How to Face Anxiety Through Choreography

Last weekend, Artistic Synergy of Baltimore (ASoB) wrapped up its children’s production of “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” (YAGMCB), where I proudly served as choreographer. But first, I have a little secret I wanted to disclose before I get into the experience:

I’m not really a trained dancer.

Shocking, but true. I never took dance classes growing up, outside of performing a few Filipino folk dances in my youth. I eventually competed as a ballroom dancer, but this was much later in life, and it’s now become more a social hobby than a serious way to learn dance technique.

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Regardless of training (or lack thereof), I’ve always been quick to pick up movement, and have a pretty good sense of rhythm. And more importantly for musical theater dancing (in my opinion), I’ve always had a strong vision of how the movement should translate on stage to tell a story.

Which brings me back to Charlie Brown.

In college, I was in the ensemble for a production of YAGMCB, and it was an absolute blast. I was only a sophomore then, but it was the first time I felt like a member of the TCNJ Musical Theatre community, and it was such a good feeling. I made a lot of friends doing that show and had a great time playing a child in our intimate black box theater.

Fast forward 10+ years, and I took advantage of an opportunity to choreograph Charlie Brown at ASoB. Although I was super excited to try something new in the DMV theater scene, I was also really nervous about this (seemingly large) undertaking for several reasons:

  • As previously mentioned, I’m not officially trained in dance, so how could I possibly be an authority on dance for this show?
  • I’ve never worked with kids on a theater production, will I be able to connect with them?
  • I’ve never worked with this particular community theater group, what if I don’t fit in?

Questioning aside, because I was so familiar with YAGMCB and loved my time spent doing the production in undergrad, I was willing to push my anxiety aside and give it a go. So, I said yes. I said yes in an attempt to create a similar positive experience for these young actors.

And boy am I glad that I did.

I couldn’t have been more happy with the process “working on the other side of the table” with ASoB. At our first read through, I was immediately welcomed by the production team and felt comfortable and accepted. These kids were serious performers (much more serious than I was at their age!) and they were committed to the show from day one. They also were willing to give me feedback as I tried to figure out the best way to showcase their dance abilities through my choreography. In other words, their professionalism and enthusiasm were simply unmatched.

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Yet there were still moments I felt overwhelmed and/or intimidated. Even though these kids were 20 years my junior, a lot of them had WAY more dance experience than I did, which made me question my own credibility. For the large full cast numbers, I had to corral 20 young actors onto the stage and explore ways to make sure they looked good and were seen—a challenging feat that made me rework things constantly. Lastly, some rehearsals tested my patience regarding giving notes…and having to repeat them because kids don’t always remember everything the first time around. And that’s ok.

But the good times still far outweigh my own feelings of self-doubt, nervousness, and frustration. I experienced beautiful moments where I almost cried watching these kids perform; they truly transformed before my eyes, and it was so incredibly cool to watch. These young performers took the show, shaped it, and made it their own. They infused their own personalities and experiences into the production, and that in and of itself was so special.

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And let’s not forget the sense of community with this group—it was so palpable. Everyone wanted to help. From the costumes, to the props, to the promotion, to the snacks at intermission, there was always a steady flow of parents, volunteers, and theater group members willing to take time out of their busy schedules to put on this show. It was awesome.

So yeah, I may not be completely dance trained. But choreographing this children’s production of Charlie Brown trained me in other skills I find to be invaluable, such as collaboration, teamwork, consistency, passion, perseverance, and communication. These kids helped build my own confidence to believe in myself…by demonstrating how they believed in themselves to put on a fantastic show.

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And at the end of the day, I think that’s what journeying through life—and finding happiness—is all about. ❤️

Theater Review: Moulin Rouge the Musical

IMG_3217When I saw that Moulin Rouge the Musical was premiering in Boston at the Emerson Colonial Theatre, I jumped on the opportunity and bought tickets to surprise my husband as a belated birthday/pre-wedding anniversary present (we sang “Come What May” in our wedding ceremony). And once I found out that Aaron Tveit was playing Christian, I was practically giddy in anticipation of our road trip driving up I-95 to see the show. However, once the show was over, I’m sad to say that we were both disappointed with how the musical version of this movie was presented.

I will start by saying that the entire thing wasn’t a complete bust. First (and foremost in my mind) the set design was absolutely stunning—when you walk into the theater you actually feel like you’re in the Moulin Rouge—and we would know, as hubs and I went to the actual Moulin Rouge in Paris when we were in Europe for our honeymoon (#humblebrag 😎). The opening number also felt very Moulin Rouge-esque as well, with high energy singing and dancing to get the crowd ready for the show.

As the show went on to tell the story we’ve all grown to love, the set pieces moved to reveal extremely detailed and realistic looking backdrops: from the use of 3D perspective to make you feel like you’re actually in a rooftop apartment (with a tiny elephant and windmill in the background to boot, so cute!) to the use of actors walking around “buildings” to make you feel like you’re actually at a cafe in France, it was all brilliant. Scenic Designer Derek McLane is an Emmy Award-winning designer for his work on the Academy Awards, and you can certainly see why based on the designs used here. Sonya Tayeh, the show’s choreographer (who is also known for her choreography on SYTYCD, who my husband also saw in the lobby and didn’t realize until after the fact #notsaltyatall), made great use of the space and the dances were downright fierce. The number that opens Act II was particularly fun to watch—a mashup of “Bad Romance” and “Toxic,” (don’t worry, I’ll explain later). Overall, the choreo was fantastic; it appropriately represented the movie’s style while giving audiences a sense of Tayeh’s signature choreography style.

Now let’s get to some of my gripes with this show. I will start of by saying this: I am a HUGE fan of the movie. I watched it many many years ago with community theater friends in South Jersey. I know the show well. To reiterate, I sang a song from the movie at my wedding. I can also bust out “Elephant Love Medley” at any moment if given the opportunity (go ahead, I dare you). So I will admit that expectations were high.

I wasn’t upset about the few changes made in the show that weren’t the same in the movie; in fact, I think some of them helped drive the characters/story a bit better (examples: you get more of Satine’s backstory, Zidler is generally more supportive of Satine and Christian’s affair as long as she’s happy, the Moulin Rouge performers are less catty/jealous and seem more like a family). I didn’t even mind that Christian is now an American from Ohio, as it added some comedic elements.

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What I did take issue with was this weird need to add MORE popular songs to the score to get audiences excited…when I would bet a lot of people were excited to be there because they loved the songs in the movie in the first place (myself included). At first, it was kind of cute and funny (example: Toulouse singing Lorde’s “Royals” to describe the Bohemian lifestyle) but then it was getting to the point of obnoxious—I described it to my hubby as if the show was “trying too hard” and in the end it just made us feel uncomfortable. This was particularly poignant when the songs didn’t fit the characters AT ALL, like when Satine sings Katy Perry’s “Firework” instead of “One Day I’ll Fly Away”REALLY?! I’ll admit that it was probably the most beautiful, soul-wrenching rendition of “Firework” I’ve ever heard in my life, but who would ever take that moment seriously when you’re snickering about the song that made Left Shark famous? And that “Elephant Love Medley” song I said I could bust out in any moment? Not this version: they added more songs to the mix that were less love song classics and more popular 2000s hits. Cue facepalm and smh. 

And speaking of the love medley, let’s talk about Satine and Christian. I will respectfully disagree with folks who thought they had poor chemistry (maybe they’ve gotten more comfortable with each other by the time I saw the show?)—I actually thought they worked well off of each other. They seemed to be falling in love, and “Come What May” did make me cry, so there’s that. In spite of my excitement over seeing Aaron Tveit perform, to be completely honest I felt like Karen Olivo knocked it out of the park, especially in Act I. Homegirl drops down from the ceiling on her swing and you simply cannot take your eyes off her. Catherine Zuber’s costuming makes Olivo look AMAZING, and her voice is sheer perfection. In some of her songs, you could literally hear a pin drop, which is saying a lot given the audience is a rowdy bunch.

Tveit is so dreamy and cute, so he was the perfect Christian (ok yes, maybe I am biased because I have a crush on him in case you didn’t know by now) but to be completely honest he didn’t blow me away until Act II. It made a lot of sense that he held back, given the arc of the character, but once he went full out jealous/angry/sad WATCH OUT. “El Tango de Roxanne” is one of my favorite numbers in the movie, and it did NOT disappoint in the musical version (despite a few changes, including less Argentine tango, which did make me a little sad). However, Tveit’s growl and angsty belt in this number are what musical dreams are made of in my opinion, so kudos for exceeding my expectations and stealing my heart, Aaron. ❤️

All in all, I was so pumped to see a movie-turned-musical that I think we all can agree would translate well on the stage, but for me, this version fell a bit short. The decision to add an insane number of popular hits to the score without any second thought of how that would impact the depth of the characters is a disservice in my opinion. This is especially upsetting for audience members who loved the original movie and/or appreciate musicals for its originality and artistic vision. In its current state, the show is better suited for a theme park or cruise ship and needs refinement if it wants the Broadway-caliber it should deserve.

A Love Letter to Nine the Musical

Those of you who follow me on social media (and who have chatted with me in person!) know that I just finished up a 5-week run of the musical Nine at The Colonial Players in Annapolis.

 

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All I can say is that the experience was everything I could have possibly dreamed of…and probably even more.

This production was particularly special to me because this was the first time I returned to the stage and had been in a musical in *almost nine* years. Due to major life events such as going to graduate school, landing my first tenure-track job, moving states, and getting married, I haven’t been able to make the time commitment work with my busy schedule.

But after I had moved back to Maryland from Virginia, and after I had started my new job back at my lovely alma mater in the Department of Communication at the University of Maryland, I decided to get back in the auditioning game. And although I was a bit out of practice and had to remind myself what it meant to find a fitting audition song and learn a complicated dance routine in about 5 minutes (and then perform it 1 minute later! GAH!), I was able to audition for Nine on a complete whim…AND was good enough to get in. Even though I didn’t know the show at all I was excited to just get back on the stage. I was totally ready.

My experience with The Colonial Players and with this cast was IMO nothing less than extraordinary. Folks have commented that 13 women working together (especially in a theater environment) could have been risky, and things could have diva-ed and ramped up real quick, but to be perfectly honest my relationships with these women emerged to be quite the opposite. I left the show on April 30th bawling, being sad that it was over but ecstatic that I now have an amazing new group of friends that I can count on any time. I grew especially close with my dressing roommates; the fun times we had, whether it was belting out Kelly Clarkson, telling jokes, or sharing ridiculous Snapchats, are special memories that I will never forget. ❤️

Other than the close interpersonal relationships I’ve built in this process, it was so fun getting back into the practice of rehearsals. The music of Nine is beautiful, but also fairly challenging, and my transformation from a Soprano I in my high school and college days to an Alto I was more fun that I could have ever anticipated. Learning this music was a great way to re-train my ear and sing some killer harmonies that sounded gorgeous when we all blended and sang together. I loved how we kicked things off from the very start with the Overture full of “la las,” as well as the end of “Guido’s Song” when our overlapping voices crescendoed into chill-worthy awesomeness:

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However, my *most favorite song* was “The Bells of St. Sebastian.” Not only were the harmonies simply breathtaking, but the chorus of Kyrie Eleisons would oftentimes bring me close to tears as I would think about my late father, who not only loved to sing kyries at church but whose middle name is Sebastian (it was my late grandmother’s maiden name). Whenever I sang the song and looked up into the blue lights I would sing my little nun heart out. I know I would’ve made my daddy proud.

On a less sad note, there was also the gloriousness of the many roles (and quick costume changes!) associated with being an ensemble member in this show. From one of Guido’s lovers (who dreams of coffee tables…if you don’t get it don’t ask), to an angry German reporter, to a classy Folies Bergeres dancer, to a reverent nun, to a sassy Nore (read: “nun-whore”) with unforgettable pirate laughs and a tambourine, to a super-hype film actress with outrageous facial expressions…I had SO much fun transforming into these different characters that helped drive the story of this show.

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As my director Ron Giddings put it, we were meant to be the individuals cast in this show. It might seem corny, but I whole heartedly agree. I had been auditioning for several months at a number of different community theaters, not landing anything, when my dear friend Debbie sent me the audition call and I decided to audition last minute. Looking back at the experience now, I am so freaking glad that I did.

Being in Nine not only reminded me how much I missed performing and how wonderful and transformative this process can be, but Guido Contini’s story in particular taught me how to truly value the people who love and care about you, to be humble and grateful for your talents, and to not take any of it for granted.

And so, to my director and musical director, the production team, my cast mates, my husband, my family, my friends, and my colleagues, who helped make this comeback to theater the best experience imaginable…

…Grazie, ti amo. 💋