MHS’s outdoor ‘As You Like It’ a joy — and a challenge
'As You Like It'
- A musical adaptation of the play by William Shakespeare, by Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery; Music and lyrics by Shaina Taub
- Presented by Montclair High’s School of Visual and Performing Arts. NOTE: A planned performance for Saturday, May 8 was cancelled due to inclement weather, with a rain date set for the night before; organizers will try to accommodate ticket holders with seats at future dates when possible. Remaining performances are Sunday, May 9; Saturday, May 15; and Sunday, May 16 at 3 p.m. at the Montclair High School amphitheater, 144 Park St. Seating in accordance with social distancing guidelines.
- Tickets at montclairschoolarts.seatyourself.biz
By GWEN OREL
For Montclair Local
At first glance, the group of kids hanging out, strumming guitars, laughing and joking on the steps of Montclair High School as they wait out the drizzle to rehearse their play in the amphitheater seems like the Before Times.
Then you get closer and see they are wearing masks.
And recall that it used to be that when an outdoor theater rehearsal was canceled by rain, it would move indoors.
But Montclair High School is still remote, and no indoor rehearsal is possible.
The cast and crew of the musical version of “As You Like It” by MHS’s School of Visual and Performing Arts have been rehearsing outdoors since March.
The musical, adapted by Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery, with music and lyrics by Taub, was produced by New York’s Public Theater in 2017.
In the play, nobleman Orlando has been banished from court by the wicked, usurping Duke Frederick — but before he left, he and noblewoman Rosalind fell in love. Then she is banished, too. The two meet up in the Forest of Arden, where Rosalind, disguised as a man, has fled with cousin Celia.
Montclair’s Collin Kelly-Sordelet, an MHS alum and professional actor (leading role in Sting’s “The Last Ship,” Broadway 2014; feature film “Wildling”) did the fight choreography.
The show has been staged with physical distance and masks.
GETTING CLOSE, AT A DISTANCE
For senior Ella Fine, that distance has been a particular challenge.
Fine is dance captain and choreographed some of the show, in addition to playing
Jacques (pronounced Jake-wees), the melancholy exiled nobleman who has the famous speech “All the world’s a stage,” also known as “The Seven Ages of Man.”
The show, Fine, said, is about “community, with a message of love. And that’s something that’s really hard to portray when you do have this physical distance between you.”
So she’s had to think hard about how people are placed onstage, and how they will be observed from the audience.
Things like having masks slip, and making choreography where people have to stay in their own spots, have been challenging, Fine said.
The show began rehearsing on Zoom, and transitioned to the space later.
It all ends happily.
Tall, slender Destiny David, who plays Rosalind, is new to Shakespeare. Working on the show has made her attentive to how things like a comma can make a difference, she said.
And coming back to school to rehearse has been a special experience. “At first coming to the space, and being somewhere where I’ve had lunch multiple times, but wasn’t able to go inside, was weird for me,” David said. “It took a while to get comfortable.” But being around people has been good for her mental health, she said.
Fine said she noticed there was very little hesitation for new people.
“Usually, when there are a lot of freshmen, they are maybe in the corner by themselves, until we try actively to bring them into our community,” she said. “But with this show, everyone sort of clicked immediately. And you know, I think that was probably a product of the fact that none of us had really been around anyone else for so long that when we finally got the opportunity to interact with each other, there weren’t really those boundaries there that we usually put up. We were able to get over that ‘I don’t know you, so maybe you don’t like me.’ People just wanted a connection.”
For senior Sophia Antoine, assistant stage manager, who worked on the fall musical showcase, it was nice to be around a collection of different people, and more stage managers as well.
There is a pit band, which plays inside the school, with speakers wired to air the music outside.
JOYFUL AND DIVERSE
Director Brenda Pepper and musical director Dave Maglione chose the musical in part because, Pepper said, they wanted “something joyful.” Pepper, the director of SVPA, also liked that the show was written and conceived by women, and offered multiple roles for women.
And, Pepper said, the show speaks to community diversity. When the show was done at the Public, she said, the producers wanted to see all five boroughs of New York City reflected onstage — not just professional actors.
“They went to see the students. They went to a lot of theater programs for young children. And it resulted in this extraordinary, extraordinary project that in a way had never been done across the stage,” Pepper said.
Despite being in the middle of a pandemic, she and Maglione wanted to expand diversity in SVPA, and to “really try to open those doors and make it very welcoming,” Pepper said. “It was a huge challenge because you couldn’t go into classrooms. You had to contact groups by email.”
She reached out to the Gay Alliance, the Black Student Union and many other groups.
And it worked: There are many new faces in the company, she said.
It was a bit of a challenge to excite the kids about Shakespeare, she acknowledged. “‘As You Like It’ is not ‘Fame!’ (last year’s musical, which was canceled) or ‘Pippin’ (which SVPA produced in 2016),” she said.
But it was a perfect choice to do outside, taking place as it does primarily in the Forest of Arden, and, Pepper pointed out, “we’ve got this gorgeous amphitheater, and it’s Shakespeare in the park.”
Pepper learned of the show through Maglione, when the two began putting together a list last year.
Maglione said he is a fan of composer Taub. “I love the tunes, and the way they come in and out of the Shakespeare lyricswise as well. So it’s kind of a hybrid of contemporary speech and lyric. But then when we’re in the scene, it’s true, the true text of the play.”
They have been weathering the COVID-19 challenges: Pepper takes every cast and crew member’s temperature every day.
But the weather itself must cooperate. The show cannot move indoors if it rains on the weekend.
Audiences will sit in pods of those they came with, chalked out by students when they arrive. All of the leads have been vaccinated, Pepper said, and may even be able to perform without masks.
That could make the love of the cast members even more clear when they sing one of Pepper’s favorite numbers, “Under the Greenwood Tree.”
Watching the song, she said, she gets choked up, looking at this place where there is love, where people are there together, and she can see the joy.
She can even hope for a kiss.