Brown and acting coaches Traci Cave and Gower Roberts - all NWSS teachers, with the exception of Roberts, an NWSS alumnus who's returned to assist.

"These teachers are the best," Noah says. "They are just amazing."

"They still have to teach classes," Howard points out. "I can't imagine how they do it."

The teachers have nine young children between them, all of whom have become familiar faces around rehearsals - Monteleone jokes that her five-year-old daughter has I Need a Hero down pat.

Monteleone says the teachers have become a tight-knit group over the years and rely on each other to get through the long road to opening night.

For her, it's easy to explain why she's willing to put in all the extra effort.

"I love this aspect of my job. Every single one of these students is here because they love performing," she says.

And, she notes, she gets to see the journey of each and every student over the course of the production - and, for some, over the course of their whole high school career.

Take Howard, who turned out as a Grade 8 student to work behind the scenes at Grease. He was, Monteleone recalls, very keen but very timid. Despite his shyness, he got hooked; he attended every rehearsal and literally learned every part - he could quote along with the entire musical.

Though he wasn't an official cast member, his dedication earned him an invitation to the stage on closing night.

That was a defining moment for him, Howard remembers - getting his hair done and getting into costume and realizing that he was going to be in the spotlight as part of the final number. It was, he thinks, the moment that set him on the course he's now on - with an eye to pursuing theatre studies at UBC next year.

For Monteleone, to see that timid Grade 8 student blossom into her confident go-to guy, playing a lead role in his final year of high school - well, it makes her a little misty-eyed.

"I need to acknowledge as his teacher how proud I am of him," she says, beaming. "That's huge. We have kids who start with us and who end with us. ... This is why it makes me cry."

She knows, too, that the experience of being part of this musical will be a defining high school moment for many of the others - for the 49 cast members, the band members, the crew.

"I think a lot of them will look back on this, after high school is over, and it will be a highlight," she says with a smile.

There's no doubt about that in the minds of her youthful cast members - all of whom are ready to wow the city on opening night.

"You put in all this time and effort, you just know it's going to be great," says Keira.

 

Footloose is onstage from Feb. 25 to 28, with nightly shows at 7 p.m. There's also a 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday, Feb. 28.

For more information, see www.nwssmusic.com. For tickets, see www.ticketsnw.ca or call the Massey Theatre box office at 604-521-5050.

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