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Bravo for BRAVO! Sorry, we couldn't resist.
Apparently no one else can either. BRAVO is the acronym for the celebrated Band, Repertoire, Art, Vocal and Orchestra arts program at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School in Oak Park, and at the moment, it's on fire — specifically the theater branch, under the decade-long leadership of artistic director Tina Reynolds.
To date, Reynolds has directed and mentored hundreds of 6th- to 8th-grade actors, dancers, singers and crew members in 25 shows, and produced or directed them in 12 more — both musicals and straight plays, she says.
The first one was Grease in 2003, and since that inaugural BRAVO Academy summer production, Reynolds has shared her chair with others who want to take a shot at directing, year-round. Snow Angel, A Year with Frog and Toad, and Cinderella, were co-directed by a couple of her former students. Two plays were directed by BRAVO's makeup teacher and acting coach, Valerie Sokol. Several teachers at Brooks have filled the role as well.
Reynolds credits the BRAVO team she has assembled for their considerable recent success — along with the fact that the Brooks administrators support arts education, which has been integrated into the middle school's curriculum for some time now.
"Having a vision as to where it could go, surrounding myself with talented people who speak the same language, and always having a high standard of excellence and holding the kids to that, is what has put us on a great path," says Reynolds, an accomplished pianist who grew up in northern Michigan. She, too, benefited from an active school arts program, and after high school, she toured the world singing, dancing and acting with the nonprofit performance group, Young Americans. That's where she met her lifelong friend (and BRAVO's choreographer) Michael Jones., who has worked on about 90 percent of the shows with her.
Throw in a bunch of talented, willing kids, she says, and the results can be magic.
Best in show
Over the Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, BRAVO accrued the latest run of accolades when Reynolds' team, which included parent volunteers and 41 students, deplaned in Atlanta for Junior Theater Festival 2012, a national celebration of youth and musical theater. The Brooks contingent performed two condensed 15-minute shows: School House Rock, which was judged, and Finian's Rainbow, which was not.
School House Rock was named one of six "2012 Outstanding Production" winners in a competitive field of 65 school groups from across the country. The annual festival is an invitation-only affair, and this was their fourth consecutive year in attendance, Reynolds says.
Several of the "BRAVO Kids," the nickname they've given themselves, won honors as well. Max Gonzalez received Best Male Performer in his group, 7th- and 8th-graders. Maggie Lynch and Alex Frendt, respectively, were selected as Junior Theater Festival All-Stars, as was 13- year-old Leo Weinberg, named a "Technical All Star."
"At JTF, I did a lot of being backstage, a lot of hands on with microphones and monitors, and a lot of crew workshops that helped me learn about sound and lights and set building for School House Rock," Weinberg says. "I like acting, but not as much as crew. Now when I watch a show, I can say, 'Hey, I built that' or 'Hey, I painted that.' It's like I'm onstage, just not my physical body. It's my work."
In addition, Emilio Amaya, Max Gonzalez, Tommy Figel and Alonte Williams helped choreograph/teach 65 boys from other schools, who performed "Seize the Day" from Newsies at the close of the New Works Showcase. Seventh-graders Grant Reynolds and Paul Johnson were featured soloists for that number.
Being center stage as Finian in their version of Finian's Rainbow, was unsettling for Seth Gilbert, at first.
"Just the idea of having to sing in front of 3,000 people freaked me out," Gilbert recalls. "I'm 14. I was nervous, but once you go up there and do it, you feel like you have accomplished something really cool that not a lot of people can say they have done at such a young age."
A frequent misconception at JTF is that the BRAVO kids are mistaken for students from a Chicago performing arts school. When other educational directors are told they're suburban public school students, the educators ask Reynolds, "Who are you, what have you been doing to become so special over the last four years, and can I come and intern with you?"
"I want to help the kids be as successful as possible at what they are doing," Reynolds says, "whether it be onstage or behind the scenes, and I absolutely love inspiring them and helping them to learn how to mentor and teach other kids, knowing that the rewards for them doing that are going to be 10-fold."
A little Hairspray goes a long way
The next big thing is the school's spring musical, "Hairspray, Jr." It opens in late April, and is expected to play to packed houses and have an extended run, Reynolds says.
The production is beginning to gel.
"We were asked to pilot this one, and Fame, Jr., because of our diversity, culturally and talent-wise, as we have musicians, singers, dancers," Reynolds said. "Piloting a show means we are presenting and performing an adapted script for the first time so the writers and arrangers can see if it works." (iTheatrics is the company in New York that adapts Music Theater International shows and turns them into Broadway Junior shows.)
Hairspray, Reynolds notes, is an extremely popular musical that seems to resonate with teens, especially in Oak Park, where diversity and integration issues have a long track record.
"We had 135 kids audition for Hairspray, Jr., which is the largest number ever in a school year," Reynolds says. "We cast 85, and I double-cast eight roles, and I'm trying to find all the extras a place in costumes, make-up, hair and crew."
In the backstage room, forming a circle of stools around a plush loveseat "prop" and tape recorder, are six BRAVO kids waiting patiently to speak about the upcoming show.
"Hairspray is an iconic movie for our generation, but it is also troubling," says Margot Frank, the 13-year-old who is one of two students playing the role of Tracy Turnblad. "Tracy is an overweight teenager who wants nothing more than to dance. But she is always being put down by a normal, blue-eyed blond and thin white girl. One of Tracy's best friends is black, which isn't normal in that society."
There is a number at the end of the show in which it doesn't matter who is the tall, short, white, black, overweight, or thin girl — and that's a perfect reflection of BRAVO.
"Here we don't care who you are; we just love that you love this and we love you for it," Frank says.
With an eyebrow flash, Tommy Figel, the eighth-grader who is sharing the role of Corny Collins, jumps in. He played Tom, the teacher in School House Rock at JTF and when they took the production on tour, followed by a Q&A, through the District 97 elementary school district.
"I learned stuff in that musical that I had no clue about before, like the preamble of the Constitution," says Figel. "I actually got extra credit on that for my social studies, so I realized that you can learn stuff from musicals and plays that you never knew before."
Oh, and yeah, theater kids in BRAVO "kinda haveta" dance, says Gilbert (cast as Wilbur Turnblad) or "at least know some basic steps," he says.
Enter choreographer Michael Jones. To research the period, he puts them in a way-back machine by having them watch old videos of The Supremes and Frankie Lymon, the rock-and-roller best known as the lead singer of The Teenagers. Their hit song was "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" and Lymon, says Jones, was the inspiration for Seaweed's energetic moves in Hairspray.
Sophia Carlin, the 13-year-old who plays Velma Von Tussle, the racist owner of the local TV station, says everyone knows that being in BRAVO means becoming a mentor for others in turn. At Brooks — and on the road — Reynolds is always finding ways for her students to pass on what they have learned to another aspiring middle school performer. For her, it's just part of the program.
"BRAVO develops different life skills, like how to think on your feet and how to work together," says Carlin. "If you look at the BRAVO standard here, which is what we call it, it's pretty high.
But they trust us kids and we know that, with their support, we can do our best performance, or backstage work, every time out."