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Observer: Days and night of discovery, rediscovery

by John Pixley

“Thank God for high school theater.”

I kept thinking this – and made the comment to a couple friends – after seeing Claremont High School’s production of Rodger and Hammerstein’s Cinderella earlier this month. The show was a reminder of how such work gives students an outlet, a space, to express themselves and to grow in ways they might not have otherwise, in ways they might not have imagined.

I thought of the boy who was in two or three of my classes when I was at C.H.S, who was so shy that he could barely speak when teachers called on him. I was astounded when I saw a musical – Hello Dolly, I think it was – put on in the theater, and there he was, on stage, dancing and belting out songs. Before my eyes, he had transformed, blossomed and was strikingly different, vibrant.

I thought of all the stories I have heard of the kids who didn’t fit into the Friday-night-lights, boy-meets-girl, pep-rally high school scene, of the students who were bullied or made fun of because of how they behaved or presented themselves and how they find a safe space, somewhere where they belonged, in the theater department. Sometimes, the term “theater kids” is thrown around in a negative way, but, more often than not, it has a positive, even miraculous effect.

This was what was on display, what was celebrated, in this annual presentation of a big-time musical to close out the school year. This was indeed a celebration, indeed the big-time, held, once again, in the huge, majestic Bridges Auditorium – Big Bridges – on the Pomona College campus. It was all the more special, as the pandemic quashed the production in the last two years.

It was a bit odd that there was no sign of Krista Elhai. The beloved director, who had at least one hand in all the high school theater productions for years, retired last year. All appeared to go well under the direction of Mohammed Mangrio as well as long-time musical director Joel Wilson. Because of COVID, we in the audience were all asked to be masked and to show proof of vaccination (I wonder if there was any pushback on that).  It was also odd that the program was just a simple listing of credits instead of the usual glossy, large publication with artist bios, advertisements and well wishes (“Break a leg, our little Starlet Renee! –Mom & Dad”) and that there was no raffle with the winning ticket drawn during intermission. I don’t know if these changes were due to COVID, but it wouldn’t be surprising given all the other changes we’ve seen in these last two-plus years.

Still, these were relatively minor changes. It was great just to have this show back, back in-person, back in Big Bridges. It was great to see the kids on stage, working their butts off and having a great time (Zachery Martin, for one, did a nice, forthright job in the dreamy, all-but-comical, fairy-tale role of Topher, the prince). It was also great to see the kids in the audience, meandering up and down the aisles during intermission, masked up but clearly happy to be together. And, for the first time in years, there was a live band accompanying the show – an extra special treat!

Two nights earlier, I attended what felt like another celebration of theater. I went to see Ophelia’s Jump’s production of Sondheim on Sondheim. The show, directed by the tireless Beatrice Casagran, was a celebration of Stephen Sondheim, who died in November, featuring clips of the iconic American theater lyricist discussing his life and works and a group of players on stage singing and dancing numbers from different Sondheim shows.

This celebration of Sondheim, which ran for two weekends, was also a celebration for Ophelia’s Jump, as it was the debut production in its new venue. Right next door to the small space in Upland close to the Claremont border that the company has had for about two years, the new space is considerably bigger and a black box in which the seating and stage can presumably be configured in all sorts of way. This will give Ophelia’s Jump, which started off in Claremont using whatever venues it could get but always being highly professional, tremendous flexibility and literal room for growth. I have always said that Ophelia’s Jump is like L.A theater without the drive, and the small café tables in the lobby – not to mention the drinks in the audience during this show, adding to the cabaret vibe – is a nice touch, completing the night-at-the-theater scene.

The cherry on top of this early June weekend was going to the botanical gardens – what used to be called the Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Gardens and is now the California Botanical Gardens – on Saturday afternoon before seeing Cinderella.

I know that that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it was. It was nothing short of a revelation.

I had not been there in literally decades. Or rather, I had not ventured in, other than to attend a few summer concerts and luminaria evenings at Christmastime. I didn’t know what I was missing – and I feel a bit stupid.

See, my mom took me there all the time when I was growing up. It was like our little getaway, with favorite spots and features that we looked forward to seeing – an easy, pleasant walk, at least once my mom pushed my wheelchair up the steep walk at what was then the entrance.  At that time, it was free.

Some years later, it wasn’t free. I got mad, and I decided that I wouldn’t go. Foolishly. It turned out to be one of those dumb decisions made in the heat of emotion.

I found this out that afternoon, found out what I’ve been missing all these years. The gardens aren’t entirely the same as I remember – they’re not as manicured, a bit more wild, as if they were let go for a while and then redone in a looser way.  So it was a discovery as well as a rediscovery.

Plus, it was something that I’ve been looking for. I’ve been griping for years that there’s no place nearby where I can easily be out in nature in my wheelchair. Mt.  Baldy is too rocky, and the wilderness trail was difficult enough before my spinal surgery left me in a weakened, more sensitive state. The Thompson Creek Trail is too urban, adjacent to houses and backgrounds, and other places, such as Eaton Canyon and Malibu Canyon State Park, involve a drive and traffic that I don’t want to deal with.

Sure, the gardens aren’t exactly out in the wild, but it works for me. And it’s right here – and, what’s more, I can be dropped off and stroll around on my own for an hour or two.

The next day, I went online and bought a pass, good for a year at these and many other gardens.

At $50, it will pay for itself soon enough, especially as these gardens are open until 8 and are a nice place to spend on a cooling summer evening.

Yeah, I’m still mad I have to pay, but it’s totally worth it. And perhaps it’s payback for being foolish.

1 Comment

  1. JAMES & MAUREEN HIGDON

    Thank you. I was one of those theater kids in high school in Ohio. Blessed to have true friends for 50 years. And, yes Zack Martin did a very good job. Btw. I believe I saw Krista in the audience when we were there.

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