Getting more theatrical in Claremont

By John Pixley

Krista Elhai has done it again. She got her Claremont High School students to do some amazing, crazy, wonderful magic. Or maybe it was the students who, once again, got Ms. Elhai to do some amazing, crazy, wonderful magic.

Either way, seeing this got me all the more excited that we’ll be seeing more of this magic here in Claremont.

Before I get too excited and ahead of myself, let me get back to Ms. Elhai and her students. When I first heard that the big end-of-the-year musical at big-time Bridges Auditorium was to be Shrek, I was less than impressed. Why would Ms. Elhai, the beloved theater director at the high school who has put on awesome, challenging shows such as Tommy, Cats, The Laramie Project and, just this year, Avenue Q (Jr.), do a commercial DreamWorks product based on a cartoon (as good as that movie was)? I was nonplused and confused and thought about not going.

No, I wouldn’t not go, and luckily I did go to the performance late last month, although with some trepidation and a friend raising his eyebrows and saying “whatever” going into the theater. It was a real lesson in having low or mistaken expectations, for we were both pleasantly surprised and delighted.

The story, with words and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abarie and music by Jeanine Tesori and based on the book by William Steig, may have been feather-light, but it was lots of fun, with plenty of laughs. What was wonderful, in addition to all the great singing and dancing (choreography was by Dylan Pass and Daniel Smith, with musical direction by CHS Choral Director Joel Wilson, who appeared in a surprise role and was assisted by Rachel Umansky, although I again wished that the music was played live as in the past) was how physical and theatrical the production was and how the students had definitely learned to deal with it.

As with Cats a few years ago, there were lots of fantastic costumes and make-up, starting with the fat, green Shrek (an unrecognizable David Cumpston) right down to, yes, cute tails. If nothing else, the cast members were troopers dancing and running around bundled in fur and vinyl in the warm theater. There also were some nifty stunts and tricks, such as when Donkey (Raylon Bivans with a powerful voice) made his entrance by falling from a tree and Princess Fiona aging from a young girl to a young adult (Emmalyn Spruce) mid-song before our eyes. And, of course, the dragon, held aloft by four boys and singing with Annika Ellwanger-Chavez’s soaring voice.

It was a joy to see the students pull all this and more off. Seeing Evan Spruce and James Bradford strut their stuff as, respectively, rosy-cheeked, long-nosed, dangling Pinocchio and the surprisingly charismatic, cross-dressing, big bad wolf was particularly fun.

And then there was Emerson Dauwalder, a scream as he performed on his knees as the famously short and arrogant Lord Farquaad and conveying oh-so much with his arms and face. This performance was a great capper to his other CHS performances I’ve enjoyed, starting with the stunning 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and including The Drowsy Chaperone and Avenue Q, and I can only say, wistfully, that I hope the audiences wherever he goes get to enjoy the warm, comedic talent of this now-graduate.

Making this production even more exciting for me was seeing it the day after seeing a breathtaking play, again right here in Claremont. The work was Eurydice, playwright Sarah Ruhl’s bittersweet take on the Greek myth wherein Eurydice dies and reunites with her dead father and is pursued by her left-behind lover in the underworld.

The production was a real treat in several ways. It was the latest by Ophelia’s Jump Productions, a Claremont-based professional theater company that has been putting on shows in the last year or two at various venues in the area and is looking for a theater the of its own. In this case, director Doug Oliphant made fantastic use of Pomona College’s Seaver Theater, creating an ethereal atmosphere with sounds and light and magical, surreal touches, including a rain-filled elevator, as well as all-too human touches and emotions.

It was also great to see the college theater being used after the end of the school year, just as it is nice to see the high school use Big Bridges for its big, end-of-the-year musical. In the same way, I enjoyed seeing the fine production of the biting Clybourne Park, an acclaimed, sharp take on Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, put on by Ophelia’s Jump at the high school’s nice, new theater last summer, while school was out. And, yes, the kids at Claremont High, who clearly work hard, deserve both Big Bridges and their new theater.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that Krista Elhai is on Ophelia’s Jump Production’s Board of Directors, as is Betty Bernhard from the Pomona College theater department, by the way. Not only is it just like her to add another commitment to her famously busy schedule, it’s a cool example of different parts of the community coming together with their shared passion and resources on an exciting, new endeavor.

What’s more, Ophelia’s Jump is putting on two Shakespeare plays—Merry Wives of Windsor and Othello, I think—next month at the Greek Theater on the Pomona College campus. I have long thought that this lovely outdoor venue should be put to such a use, especially on warm summer evenings.

And more theater being done in Claremont during the summer. Wow! I can’t wait!


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