The high school musical cast and crew reflect on this year’s production of Leap of Faith–the story of Jonas Nightengale, a con-man hoping to swindle money from the good folks of Sweetwater Kansas. Instead he finds his soulmate and a possible road to personal redemption, if only he can learn the true meaning of faith.
Murmurs of students chatting quickly die out as the piano starts playing, indicating the start of warm-ups in the Black Box. Volunteers help make sure that actors get their costumes from the bulging garment rails. Downstairs in the theater, the stage crew strings up netting over the orchestra pit, where musicians are repeating the same line of music over again. A student behind them on stage finishes vacuuming the set while other stagehands move props into place from the workshop and wings. Colored pools of light fade in and out as the tech crew in the booth at the back of the auditorium runs through lighting cues. Gradually the stage clears, the orchestra pit falls silent and the house lights go down. The months of work and collaborative effort of over 100 individuals gets a final polish as the dress rehearsal for the Spring Musical begins.
This year’s production was bitter sweet—the musical was chosen by Brent Huber, who passed away in February before work started on the show. Brent taught music at ASIJ from 1988 and was involved with many musicals over the years and this year’s show was performed in his loving memory. “He inspired a lot of people before he went and you’re going to feel that when you see the show,” said Debra Barsha who joined the musical team this year as an artist-in-residence. David Neale took on the role of director/producer with the assistance of music director Jessica Miller and choreographer/associate producer Kyoko Takano.
Debra joined the crew this year to lend her wealth of experience to the production. Debra won the Jonathan Larson Award for her score to Radiant Baby—the show, inspired by Keith Haring’s life, was recently produced by TOHO in Japan. For the past six years, Debra was the associate conductor for Broadway’s Jersey Boys.
Debra spent a month at ASIJ working with students. “I want to give the kids an authentic Broadway experience,” she said. ”Brent picked a really challenging show with a lot of music to learn—not just songs, but a lot of music with dialog over the top which is very difficult to get right with timing,” Debra explained. “I am really trying to honor Brent and figure out how I can manifest his vision. It has been a really great collaborative experience working with such a talented team of teachers and students.”
When a group of students visited New York in March to take a theater workshop, Debra was able to connect them with Jessica Phillips who originated the role of Marla on Broadway. Jessica had dinner with the group, sharing her experience, and later video conferenced with the cast in Tokyo.
“Debra motivates the show, which is what we needed,” said Isaac Fahy (grade 9). Students described Debra as vibrant—which can also describe her lemon-colored hair—and dedicated towards her vocation and this year’s performance. Her love for musicals was felt between the cast members—“She knows what she is doing,” commented Will Montgomery (grade 11). Debra’s work with students and teachers at ASIJ was thanks to a Chofu PTA grant.
The show prompts some heavy questions for a musical comedy, but the heavy dose of philosophy didn’t prevent Leap of Faith from being a toe-tapping, feel-good extravaganza. With gospel-based music by Alan Menken (Little Shop of Horrors, Beauty and the Beast, Little Mermaid, Aladdin) the show was a fitting tribute to Brent and received high praise from its audiences.
Making art is a leap of faith. Making a musical is a group of people making the same leap of faith together. Thank you to the students, faculty, volunteers and Friends of the Fine Arts for once again raising the roof with great performances.
If you missed the musical, you can watch all of the shows on ASIJ TV.