Madeline Michel doesn’t care for musicals. “I hate them,” she laughed. “They’re boring, and I can almost never sit through the second act.”
Which begs the obvious question: Why in the name of Stephen Sondheim does the Monticello theater director devote countless hours every spring to putting together a high school musical?
“It’s all about the dancing,” the former New Yorker and 1980s “club kid” said. At Monticello, “dance has been the catalyst that has brought young people together and has attracted students who would otherwise not perform.” Inclusion, according to Michel, is what the MHS theater department is all about.
“I have noticed from attending festivals, competitions, and performances over the past six years of teaching drama that minorities are underrepresented in high school theater programs,” she explained. “Ironically, it is the very richness of diversity that lends energy and complexity to a production. Establishing a diverse program is important because theater opens doors and offers opportunities to young people. All young people should feel a part of that experience.”
This year, that experience is the Tony Award-winning satire Urinetown, which, from May 9-11, will transport audiences to a time and place where private toilets have been outlawed, thanks to decades of drought and the ensuing water shortages. The evil Urine Good Company is running things, and it charges people a fee to pee. Until, that is, the people get mad as hell, and decide not to take it any more.
Not your typical feel-good high school musical fare to be sure, but Michel said it takes something with an edge to attract a cast like this year’s dancers, singers, and actors who’ve devoted so many hours to Urinetown. Gabriela David-Guzman and Alex Espinosa-Navarro, two of the show’s student choreographers, are both performing in the production, “but they never would have defined themselves as actors,” Michel said. “It was the dance that drew them in. Dance is the universal language.”
Espinosa-Navarro, a junior who recently learned that he’s been accepted to the 2014 Virginia’s Governor’s School for dance, said his foray into musical theater was a happy accident, courtesy of “a girl who told me to stay after school” last year during auditions for In the Heights “so I could listen to her sing. Ms. Michel noticed me, and asked if I knew how to dance, and then she [encouraged] me to try out for the show. Until then, it never crossed my mind that I would be acting—or that I would be good.”
With less than two weeks before opening night, Michel, who’s just recovered from a weeklong illness, admitted, “we still have several bumps to get over.”
Onstage, a couple dozen actors are going through a sound check. “Madeline! Madeline!” someone shouts from the back of the darkened auditorium. A different voice, from another corner of the room, booms, “Everyone with a mic, please sing something together,” which prompts the cast to break into a perfectly harmonized and extended rendition of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”
A small orchestra warms up in an under-stage area, and after a few lighting issues are solved, the cast launches into the show’s opening number, “It’s a Privilege to Pee,” and the bumps that Michel mentioned appear to be few and far between. With the exception of a rare flubbed line or a missed cue, the entire cast seems ready for its close-up.
Several weeks earlier, Braelyn Schenk, a senior at MHS who plays Hope Cladwell, daughter of the Urine Good Company owner, and serves as the production’s third choreographer, echoed her director when she said her passion for acting is due, in part, to the theater being “a place of community, a place for everybody where powerful things can be said in a way that many people can understand them.” Schenk said her work on In the Heights “changed my life, and inspired me to want to use theater, dance, and music to serve underprivileged communities, specifically Latino communities.”
Schenk, however, isn’t the only one who wants to give back. Every nickel earned during the Saturday matinee performance of Urinetown will go to the Charlottesville Free Clinic, “a beacon of fine community service that supports so many of our students and their families,” Michel said.
“I have a real connection with Monticello High School,” added the former English teacher whose three children (now in their 20s) graduated from MHS. While her theater program is “a work in progress,” Michel said her students are family. As freshman Nina Gates put it, “I found my place here, with these people. Everybody is welcome; every culture is accepted. I have honestly never been happier.”
Urinetown Monticello High School Auditorium May 9-11