We all know what to expect at a high school play.
"Our Town" or "Grease" with lots of parts so everyone gets to be in the play. A person with a script offstage so they can whisper (usually loudly enough to be heard by the front rows of the audience) forgotten lines to an actor. Sets that resemble backyard constructions. Singers who sometimes are only in the neighborhood of the music coming from a student band or orchestra.
Parents whispering to each other and at least one actor who stares into the audience, trying to find out where his parents are sitting.
If that’s your idea of a high school play, let me suggest that you get yourself to Dominican High School to see an absolutely stunning production of the longest-running play in Broadway history, "Phantom of the Opera."
I want to make something very clear, right from the start. I’m not saying this was a great production for a high school. This was a great production.
When you have a play like "Phantom," which first hit the stage almost 30 years ago, was a very popular movie and has songs that are classics, it’s tough to come up with any surprises. But my visit to the cavernous Dominican theater Sunday was not just a surprise, it was an outright shock.
Phantom is a tough show to mount. It requires great singing and elaborate special effects (a falling chandelier, a flat-bottom boat that moves across the stage) and faith to the dramatic arc and story that is told.
I normally only see professional productions and I was a little apprehensive about seeing seeing some high schoolers take on a play as difficult as this one.
I purposely sat in the back of the theater so I wouldn’t be able to see that the faces of these children looked like...well...children.
From the moment that a high school junior named Sadie Piatt stood center stage and sang the thrilling and sensitive "Think of Me," this ceased to be a production in some high school. It became a glorious play performed gloriously.
Earlier this year I saw a professional national tour of "Chorus Line" at the Milwaukee Theater. This production staged by these kids put that one to shame, absolute shame. The singing was better, the dancing was better, the production values were better, the sound was better, all of the technical stuff was better. Not even close.
This production was guided by Jeff Schaetzke who has been musical director for many professional companies and is the drama teacher at Dominican. It was obvious that he set a high standard for these kids and helped them live up to it, rather than lower a standard so everybody could be comfortable.
All of these kids had intense focus on the job at hand. The dancers were together all the time. The singers were on pitch and sang with the gusto some of those songs demand. They understood this was a play, not a concert. They sang and acted.
Let me talk for a minute about the principals. The principal roles are double-cast so this is about the cast I saw Sunday.
I already mentioned Piatt who, as Christine, had the role that young female actors would kill for. Her voice was laden with the beauty and emotion that riddled Christine’s body and mind. She is a fragile wisp and Piatt, whose voice is matched by her prettiness, had it down cold.
As the Phantom, Jarred Bedgood had a flinty and soaring tenor that captured both the threat and the pathos of the poor man. When he suffered, you heard the suffering. When he was a threat, you cringed at the sound of his voice. He has a couple of the most famous songs in the show and was thrillingly spot-on with all of his singing as well as his fluid body.
Christopher Vance played Raoul, the sorrowful suitor of Christine. There is some humor in Raoul and Vance easily captured it. He also has a strong voice that is especially strong in the higher ranges for a tenor. He is also a wonderfully disciplined actor.
And then there is Carlotta, the resident prima donna of the opera. A young woman named Mykiliah Thompson took Carlotta places I’ve never seen before. She has impressive range for a young soprano and can convey a wide variety of both wickedness and vulnerability with her voice. She’s a lovely presence on stage with the kind of swagger that the winner of the NBA slam dunk contest shows. I don’t think anyone wants to mess with Mykiliah.
Schaetzke has been the theater director at Dominican for 16 years. He has directed some great shows at the school and has, I’m sure, taught a lot of kids that acting requires high standards, discipline, attention to craft and the ability to love what you do. If every school building was full of teachers like this man, we’d have no problems with education in our country.
Dominican is a small school with just around 300 students. They probably had a third of the student body involved in this production.It’s obvious that the entire school gets involved in helping make this show a reality.
Dominican is also a Catholic school and, in a first for me, Schaetzke led a prayer before the opening notes of the performance.
The heathen in me says there was no need for a prayer because Schaetzke and his kids had this one well in hand.
The believer in me says that God hear the prayer and then sat back, put his feet up on the seat in front of him and watched this mini-miracle unfold before him.
"Phantom of the Opera" will be staged at Dominical Thursday through Sunday. Information is available at dominicanhighschool.com.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as OnMilwaukee.com keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.
Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.