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High School Musicals Return After Covid Hiatus

“Level Up” by Ciara bumped in the background as 23 high schoolers sashayed and stretched in a bright, spacious dance studio, deep within the depths of Denver School of the Arts’ mazelike building.  If any of the students – all cast members of the DSA’s spring musical, A Chorus Line – had any pre-show jitters as they warmed up, you would never know it.

This production seems to mark a new era of high school musical normalcy for DSA, now that the one-two punch of tireless rehearsals followed by heartbreaking cancellations of high school theatre productions over the last two years seems to be in the rearview mirror.

Sophomore Jack Bucher – who provided a sassy and heartwarming portrayal of the flamboyant but traumatized Bobby Mills – was new to the stage when the pandemic came along.

“I had just started doing theatre right when COVID hit, and so finally being able to fully embrace it after being inside for so long is so nice,” Bucher said. “And I finally get to explore my passion.”

“It sucked. It sucked,” said Reed Jacobs, a junior who had the audience in stitches through his portrayal of Greg Gardener. Jacobs, who started acting when he was practically still in diapers, passed the time away from the stage by making one in his mind.

“I would sing musical theatre tunes – I’d listen to Cabaret and I’d be the emcee, pretending – because that brings me joy,” he said.

A Chorus Line takes place at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway as 17 dancers audition for spots in the ensemble of an unnamed Broadway musical in 1975. As the show goes on, each of the hopefuls presents character-defining and sometimes hilarious anecdotes from their formative years that led them to their thankless and unpredictable careers as dancers.

Like most of his cast members, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a defining feature of director André Rodriguez’s three years at Denver School of the Arts. A Chorus Line has been his first full run of a musical in his role as director after his first production at the school – Peter and the Starcatcher – was forced to close after its opening night.

“One of the reasons for choosing A Chorus Line is we knew, going in, they were going to have to get some time to get their sea legs back,” he said, “so I wanted to pick a show that was going to set the bar for what life was going to look like post-COVID.”

Much like the show’s subject matter, the music in A Chorus Line – composed by Marvin Hamlisch with lyrics by Edward Kleban – can be difficult. Musical director Erin Pettitt echoed the sentiment that this particular show presented a welcome challenge for the students.

“None of them are vocal majors at all, and this show is really vocally demanding, so they definitely have worked so hard and come so far, and they sound fantastic,” she said. “I’m super proud of them.”

Rodriguez agrees that the cast rose to the occasion.

“I think they’ve really dug deep inside themselves and come together as an ensemble.”

And Rodriguez made it clear that he wanted this production to be different for his students, and not just because of a global pandemic.

“I think our whole focus on this project is process over outcome,” he said. “I think when you weigh process and product, sometimes this community has a tendency to value the product without really understanding, as theatre-makers do, all the things that go into the process to have a really great outcome.”

Pride was practically radiating from Emily Conklin, mother of senior Isabella Conklin, as she waited to take her seat, cellophane-wrapped bouquet in hand.

“This is her last show at DSA – I’ve been coming here for seven years – it’s very emotional,” she said.

And Isabella certainly ended her DSA theatre career on a high note – partly through her subtle and mature portrayal of Cassie Ferguson, a talented dancer who returns to the chorus line after working in featured roles and partly because it was a good way to end her high school experience.

“I remember the first day, about one or two weeks ago, when we came back in the space – even before the costumes and the lighting – and just being in the space without masks,” she said. “It was just amazing to feel part of that family again because I really, really missed that.”

The audience may not have sat in on every rehearsal, but the result was a performance bursting with the kind of energy and excitement that one would expect from a group of incredibly dedicated theatre kids that have been kept off their beloved stage for the better part of two years.

For her swan song role at DSA, senior Gianna Morgan played Diana Morales – a Puerto Rican dancer from the Bronx. Morgan hit every note of one of the show’s most popular solos, “Nothing,” which tells the hilarious tale of her character’s struggle to get along with an acting teacher and eventual realization that she could achieve her dreams without him.

“All that pondering made me realize just the immense amount of love I have for theatre,” Morgan said. “I definitely want to do this for the rest of my life.”

Even from the back row, the enthusiasm and love the students have for their craft was palpable. As the cast reappeared onstage in matching gold tuxedoes, leotards, and top hats, bursts of golden confetti rained down over a thunderously applauding audience. Later on, each cast and crew member seemed to be greeted by their own personal fan clubs as they trickled out of the stage door. The show must go on, and finally it did. 

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