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The Arkansas Repertory Theatre opened this season with "Henry V," a play more than 400 years old, conceived more than 3,000 miles away. For its second outing, The Rep is pulling a veritable 180 with "Singin' on a Star," a production as fresh-faced and bright-eyed as its cast of young adults, each of whom was plucked from right here in the Natural State.
"Singin' on a Star," written and directed by the Rep's own Nicole Capri, resident director and director of education, is billed as being "all about the actor's journey from stardust to stardom." It is the product of the ninth season of the Rep's Summer Musical Theater Intensive, which takes in hundreds of children and young adults from around the state. A cast is assembled from this pool of applicants and then training begins in earnest. They learn, in a very short time, the full range of theater production, everything from singing and dancing to staging and beyond.
"The first year it was an experiment," Capri said. "We didn't know how it would catch on. The first year, I think we had 140 kids audition and we took 60. Now we have 500 that audition every year."
That first season included productions of "Godspell" and "School House Rock."
"We had matching T-shirts and a box of props," Capri said. "That's pretty much where we came from. And now what we do is fully produced, fully costumed. The same lighting designers you see in 'Henry V' are the ones that we use. So, what it has evolved to is a training program for people who want to do this as a career. We have seen a lot of our graduates move through to do this for a living, that are working in New York, that are on national tours."
Speaking of New York City, the stage actor's Mecca is the setting for "Singin' on a Star" and the stories within the play are largely true. How true? Many came straight from Capri's personal experiences.
"Eighty percent of it's from my diary, honestly," she said. "A lot of it is stories from friends who have worked in the business, [there are] even stories from Bob Hupp, our producer. But generally, a lot of it came from my diary from the 1990s."
There can be a nebulous, sometimes dark line between sacrifice and success in the arts. How will that element be treated in a revue show focused mainly on the success side of that line?
"You know, honestly, I think this is one of the shows where I think it's more realistic than any other. Some of the stories aren't as pretty as the others. There's that element of reality and humor, but I'm not sugarcoating anything," Capri said.
In addition to hard-knocks-style reality in the Big Apple, "Singin' on a Star" showcases performances by a cast of sharp and laser-focused young actors.
Central Arkansas native Angela Morgan, 20, put it succinctly: "We all get it. We all get the hype of doing theater. So, there's no one there with a blank look on their face."
Zach Graham, 17, of Little Rock, said the play "is my favorite show that's been written so far. ... you have a lot more dialogue and you have a set place, and for me it makes it more interesting."
The music in "Singin' on a Star" takes cues from the pop charts and incorporates video elements to help tell the actors' stories. A giant screen at the back of the theater shows videos culled from several sources, including footage from previous SMTI performances and rehearsals.
"One of the things that this production incorporates is that video element along with the musical, along with the drama, along with the dance," Capri said. "I think it's interesting how the videography tells the storyline, even the lyrics tell the storyline. ... So many theaters across the country are doing that these days. But we were the first program to do it at The Rep, and in fact, the Young Artist program has purchased all the video equipment that they use for the main stage shows here."
The Summer Musical Theater Intensive has progressed into a valuable asset for The Rep and for drama students across the state. It has spawned careers in theater and grown confidence in and inspired young actors, while providing audiences with the chance to watch some of the state's rising young stars before they take off for the bright lights and big stages of Broadway.
There will be a preview performance of "Singin' on a Star" at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Official opening is 7 p.m. Friday. The production runs through Nov. 3, with shows at 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $25.